The God of Small Things
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The God of Small Things (1997) is the debut novel of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. It is a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the "Love Laws" that lay down "who should be loved, and how. And how much." The book explores how the small things affect people's behavior and their lives. It won the Booker Prize in 1997.
The God of Small Things was Roy's first book and as of August 2016 is her only novel. Completed in 1996, the book took four years to complete. The potential of the story was first recognized by Pankaj Mishra, an editor with HarperCollins, who sent it to three British publishers. Roy received 500,000 pounds in advance and rights to the book were sold in 21 countries.
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The story is set in Ayemenem, now part of Kottayam district in Kerala, India. The temporal setting shifts back and forth between 1969, when fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are seven years old, and 1993, when the twins are reunited at the age of 31. Malayalam words are liberally used in conjunction with English. Facets of Kerala life captured by the novel are Communism, the caste system and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life.
Lacking sufficient dowry to marry, Ammu Ipe is desperate to escape her ill-tempered father, known as Pappachi, and her bitter, long-suffering mother, known as Mammachi. She finally persuades her parents to let her spend a summer with a distant aunt in Calcutta. To avoid returning to Ayemenem, she marries a man who helps manage a tea estate. She later discovers that he is an alcoholic, and he physically abuses her and tries to pimp her to his boss in order to keep his job. She gives birth to Rahel and Estha; leaves her husband; and returns to Ayemenem to live with her father, mother and brother, Chacko. Chacko has returned to India from England (where he studied at Oxford) to run the family's pickle business after his divorce from an English woman, Margaret, and the subsequent death of his and Ammu's father.
The multi-generational family home in Ayemenem also includes Pappachi's sister, Navomi Ipe, known as Baby Kochamma. As a young girl, Baby Kochamma fell in love with Father Mulligan, a young Irish priest who had come to Ayemenem to study Hindu scriptures. To get closer to him, Baby Kochamma converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a convent against her father's wishes. After a few lonely months in the convent, Baby Kochamma realized that her vows brought her no closer to the man she loved. Her father eventually rescued her from the convent and sent her to America, where she obtained a diploma in ornamental gardening. Because of her unrequited love for Father Mulligan, Baby Kochamma remained unmarried for the rest of her life, becoming deeply embittered over time. Throughout the book, she delights in the misfortune of others and constantly manipulates events to bring down calamity on Ammu and the twins.
|“||"It didn't matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings."||”|
|— The God of Small Things|
The death of Margaret's second husband in a car accident prompts Chacko to invite her and Sophie (Margaret's and Chacko's daughter from their brief marriage) to spend Christmas in Ayemenem. The day before Margaret and Sophie arrive, the family goes to a theater to see The Sound of Music. On their way to the theater, the family (Chacko, Ammu, Estha, Rahel, and Baby Kochamma) encounters a group of Communist protesters. The protesters surround the car and force Baby Kochamma to wave a red flag and chant a Communist slogan, thus humiliating her. Rahel thinks she sees Velutha, a servant who works for the family's pickle factory among the protesters. Then, at the theater, Estha is molested by the "Orangedrink Lemondrink Man," a vendor working the snack counter. Estha's experience factors into the tragic events at the heart of the narrative.
Rahel's assertion that she saw Velutha in the Communist mob causes Baby Kochamma to associate Velutha with her humiliation at the protesters' hands, and she begins to harbor a deep hatred toward him. Velutha is an Untouchable (the lowest caste in India), a dalit and his family has served the Ipes for generations. He is an extremely gifted carpenter and mechanic. His skills in repairing machinery make him indispensable at the pickle factory, but draw resentment and hostility from the other Untouchable factory workers. Rahel and Estha form an unlikely bond with Velutha and come to love him despite his caste status. It is her children's love for Velutha that causes Ammu to realize her own attraction to him, and eventually, she comes to "love by night the man her children loved by day." Ammu and Velutha begin a short-lived affair that culminates in tragedy for the family.
When her relationship with Velutha is discovered, Ammu is locked in her room and Velutha is banished. In her rage, Ammu blames the twins for her misfortune and calls them "millstones around her neck." Distraught, Rahel and Estha decide to run away. Their cousin, Sophie Mol, persuades them to take her with them. During the night, as they try to reach an abandoned house across the river, their boat capsizes and Sophie drowns. When Margaret and Chacko return from Cochin, where they picked up plane tickets, they see Sophie's body laid out on the sofa. Margaret vomits, hits Estha, and hysterically berates the twins because they survived and Sophie did not.
Baby Kochamma goes to the police and accuses Velutha of being responsible for Sophie's death. She claims that Velutha tried to rape Ammu, threatened the family, and kidnapped the children. A group of policemen hunt Velutha down, savagely beat him for crossing caste lines, and arrest him on the brink of death. The twins, huddling in the abandoned house, witness the horrific scene. Later, when they reveal the truth to the chief of police—that they ran away by choice, and that Sophie's death was an accident—he is alarmed. He knows that Velutha is a Communist, and he is afraid that if word gets out that the arrest and beating were wrongful, it will cause unrest among the local Communists. He threatens to hold Baby Kochamma responsible for falsely accusing Velutha. To save herself, Baby Kochamma tricks Rahel and Estha into believing that the two of them would be implicated as having murdered Sophie out of jealousy and were facing sure imprisonment for them and their Ammu. And as a way out of this she suggests them to lie to the inspector that Velutha had kidnapped them and had murdered Sophie. Velutha dies of his injuries overnight.
After Sophie's funeral, Ammu goes to the police, with Rahel and Estha in tow, to tell the truth about her relationship with Velutha. The police threaten her to make her leave the matter alone. Afraid of being exposed, Baby Kochamma convinces Chacko that Ammu and the twins were responsible for his daughter's death. Chacko kicks Ammu out of the house and forces her to send Estha to live with his father. Estha never sees Ammu again. She dies alone and impoverished a few years later at the age of 31.
After a turbulent childhood and adolescence in India, Rahel goes to America to study. There, she marries and divorces before returning to Ayemenem after several years of working dead-end jobs. Rahel and Estha, now 31—the age their mother was when she died; a "viable, die-able age," as Roy writes—are reunited for the first time since they were children. In the intervening years, they have been haunted by their guilt and their grief-ridden pasts. Estha is perpetually silent, and Rahel has a haunted look in her eyes. It becomes apparent that neither twin ever found another person who understood them in the way they understand each other. The twins' renewed intimacy is consummated in their having sex.
Estha, which is short for Esthappen Yako, is Rahel's twin brother. He is a serious, intelligent, and somewhat nervous child who wears "beige and pointy shoes" and has an "Elvis puff." His experience of the circumstances surrounding Sophie's visit is somewhat more traumatic than Rahel's, beginning when he is sexually abused by a man at a theater. The narrator emphasizes that Estha's "Two Thoughts" in the pickle factory, stemming from this experience—that "Anything can happen to Anyone" and that "It's best to be prepared")—are critical in leading to his cousin's death.
Estha is the twin chosen by Baby Kochamma, because he is more "practical" and "responsible," to go into Velutha's cell at the end of the book and condemn him as his and Rahel's abductor. This trauma, in addition to the trauma of being shipped (or "Returned") to Calcutta to live with his father, contributes to Estha's becoming mute at some point in his childhood. He never goes to college and acquires a number of habits, such as wandering on very long walks and obsessively cleaning his clothes. He is so close to his sister that the narrator describes them as one person, despite having been separated for most of their lives. He is repeatedly referred to as "Silent."
Rahel is the partial narrator of the story, and is Estha's younger sister by 18 minutes. As a girl of seven, her hair sits "on top of her head like a fountain" in a "Love-in-Tokyo" band, and she often wears red-tinted plastic sunglasses with yellow rims. An intelligent and straightforward person who has never felt socially comfortable, she is impulsive and wild, and it is implied that everyone but Velutha treats her as somehow lesser than her brother. In later life, she becomes something of a drifter; several times, the narrator refers to her "Emptiness." After the tragedy that forms the core of the story, she remains with her mother, later training as an architectural draftsman and engaging in a failed relationship with a European, elements of which parallel the author's own life story.
Ammu is Rahel's and Estha's mother. She married their father (referred to as Baba) only to get away from her family. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him when he started to be violent toward her and her children. She went back to Ayemenem, where people avoided her on the days when the radio played "her music" and she got a wild look in her eyes. When the twins are seven, she has an affair with Velutha. This relationship is one of the cataclysmic events in the novel. She is a strict mother, and her children worry about losing her love.
Velutha is a Paravan, an Untouchable, who is exceptionally smart and works as a carpenter at the Ipe family's pickle factory. His name means white in Malayalam, because he is so dark. He returns to Ayemenem to help his father, Vellya Paapen, take care of his brother, who was paralyzed in an accident. He is an active member of the Marxist movement. Velutha is extremely kind to the twins, and has an affair with Ammu for which he is brutally punished.
Chacko is Estha's and Rahel's maternal uncle. He is four years older than Ammu. He meets Margaret in his final year at Oxford and marries her afterward. They have a daughter, Sophie, whose death in Ayemenem is central to the story.
Baby Kochamma is the twins' maternal great aunt. She is of petite build as a young woman but becomes enormously overweight, with "a mole on her neck," by the time of Sophie's death. She maintains an attitude of superiority because of her education as a garden designer in the United States and her burning, unrequited love for an Irish Catholic priest, her relationship with whom is the only meaningful event in her life. Her own emptiness and failure spark bitter spite for her sister's children, further driven by her prudish code of conventional values. Her spite ultimately condemns the twins, the lovers, and herself to a lifetime of misery.
Indian history and politics
Indian history and politics shape the plot and meaning of The God of Small Things in a variety of ways. Some of Roy's commentary is on the surface, with jokes and snippets of wisdom about political realities in India. However, the novel also examines the historical roots of these realities and develops profound insights into the ways in which human desperation and desire emerge from the confines of a firmly entrenched caste society.
During the time in India, class was a major issue and still is in some parts of India.
Class relations and cultural tensions
In addition to her commentary on Indian history and politics, Roy evaluates the Indian post-colonial complex, or the cultural attitudes of many Indians toward their former British rulers. After Ammu calls her father a "[shit]-wiper" in Hindi for his blind devotion to the British, Chacko explains to the twins that they come from a family of Anglophiles, or lovers of British culture, "trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps." He goes on to say that they despise themselves because of this.
A related inferiority complex is evident in the interactions between Untouchables and Touchables in Ayemenem. Vellya Paapen is an example of an Untouchable so grateful to the Touchable class that he is willing to kill his son, Velutha, when he discovers that Velutha has broken the most important rule of class segregation—that there be no inter-caste sexual relations. In part, this reflects how many Untouchables have internalized caste segregation. Nearly all of the relationships in the novel are somehow colored by cultural and class tension, including the twins' relationship with Sophie, Chacko's relationship with Margaret, Pappachi's relationship with his family, and Ammu's relationship with Velutha. Characters such as Baby Kochamma and Pappachi are the most rigid and vicious in their attempts to uphold that social code, while Ammu and Velutha are the most unconventional and daring in unraveling it. Roy implies that this is why they are punished so severely for their transgression.
One interpretation of Roy's theme of forbidden love is that love is such a powerful and uncontrollable force that it cannot be contained by any conventional social code. Another is that conventional society somehow seeks to destroy real love, which is why love in the novel is consistently connected to loss, death, and sadness. Also, because all romantic love in the novel relates closely to politics and history, it is possible that Roy is stressing the connection of personal desire to larger themes of history and social circumstances. Love would therefore be an emotion that can be explained only in terms of two peoples' cultural backgrounds and political identities.
The story is set in the caste society of India, at a time when members of the Untouchable Paravan or Paryan caste were not permitted to touch members of higher castes or enter their houses. The Untouchables were considered polluted beings. They had the lowliest jobs and lived in subhuman conditions. In India, the caste system was considered a way to organize society. Roy's book shows how terribly cruel such a system can be.
Along with the caste system, readers see an economic class struggle. The Ipes are considered upper class. They are factory owners, the dominating class. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma would not deign to mix with those of a lower class. Even Kochu Maria, who has been with them for years, will always be a servant of a lower class.
However, Roy shows other types of less evident discrimination. For example, there is religious discrimination. It is unacceptable for a Syrian Christian to marry a Hindu and vice versa, and Hindus can only marry a Hindu from the same caste. In more than one passage of the book, the reader feels Rahel's and Estha's discomfort at being half Hindu. Baby Kochamma constantly makes disparaging comments about Hindus. On the other hand, there is discomfort even between Christian religions, as is shown by Pappachi's negative reaction when Baby Kochamma converts to Catholicism.
Chacko suffers more veiled racial discrimination, as it seems his daughter also does. His English wife's parents were shocked and disapproving that their daughter would marry an Indian, no matter how well educated. Sophie, at one point, mentions to her cousins that they are all "wog," while she is "half-wog."
The Ipes are very class-conscious and feel a need to maintain their status. Discrimination is a way of protecting their privileged position in society.
Betrayal is a constant element in this story. Love, ideals, and confidence are all forsaken, consciously and unconsciously, innocently and maliciously, and these deceptions affect all of the characters deeply.
Baby Kochamma is capable of lying and double-crossing anyone whom she sees as a threat to her social standing. This is a consequence of her loss of respectability after becoming a Roman Catholic nun to be close to Father Mulligan, despite her father's disapproval. Her fear is reminiscent of that of Comrade Pillai, who betrays both Velutha and Chacko to further his own interests and that of his political party.
The greatest tragedy is that of Velutha, the only truly non-corrupt adult in the story, who becomes the repeated victim of everyone's deception—from Comrade Pillai's to Baby Kochamma's, to his own father's and, most heartbreakingly, that of Estha, who at seven years old is manipulated into accusing Velutha of crimes that he did not commit.
With this in mind, the novel asks the question: Up until what point can we trust others, or even ourselves? How easy is it to put our own interests and convenience over loyalty?
The God of Small Things is not written in a sequential narrative style in which events unfold chronologically. Instead, the novel is a patchwork of flashbacks and lengthy sidetracks that weave together to tell the story of the Ipe family. The main events of the novel are traced back through the complex history of their causes, and memories are revealed as they relate to one another thematically and as they might appear in Rahel's mind. Although the narrative voice is omniscient, it is loosely grounded in Rahel's perspective, and all of the episodes of the novel progress toward the key moments in Rahel's life.
Point of view
The book is narrated in the third person. However, during a great part of the narrative, the reader sees everything through Rahel's eyes. This gives the reader special insight into the happenings and characters. Throughout the book, there are various moments that intersect. In one moment, everything is seen through a child's eyes, with a child's feelings and rationales. Later, the same facts, objects, and people are seen in a completely different light.
India is a very complex society with various cultural and religious habits and beliefs. Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims share the same space. Society is divided not only by the very strict caste system but also by class consciousness. Many languages are spoken in India, but the higher classes make a point of speaking English, sending their sons to study in England and adopting certain English habits. Kerala itself, where the story is set, has a complex social setup, with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians displaying different lifestyles and traditions. It also has the largest Christian population in India, predominantly Saint Thomas Christians or Syrian Christians. In the Kottayam district, Christians are a majority.
Roy has described the book as "an inextricable mix of experience and imagination."
Roy uses various techniques to represent the children's viewpoints and their innocence. One technique she employs is the capitalization of certain words and phrases to give them significance. The children also restate things that adults say in a phonetic way, separating and recombining words. This echoes the children's way of looking at the world, distinct from the perspective of the grown-ups who surround them. They place significance on words and ideas differently from the adults, thereby creating a new way of viewing the world around them. They pick up on certain feelings and ideas that the adults around them either fail or refuse to recognize, and give new significance to things that the adults ignore for their own purposes. The children use and repeat these phrases throughout the story so that the phrases themselves gain independence and representational meanings.
Roy also employs a disjointed, non-sequential narrative style that echoes the process of memory, especially the resurfacing of a previously suppressed, painful memory.
The uncovering of the story of Sophie's death, concurrently with the forward-moving story of Rahel's return to Ayemenem and reunion with Estha, creates a complex narrative that emphasizes the difficulty of the subject of the story and the complexity of the culture from which the story originates. Time is rendered somewhat static as parts of one narrative line are intertwined through repetition and non-sequential discovery. This is also part of the way Roy uses real-life places and people that she has shifted and altered for use in the story. The story's many elements come together to construct a diverse look at one instance of Indian culture and the effect of the caste system on life and love during a time of post-colonialism. As the children try to form their own identities, naming and renaming themselves in the process, Roy places in parallel the effect of the process by intertwining the past and the present.
This process also echoes the progression of the Indian people, like that of all cultures that try to find ways to maintain their traditions in a time of increasing globalization.
- Ch'ien, Evelyn. "The Politics of Design: Arundhati Roy." In Weird English. Harvard University Press, 2004.
- Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: Critique and Commentary, by R. S. Sharma, Shashi Bala Talwar. Published by Creative Books, 1998. ISBN 81-86318-54-2.
- Explorations: Arundhati Roy's the God of small things, by Indira Bhatt, Indira Nityanandam. Published by Creative Books, 1999. ISBN 81-86318-56-9.
- The God of Small Things: A Saga of Lost Dreams, by K. V. Surendran. Published by Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2000. ISBN 81-7156-887-4. Excerpts
- Arundhati Roy's The God of small things: a reader's guide, by Julie Mullaney. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN 0-8264-5327-9.
- Reading Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, by Carole Froude-Durix, Jean-Pierre Durix. Published by Editions universitaires de Dijon, 2002. ISBN 2-905965-80-0,.
- Arundhati Roy's The god of small things: a critical appraisal, by Amar Nath Prasad. Published by Sarup & Sons, 2004. ISBN 81-7625-522-X.
- Derozio To Dattani: Essays in Criticism, by Sanjukta Das. Published by Worldview Publications, 2009. ISBN 81-86423-19-2
- The God of Small Things: A Novel of Social Commitment, by Amitabh Roy. Published by Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2005. ISBN 81-269-0409-7. Excerpts
- Arundhati Roy's The god of small things, by Alex Tickell. Published by Routledge, 2007. ISBN 0-415-35843-4. Excerpts
- Caste and The God of Small Things Emory University.
- The God of Small Things, Chapter One – Paradise Pickles and Preserves New York Times
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: The God of Small Things|
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- God of Small Things on Scribblesofsoul.com
- Arundhati Roy discusses The God of Small Things on the BBC World Book Club
- A study guide, which explains many Indian terms and concepts
- An article on the concepts of "migration", "return" and other related post-colonial topics in The God of Small Things.
- Breaking Bounds in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things An article by Catherine Pesso-Miquel (La Clé des langues).
- Analysis of The God of Small Things on Lit React
|Booker Prize recipient