In praise of small things
C. S. Bhagya discusses how Arundhati Roy captures the violent effects of discrimination through loving attention to minor details in her Booker Prize-winning novel
Exam links AQA (A): Paper 2 Modern times
Arundhati Roy writes strikingly in a refrain that runs through The God of Small Things (1997): ‘It really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much’ (Ch. 1). Here she subtly but powerfully references the multiple forms of discrimination that intersect in the postcolonial India she depicts in her narrative.
The novel opens in the 1990s with 31-year-old twins, Rahel and Estha, returning to an atmospheric Ayemenem, a small village in the South Indian state of Kerala, which is flushed with monsoon rain. Their stories are connected to a series of traumatic incidents that occurred when they were still children: the death of the twins’ half-English cousin, Sophie Mol; and a forbidden love affair between their divorced mother, Ammu, and the carpenter, Velutha. He belongs to a caste that is ostracised on the basis of its inferior social position. Members of the community are shunned from physical touch, and considered ‘Untouchable’.
Their doomed love affair culminates in Ammu’s humiliation at the hands of her extended family and Velutha’s brutal killing by the local police. It also results in the separation of the twins, whose return to Ayemenem three decades later leads to their coming together in an incestuous sexual encounter, signifying yet another forbidden form of love and reparation. By juxtaposing multiple familial and social entanglements in the series of tragic events in the twins’ childhood, Roy’s novel uses the prisms of caste, race and gender to critique the intersectional discrimination embedded in the cultural practices of post-independent India.
Gender, caste and race: fault lines
Ayemenem serves as a microcosm where casteist and patriarchal violence, volatile Communist politics and the disintegration of the traditional family unit play out in the early decades after India’s independence in 1947. Personal and historical traumas blend, resulting in the disorderly nature of time experienced by the twins. As Elizabeth Outka argues, ‘Trauma reorders time itself, and thus… the temporal mixture must be read not simply as a feature of a postmodern or postcolonial narrative, but also as a sign of traumatic experience’ (Outka 2011, p. 22).
Throughout the novel there is a pervading sense of history moving unstoppably to destroy the minor intimacies of the private lives of the protagonists. This is reflected not only in the killing of Velutha, whom Ammu thinks of as ‘the God of Small Things’ (Ch. 11) and who holds a place of affection and love in the eyes of the children, but also in how the children are cast as inferior to Sophie Mol in the eyes of their mother’s family. The family clings firmly to patriarchal beliefs, particularly that ‘a married daughter [has] no position in her parents’ home’ (Ch. 2). Ammu’s shame in returning home after marriage, however, is worse: ‘As for a divorced daughter — according to Baby Kochamma, she [has] no position anywhere at all’ (Ch. 2). Ammu’s children, too, as children of a divorcée, are subjected to the same discrimination.
By contrast, Chacko, Ammu’s brother, also divorced, is made to suffer none of the same treatment. In fact, his many affairs with local women are brushed aside as ‘a Man’s Needs’ (Ch. 8), so much so that ‘Mammachi had a separate entrance built for Chacko’s room, which was at the eastern end of the house, so that the objects of his “Needs” wouldn’t have to go traipsing through the house’ (Ch. 8). Furthermore, Sophie Mol’s ethnic identity as half-English makes her more worthy of love than the twins, her status in the community immediately reflecting its postcolonial hangover and obsession with whiteness as a symbol of superiority and power. ‘Hatted, bellbottomed’ Sophie Mol, unlike the twins, was ‘Loved from the Beginning’ (Ch. 5).
Ammu and Velutha
The most significant violation of the existing sociocultural norms occurs in the love affair between Ammu and Velutha. Velutha’s Paravan caste and inferior class are considered undesirable, and members of his community are disallowed from freely loving or marrying into Ammu’s Syrian Christian family. The transgressive nature of Ammu and Velutha’s relationship highlights the hierarchies in the Syrian Christian belief system and its partial subscription to norms of orthodox Hinduism and its caste structure. Their affair unfolds in light of the rise of Communist politics in Kerala, which is slowly transforming the political agency of oppressed figures like Velutha.
Though the Communist movement existed in India from the 1920s, its influence in Kerala was reaffirmed when it became the first Indian state to see the election of a Communist government in 1957. Yet Roy’s representation of politics has not gone unchallenged. Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad argues that her portrayal results in ‘a breakdown of realism in depicting the Communist world ’. Roy’s ‘intermeshing of caste and sexuality [which is] the ideological centre of the book’ is also deemed problematic as this decentres the class conflict that, for Ahmad, should be central in the novel (Ahmad 2007, p. 112). This, of course, is not the only way to view things. As Brinda Bose argues:
One’s personal politics is often an extension of, but always greater than, one’s positioning — left, right, centre, or beyond — and a politics of desire, even if merely proclaiming ‘the erotic as Truth’, could certainly be considered as viable a politics as any other.
(Bose 2007, p. 112)
In Ammu and Velutha’s tragic love story, Roy demonstrates how public morality violently intervenes in their daily existence, their most personal and intimate moments, and how long-reigning ‘Love Laws’ indelibly etch the contours of their lives.
Besides tracking the impact of patriarchal and casteist cultural mores, Roy documents the impact of colonialism through the social relations evident in the twins’ Kerala family by experimenting with form. She superimposes ancient Indian myths to demonstrate the hybrid cultural experiences that epitomise living in a postcolonial milieu. Ayemenem’s distance from urban India appears to render it static, a place where the upturning of long-standing sociocultural systems seems particularly difficult to achieve. Nevertheless visible is the corrosion of classical dance forms in a rapidly modernising India in the midst of economic liberalisation.
In 1991, new economic reforms introduced by the P. V. Narasimha Rao government, with Manmohan Singh as finance minister, pushed India to open up its gates to the global economy. The novel depicts how these new transformations also trickled into the deceptively quiet Kerala countryside, through the fall from grace of kathakali performers. Due to its impact on the tourism industry, dance troupes reluctantly abbreviate their elaborate, sacred performances to cater to the distracted and short attention spans of people who prefer to consume them in bite-sized pieces, as tokens of exotic India. The performers return to Ayemenem to stop ‘at the temple to ask pardon of their gods, [to] apologize for corrupting their stories’, to ‘jettison their humiliation’ accrued from ‘turning to tourism to stave off starvation’ (Ch. 12).
In one scene, Rahel watches the kathakali performers re-enact a key episode from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, where Kunti, the mother of the five righteous Pandavas, implores her illegitimate first-born son, Karna, to spare her legitimate offspring in the battle of Kurukshetra. The battle is fought over dynastic succession between cousins: the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Due to Karna’s fostered upbringing, he fights on the side of the Kauravas even though he is the half-brother of the Pandavas. This scene depicts Kunti’s invocation of ‘Love Laws’ to dissuade Karna from killing her other children. For Rahel, herself the victim of the land’s ‘Love Laws’, the scene poignantly brings home how deeply intermingled such forms of discrimination are in the cultural bloodstream of the community.
On the one hand, the scripts of power relations determined by colonial rule affect how the twins’ treatment differs from Sophie Mol’s; on the other, the mistreatment of Dalit workers like Velutha is ordained by powerful mythologies enshrined by dominant religions such as Hinduism, where the alleged social origins of even a powerful warrior like Karna immediately cause his vilification. As Alex Tickell notes:
In keeping with her two-way time scheme, Roy does not confine herself to redressing the “insults” of a colonial past, but is also keenly aware of the shadow of an older pre-colonial history… as well as looking forward to its fully industrialized, globally integrated present.
(Tickell 2007, p. 5)
This two-fold response to India’s postcolonial condition in the novel materialises in its narrative texture and incorporation of indigenous storytelling forms, of which kathakali is foregrounded as a prominent example.
Roy’s novel is part of a rich tradition of postcolonial Indian novels in English which have written back to the Empire by retooling the genre into a polyphonic cultural artefact that blends precolonial, colonial and postcolonial narrative forms. She exposes the colonial blueprint underpinning the family’s Anglophilic trappings through deft character sketches and dialogue. In addition, she maps onto the narrative the silhouettes of traditional, precolonial storytelling forms to portray different figures with nuance and compassion. As Tickell observes, ‘complex characters are often presented in terms of their own overshadowing fates, or “emblematic” character traits such as greed or jealousy, something that also echoes the dramatic conventions of kathakali’ (Tickell 2007, p. 6).
Roy’s meandering narrative constantly foreshadows imminent disasters, even during otherwise light moments in the narrative. Ammu, who notices the children’s easy camaraderie with Velutha early on, warns them not to spend time with him, as though already aware of the impending tragedy. The eponymous chapter, ‘The God of Small Things’, in which this dialogue appears, reinforces this sense of foreboding through phrases and words repeated in later chapters that go on to assume further significance. Referring to the ill-fated trio, Roy writes, ‘Twin millstones and their mother. Numb millstones. What they had done would return to empty them. But that would be later’ (Ch. 11). This ominous ‘later’ reappears in the final chapter, which recounts the transgressive sexual encounter between Velutha and Ammu, again as a harbinger of their inexorable fate: ‘They looked at each other. They weren’t thinking anymore. The time for that had come and gone. Smashed smiles lay ahead of them. But that would be later. Lay Ter’ (Ch. 21).
Through recursive storylines and tragic echoes, Roy exposes the schism between the private and the public — especially the illusory divide between these two realms — and weaves a dense tapestry of relationships in the novel. She traces the dark and shadowy links not just between individuals like Ammu and Velutha, and Rahel and Estha, but the larger social systems that characters are bound by, and symbolise, despite themselves. She showcases how, in this fraught cultural landscape, any ‘God of Small Things’ who seeks contentment from the smaller pleasures in life is doomed to failure due to the machinations of the Big Things: caste, race, religion and capitalism.
What do you think about the debate between Aijaz Ahmad and Brinda Bose? Should class conflict have been centered as a more important political concern in the novel? Or does ‘a politics of desire’ also warrant equal and serious political attention?
Caste Ancient Hindu society was broadly divided into four classes called ‘varnas’, making up a caste system based on profession, which also determined social status. These divisions became the basis of discrimination, which continues in different forms in contemporary India.
Dalit Communities formerly labelled ‘Untouchable’, along with other ‘lower’ castes, have fought against such discrimination and now use ‘Dalit’ as a preferred term of self-identification and a signifier of radical anti-caste politics.
Intersectional discrimination Discrimination based on the intersection of different kinds of identities, such as race, gender, class or caste.
Kathakali A classical dance form from the Indian state Kerala. It uses a combination of dance, drama and oral storytelling, and draws on Hindu religious traditions and mythology.
Paravan An ‘Untouchable’ caste, typically of fishermen.
Polyphony A term introduced by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. It describes the attributes of a narrative containing multiple voices which are given equal status, thereby celebrating plurality.
Untouchables ‘Untouchable’ castes like Velutha’s were placed outside the caste system, and subjected to violent social discrimination. Such castes’ hereditary work was considered a source of pollution, supposedly making them untouchable.
Ahmad, A. (2007) ‘Reading Arundhati Roy Politically’, in A. Tickell Routledge Guides to Literature: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Routledge.
Anjaria, U. (ed.) (2015) A History of the Indian Novel in English, Cambridge University Press.
Bose, B. (2007) ‘In Desire and Death: “Eroticism as Politics in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”’, in A. Tickell Routledge Guides to Literature: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Routledge.
Outka, E. (2011) ‘Trauma and Temporal Hybridity in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things’, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 21–53: www.jstor.org/stable/41261824
Tickell, A. (2007) Routledge Guides to Literature: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Routledge.