1997: The God of Small Things

‘They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.’

The Author

Arundhati Roy was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India, to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. Her parents divorced when she was two and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother, living with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, her mother started a school.

Roy studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, where she met architect Gerard da Cunha. The two lived together in Delhi, and then Goa, before they separated.

In 1984, she met independent filmmaker Pradip Krishen, who offered her a role as a goatherd in his award-winning movie Massey Sahib. Later, the two married. Roy did various jobs, including running aerobics classes. Roy and Krishen eventually separated. She became financially secure with the success of her novel The God of Small Things, published in 1997.

Roy began writing her first novel, The God of Small Things, in 1992, completing it in 1996. The book is semi-autobiographical and a major part captures her childhood experiences in Aymanam.

The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. It was one of the five best books of 1997 according to Time. In India, the book was criticised especially for its unrestrained description of sexuality by in Roy’s home state Kerala, where she had to answer charges of obscenity.

In 2017, Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was published. The novel was chosen for the 2017 Booker Prize Long List. 

The Blurb

This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana jam vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt).

The Story

Rahel returns home to Kerula after the break up of her marriage in America, to find that her twin brother, Estha, has also returned. They haven’t seen each other since they were children when, after the death of their English cousin, Sophie Mol, in the river outside the family home, Estha is sent to live with his father and stepmother in Calcutta. They were seven years old.

The story weaves together past and present, moving from one scene to another through Rahel’s memories of the events that led up to Estha’s banishment and Rahel being left behind – by everyone.

The twins and their mother, Ammu, live on sufference in the Ipe family house with Mammachi (the owner of Paradise Pickles and relieved widow of Pappachi), ‘Baby’ Kochamma (their mother’s aunt), Chacko (their uncle; divorced husband of English Margaret, father of Sophie).

Though no dates are given, there are enough hints that the twins were children in the 1960s. One scene from the book features a workers protest march. Chacko, though now owner of the pickle factory, is a member of the Communist Party of Kerula (elections in 1964 brought the Party to power in the region).

The children befriend a local Paravan (untouchable) called Velutha, who they see on the march as they wait in the car on their way to collect Sophie Mol and her mother from the airport. Unknown to them, their mother begins a love affair with Velutha, who she has known since both were children. There is outrage at their flagrant disregard of the ‘love-laws’ which mean they should not ever touch.

The night Sophie Mol dies in the river, the three children have run away to hide in a derelict house, known as The Heart of Darkness (a nod to Joseph Conrad’s book of that name). Their boat capsizes in the river and Sophie Mol is lost in the darkness. The twins hide on the veranda of the house and fall asleep unaware that Velutha is also asleep at the other end of the same veranda.

Meanwhile, Baby Kochamma, jealous of Ammu’s happiness and correctly divining the cause, goes to the police station and makes a complaint of rape against Velutha. When the police find him at the old house, they beat him senseless and carry him away – witnessed by the twins. They are also taken to the police station where Baby Kochamma blackmails them into saying that Velutha was responsible for Sophie Mon’s death. Ammu tried to retract that statement but is unsuccessful as Velutha is dead.

So Mammachi, egged on by Baby Kochamma, forces Ammu to decide which twin can stay and which must go, as they cannot have them living together. Estha is packed off. Then Jacko blames Ammu and she is forced to abandon Rahel to seek work elsewhere. Just a few years later, Ammu is dead of cancer and Jacko and Rahel must arrange her funeral. Rahel leaves Kerrula as soon as she can, going to university, then a scholarship to America.

Since Estha was ‘Returned’ to his father, he has never spoken. Even when Rahel returns, Estha does not speak to her. Though they are not identical twins, they share each other’s thoughts and memories – though NOT, it seems, something they were able to do when separated and on two continents (shades of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children here).

When Rahel returns to Kerula, Chacko has emigrated to Canada; Mammachi is dead; Baby Kochamma and her servant – Kochu Maria – are obsessed with television and spend all day watching American soaps. The pickle factory is empty and derelict.

Rahel and Estha, who knew each other so well as children, now try to recapture that closeness; but, once more, the love-laws are broken as their reconnection is now not of their minds but of their bodies (they have sex).

My Thoughts

I first read this book in the summer of 2016, in preparation for my Final Year at university. It was on the reading list for the Post-Colonial module of my English degree. I subsequently re-read it at least seven times, four of which when revising for my exams. Fortunately I still have my revision notes.

Pickles: are symbolic of preservation; a metaphor for preserving the past. The Ipe’s used to be somebodies since an ancestor was big in the Syria-Christian church, and his son was blessed by a Pope. Each generation has tried to preserve the family honour and name, without success, until Mammachi – briefly – makes a success of her pickle factory.

Pappachi’s Moth: symbolic of disappointment. Pappachi was an academic studying insects – in between beating his wife – his greatest – and worst – claim to fame was the discovery of an unusual moth. But it was identified at a variation on a known species. Ten years later it was re-classified as a new moth and someone else took the credit. The moth is a constant ghostly companion for Rahel – each time she disappoints Ammu (and their mother “loves them a little less”) the moth twitches an antenna or raises a leg and Rahel’s heart freezes.

Rahel’s Watch: Child Rahel owns a watch. Plastic with the time painted on – forever at ten minutes to two o’clock. Which symolises her being frozen in time along with the Ipe family.

Banana Jam: one of the products made in Mammachi’s factory and subject of endless confrontations with government officials over whether Mammachi should pay tax or not. Symbolises things being neither one thing or the other – similar to our ongoing debate over Jaffa Cakes – cake, or biscuit? Pay VAT or not pay?

The History House/Heart of Darkness

Once owned by the last surviving white tea planter now, like the former British Empire, left to rot as it stands, furniture, paintings, everything. The children play around it but never go inside. When the house is later bought and turned into a tourist hotel, the kathakhali dancers, who dance and tell the old tales about heroic deeds of the gods, must cut their performances from many hours to twenty minutes to account for western attention spans. Once they have finished dancing for tourists, they retire to the temple and dance only for themselves, to regain their lost pride and keep the stories (history) alive.

Binaries

Everything in this book is made up of two opposing things (in no specific order:

  • Twins – one boy, one girl = duality (two-egg twins)
  • Colonial/Postcolonial
  • Past/Future (and present)
  • Speech/Silence
  • Man/woman
  • Christian/Untouchable
  • Life/Death
  • Love/hate
  • Child/Adult
  • Big God/small god
  • Exile/homecoming
  • Memory/Truth
  • Culture/Society

After a gap of three-and-a-half years, this book surprised me. In fact I had dreaded the moment when, in this reading challenge, I would be forced to read it again.

I vaguely remembered the story but what surprised me the most was the language used and the way it was used.

What had, as I remembered it, annoyed me by being overly descriptive, and for the excessive use of capital letters; and the inappropriate separation and re-joining of certain words (barn owl becomes Bar Nowl for instance), has now become a delight.

Whether this is because I spent that gap between readings in writing, or trying to write, myself, or that I haven’t that added pressure to ‘perform’ in an exam, I don’t know.

A bit of both, perhaps?

Did I appreciate it as much the first time I read it?

Definitely not!

But read this – the first two paragraphs

May in Ayemenam is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves agains clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The God of Small Things (1997) p1

or this from lower down on that first page

It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenam. Slanting river ropes slammed into loose earth, ploughing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat.

Glorious.

I’m extremely jealous that my writing is more prosaic and far less lyrical.

If you have not read this book before – or even if you have – read it again. Slowly. Savour every word. But read it for enjoyment, not because you have to for some other reason.

It might be five years before I read this book again, but read it I will.

For an alternative view

Fellow blogger Pricilla Bettis, Author has read this book (after reading this post about it) and has given me permission to link to her blog post in which she gives her thoughts.

2 thoughts on “1997: The God of Small Things

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