Wednesday, February 08, 2012

134. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things (Harper Perennial, 1997; 321) by Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker prize in 1997 amid some controversies. Some have gone ahead to describe the book harshly, whilst others have praise the insight of Roy. One thing is however clear The God of Small Things is a book that opens up a society exposing all its rotten innards and demands that we choose but choose wisely.

In this novel, Roy examines the lives we live and the choices we make on the lives of the people around us, mostly on the innocent children. She also examines hypocrisy, more especially political hypocrisy, and betrayal by the state, friends, loved ones, and family. Estha and Rahel are more than just fraternal twins. Their soul reach out for each other. One day, whilst on their way to pick their uncle's - Chacko's - daughter, Estha was sexually molested by a hairy man who offered him a cold soft drink. Estha lost his innocence and something lively in him died. And something in Rahel also died. This was the first of many 'deaths' and betrayals that were to occur in the lives of these children of seven years. Their mother, Ammu, who had divorced their drunk father was hardly recognised or considered by the family including his Oxford-graduate brother, Chacko. When Ammu fell in love with Velutha, an untouchable who was supposed to occupy the lowest of the rungs in life, Baby Kochama, Ammu's aunt moved into action. In fact, Velutha himself was betrayed by his father Vellya Paapen, who reported the incident to Mamachi, Ammu's mother and overheard by Margaret Kochama, her aunt. He was also betrayed by the political system led by Comrade K.N.M. Pillai, who disowned him as a member of his party tor advance his own selfish ambition, and was finally betrayed by Estha (and Rahel), two children whom he had loved and cared for and helped.

To Baby Kochama - a woman who unable to get the man she wanted, a man for whose love she went to a convent and changed denominations, did not marry again - such an abominable union portends doom for the whole family, it tarnishes their purity and their image and so she schemed to thwart it and in doing so got an innocent man killed by the overly enthusiastic police force who seem to work for one caste against the other. Baby Kochama had gone to the police to lie about the relationship between Velutha and Ammu, describing it as rape. She also charged Velutha for adoption, after Estha, Rahel and Sophie Mol - Chacko's daughter who was visiting with her mother Margaret Kochama after the death of the latter's second husband, Joe, went missing for several hours. However, when Ammu told the truth to the policemen and was confirmed by Estha and Rahel, the police officer, Inspector Thomas Mathew, knew they had committed murder and that murder was heaped on Baby Kochama. However, everything would disappear if the twins could identify Velutha as the man who kidnapped them. The kids who were there when the police arrived at the History House and beat Velutha to comatose - there again something died in them - knew the truth and spoke it and almost defended it. But Baby Kochama, the schemer, threatened them with the murder of Sophie Mol, for on the previous evening whilst leaving home to the home they had created at the History House, because home has become unbearable with their mother shouting at them and locked in a room by their uncle, their boat had capsized and Sophie Mol had drowned because unlike them she could not swim. Baby Kochama presented to the children a jail term for Ammu or identifying Velutha as the culprit, after all the policeman had told her that Velutha, after the heavy beating would not survive the night. And Estha was chosen to do the identification. And on that day the last living thing in Estha died.  

Several individuals played a part in the destruction of the young souls including Comrade Pillai who betrayed Velutha when he needed him most and used his death as a launch pad for his Communist party campaigns and demonstrations; Chacko who allowed himself to be manipulated by Baby Kochama to beat and sack Ammu out of their home, and ordered Estha to be returned to his father; Papaachi who saw no interest in educating a woman and so Ammu, an inherently brilliant girl, was left uneducated and Mamaachi who only considered Chacko as her child. Again, the traditional practice that give women no chance to develop their abilities, that patriarchal system that considers them to be inferior to men was at play in this story.

The story is told back and forth, between an older Estha who was considered mad because he never talks and goes on long walks everyday, an older divorced Rahel who had come from America, where she had migrated to with her husband, when Baby Kochama told her about Estha and his seeming madness and the younger Estha and Rahel. As events unravel, one has the feeling of something destructive was hovering on the horizon. It makes one think of rape and others. And this builds up due to Roy's narrative style which drops hints of what is approaching and also by presenting the state of Estha and Rahel in the first pages. Because Roy chose to tell the story mostly from the point-of-view of Rahel, some of the words were written in the way they were pronounced. She tried as much as possible to carry the feeling of childhood to the reader. 

The God of Small Things is many things. It is the destruction of a life too young to understand its choices; it is the decision of society to keep people at a low level of life where they can expect nothing but the crumbs from once-in-a-while benevolent privileged folks. It is also about how people take advantage of the poor and how individualistic people could be. Above all it is a book of tragedy.
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Read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge

14 comments:

  1. Did you like the novel or do you think it is just "going with the tide" of postcolonial authors (writing mammi-ji, pappi-ji and the novel it's written)? Personally, I liked how Roy mingled a family saga with political and social themes that most authors only touch on.

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    1. I like the point of view narrative, the prose and the story itself. I like the fact that it brought out the lies embedded in politics, not only of the ruling party but also of the opposition. I like what it tends to portray - discrimination against minorities and the young. I like the way it dissected human behaviour, showing how people tend to take advantage of each other to further their course.

      My only problem is when Roy tried to write the story as it occurred to Rahel like bringing words together (e.g. stoppit etc). Another thing too is Roy kept hinting on something monumental was about to happen and when it did the expectation wasn't the same.

      The book covers a lot of subjects.

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  2. The plot sounds intriguing and a bit intricate. What rating would you give it on a scale of one to ten? Where can it be bought?

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    1. It is an interesting story and somewhat complex but not too complex to befuddle the reader. Its complexity lies in its subject: politics and social issues and how it was treated. I can easily give it 8 out of 10.

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  3. This sounds like a really complex story. I must read the author at some point.

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    1. Yeah and this is the only fiction she has out there. She is into Rights and other political issues. She has a non-fiction book out there too.

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  4. I think the plot is a bit convoluted, but otherwise a good story with all the topical issues.

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    1. And the narrative switches back and forth, the past the and present. But it is a good read.

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  5. The God of Small Things is one of those stories that stays with you. Her writing on caste issues and family dynamics and the way she ties them all together was just brilliant.
    I read this a while back but wouldn't mind picking it up again!

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  6. Strange that you didn't like the "stoppit parts". I loved them. I guess it's just a matter of personal taste.

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    1. This is personal and I know it didn't detract from the story. In fact she was able to carry through Rahel's language perfectly and it is one of the best I've read (including Toni Morrison's dialogue of Blacks); except that there were few instances I thought it was overdone.

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  7. Until I read the book, I reserve my comment on it. I hope to read the book some day soon. Nice review, man.

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