Book Review: The God of Small Things (excerpt included)

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Fearless author Arundhati Roy’s first and only novel to date, The God of Small Things is a critically acclaimed best seller and winner of the prestigious Booker Prize award. The book, published in 1997, is well worth the hype. Not only is it a literary delight in terms of the construction of the plot, the richness of the prose and the mastery with which Roy illustrates imagery; the several underlying themes in the fairly straightforward plot paint a vivid and brutally accurate picture of the political and social issues in modern India.

The book focuses on a Syrian-Christian family living in the village of Ayemenam in the state of Kerala. The plot unfolds quite smoothly and skillfully in a non-sequential style, as the story is written primarily through the eyes of the protagonist, Rahel, alternating between timeframes as a 7 year old girl in 1969 and a 31 year old woman in 1993. Whilst narrating the story as seven year old Rahel, Arundhati Roy acutely portrays innocence and imagination that can only belong to a child.  This particular quality makes the novel a delightful and wholly entertaining read, and gives a ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ –esque feel to it. As a child, our protagonist Rahel lives with her twin brother Estha, mother ‘Ammu’, grand-aunt ‘Baby Kochamma’, maternal grandmother ‘Mammachi’, uncle Chacko, and maid Kochu Maria. The family runs a pickle factory, ‘Paradise Pickles and Preserves’ in Ayemenam. They live in a time when communist parties have gained a foothold in the state of Kerala, and certainly in their village. One of the communist party members (and employee in their Pickle factory) is Velutha, an Untouchable (‘Paravan’ in the native language, Malayalam), who the twins love and adore, despite Baby Kochamma severely resenting him for having privileges that should rightfully be denied for Untouchables. A large part of the novel involves the family anticipating the arrival of uncle Chacko’s ex-wife, Margaret, and his daughter “Sophie Mol” (‘mol’ being ‘girl’ in Malayalam) from London. Sophie Mol’s untimely death shortly after her arrival coincides with the climax of the novel, and leads to turmoil in the twins’ lives.

Arundhati Roy has meticulously observed social and political attitudes in India and spread her findings throughout the book. The society depicted in the story is repressive to most characters in some way or the other. Problems faced on a daily basis by Untouchables, by women, by the poor and by children are “small” ones that are insignificant and ignored by and large by society. Rahel speaks of the “God of Small Things” repeatedly, who looks after insignificant things and people such as herself, her brother, her mother, and the Untouchable Velutha. It is only when the little things lead to big things, such as Sophie Mol’s death or the knowledge of Ammu’s romantic affair that society takes notice and all hell breaks loose.

One of the observations Roy makes about the Indian culture that really stands out for me is the fascination with whiteness. Sophie Mol’s whiteness is brought up repeatedly  – for Maamachi, Kochu Maria and Baby Kochamma, it makes her the most beautiful child, and for Rahel it is a source of resentment, as she sees it as a reason for why her mother might end up loving Sophie Mol more than her. Roy addresses the complex cultural attitudes in India towards their old colonial rulers by showing Anglophilic behavior exhibited by the characters. After Ammu “said that Pappachi was an incurable British… shit-wiper” (Roy 1998: 25), Chacko tells the twins that they are a family of Anglophiles, “trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps—because their footprints had been swept away” (Roy 1998: 25). The family tries to change their habits as they anticipate the arrival of Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma from London. They make themselves seem more English. They dress up in their best “Airport clothes”, the children are forced to speak only in English, the adults change their accents (to make it seem more English), and Baby Kochamma shows off her understanding of English literature. In the same way, the Ayemenam Communist Party leader Comrade Pillai tries to impress Chacko by having his children recite English poetry – even his five year old, who does not understand a word of the famous speech ‘friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ by Shakespeare that he yells out for Chacko. This is a very interesting phenomenon, and a remnant of British colonial rule in India. During British colonialism in India, the native individuals and communities that embraced the British way of life – their language, their culture, their tradition and so on were the ones who gained the favor of the British and were given opportunities to be successful economically and socially. This attitude has yet to diminish. The only difference now is that Indians are no longer restricted to Anglophilia – they can be American, British or Australian “shit-wipers”. This is evident in the influx of tourists to Kerala, ‘God’s Own Country’, described by adult-Rahel in the book. The shit-wiping done by the Indian government, corporations and institutions to Western neoliberalism has led to a cheapening and prostitution of the poor, ancient arts and nature: “In the evenings (for that Regional Flavor) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances (`Small attention spans,’ the Hotel People explained to the dancers). So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos (Roy 1998: 60).

There is also the constant need by the older family members in the novel to maintain their reputed family name. Being Syrian-Christians, they were self-proclaimed and society-proclaimed upper-class citizens. Therefore, when Mammachi comes to know of Ammu’s illicit love affair with a man of a lower caste, she realizes that Ammu had “defiled generations of breeding… and brought the family to its knees. For generations to come, forever now, people would point at them at weddings and funerals. At baptisms and birthday parties. They’d nudge and whisper. It was all finished-now” (Roy 1998: 122). Inter-religious marriages and consequent offspring are also not tolerated. Baby Kochamma is described by Rahel to have disliked the twins since “they were Half-Hindu Hybrids whom no self-respecting Syrian Christian would ever marry” (Roy 1998: 22). Divisions in society were taken advantage of and deepened during British colonialism. This kept the natives from fighting for their rights in a unified manner. Maintaining power in society is hard work, and this is shown by Kochu Maria, who would rather have reconstructive surgery to repair her ear lobe, which was torn by her heavy earrings (‘konukku’), than not wear the konukku again, since they were a symbol of her being a “Touchable, upper-caste Christian” (Roy 1998: 82). Maintaining superiority in society also includes constantly reminding everyone about an ever present social hierarchy: Baby Kochamma “said (among other things), How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed, they have a particular smell, these Paravans! And she shuddered theatrically, like a child being force-fed spinach. She preferred an Irish-Jesuit smell to a particular Paravan smell” (Roy 1998: 37). This statement about the nasty smell that Untouchables (‘Paravans’) apparently have is unfortunately not an unheard of remark even today in India. It is important to note that Baby Kochamma also speaks of the smell of Irish Jesuits. The caste system is not exclusive to Hinduism –  it has manifested itself uniquely in in Christianity and Islam in South Asia. Injustice easily justified through religion and gods. Invisible. Illogical. Mystical. Convenient.

Arundhati Roy touches on many of the frustrating prejudices and bigotry Untouchables face daily, specifically in rural India. She addresses the utter servile nature Untouchables have to maintain when interacting with Touchables. Rahel mentions how back in Mammachi’s day, “Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint… (and) had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed” (Roy 1998: 35). Most tragic is the fate of the Untouchables, as mentioned in the novel, who converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church hoping to shed their Untouchability, but were segregated from society by being made to have separate churches, separate priests and a separate Pariah bishop. “After Independence they found they were not entitled to any government benefits like job reservations or bank loans at low interest rates, because officially, on paper, they were Christians, and therefore casteless” (Roy 1998: 35).

Velutha becomes the charity case for the family. In the book, Mammachi hires Velutha as a factory carpenter which causes resentment among the Touchable factory workers because “Paravans were not meant to be carpenters. And certainly, prodigal Paravans were not meant to be rehired. To keep the others happy, and since she knew that nobody else would hire him as a carpenter, Mammachi paid Velutha less than she would a Touchable carpenter but more than she would a Paravan” (Roy 1998: 37). Instead of this being seen for what it is (gross exploitation), “(Maamachi) thought that (Velutha) ought to be grateful that he was allowed on the factory premises at all, and allowed to touch things that Touchables touched. She said that it was a big step for a Paravan” (Roy 1998: 37). The concept of viewing the Untouchables with pity and inadequately fulfilling their basic needs now and then while consciously maintaining the power relations in society is a problematic social paradox in India. The Untouchables are time and again humiliated with the reminder that they should be glad the Touchables are even allowing them to breathe the same air as them. The Untouchables are meant to revere and fear the Touchables. Like the life of Velutha in the novel, the hands that “helped” him, ultimately destroyed him for stepping out of line. The fear Untouchables are supposed to feel is exemplified by Velutha’s father, who is the one who goes to Mammachi and reveals the truth about his son. He is the one who sits outside his house, waiting to kill Velutha. This fear of Touchables is important in maintaining the idea of Untouchability. When the Untouchables – the little things – realize that they can change this heinous idea by refusing to adhere to the rules placed on them and uniting is when change can occur.

No plan to consolidate and retain power in small pockets of society is complete without the repression of women. India and Arundhati Roy’s novel is no different.  The casual sexual harassment of Ammu by the police inspector shows how little power women have in society, especially if they have been defiled by society for committing social taboos: “‘If I were you,’ he said, ‘I’d go home quietly.’ Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered. Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct” (Roy 1998: 5). Sexism is openly practiced in Indian households too. Mammachi has no problems with her son, Chacko having sex with various women in the house after his divorce, but she has grave objections with her daughter, Ammu having sex with a man after her divorce. She attributes Chacko’s behavior to his “Man’s Needs” (Roy 1998: 80). However, “her tolerance of “Men’s Needs,” as far as her son was concerned, became the fuel for her unmanageable fury at her daughter” (Roy 1998: 122). Similarly, there is also a huge fuss made by Mammachi and Baby Kochamma about Ammu’s divorce, but not about Chacko’s. In addition, while Kochu Maria says that the house is not the twins’, Sophie Mol is made to feel at home. This highlights that it is only the paternal lineage that really matters. This is very true of Indian society. Indian women are seen as a burden and traded through the institution of marriage as such – the dowry system in South Asia involves the bride’s family sending away the bride with a lump sum of money in the form of cash and/or assets to cover for the lifelong cost of room, board, dining and some respect in the groom’s house. Less respect than for that a man, but more than that for a dowry-less woman. She should be grateful she is being accommodated at all.

Politically, Roy gives some insight into the Communist movement in the state of Kerala. While it led to a 99 percent literacy rate in the state, which is unheard of in any developing country, let alone India, where the average is around 75 percent, and falls down to 47 percent in some states, it by no means has led to social utopia or provided justice for all. Comrade K. N. M. Pillai, the leader of the Communist Party in Ayemenem, seems to be more interested in keeping the party powerful for the sake of keeping himself powerful. Indeed, while on one hand he tries to get the employees at Paradise Pickle’s and Preserves into the party and attack the bourgeoisie, on the other he conducts private business dealings with Chacko, the owner of the company. He tells himself that “Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-Management were two different people” (Roy 1998: 58). His wife dislikes Untouchables, but he does nothing to try and change that. The workers he is eyeing as prospective party members dislike Velutha and all Untouchables, and this does not bother him for the reasons it should.  So while the Communist Party claims to bring justice and equality to its members by the overthrow of the flawed society they live in, it brings with it the same old prejudices and dogmas. This leaves people like Velutha and other Untouchables with more frustration and no way to get justice.

Arundhati Roy has fit a tremendous amount of emotions and intensity in 336 pages. The God of Small Things is a novel that can be read time and again, owing to its sheer richness in style and content. It is also a very relevant book, with multiple movements propping up around the world nowadays to fight age-old unjust practices – from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to the Maoist struggle in India, from the Egyptian Revolution to Occupy Wall Street. The God of Small Things is a fiction, based on real history, desires, desperation and issues. With her sensitive and beautiful story telling abilities, I look forward to reading the next fiction Arundhati Roy writes, should she do so.

***

Chapter 6.

 

Cochin Kangaroos

Cochin Airport, Rahel’s new knickers were polka-dotted and still crisp. The rehearsals had been rehearsed. It was the Day of the Play. The culmination of the What Will Sophie Mol Think? week.

In the morning at the Hotel Sea Queen, Ammu—who had dreamed at night of dolphins and a deep blue—helped Rahel to put on her frothy Airport Frock. It was one of those baffling aberrations in Ammu’s taste, a cloud of stiff yellow lace with tiny silver sequins and a bow on each shoulder. The frilled skirt was underpinned with buckram to make it flare. Rahel worried that it didn’t really go with her sunglasses.

Ammu held out the crisp matching knickers for her. Rahel, with her hands on Ammu’s shoulders, climbed into her new knickers (left leg, right leg) and gave Ammu a kiss on each dimple (left cheek, right cheek). The elastic snapped softly against her stomach.

“Thank you, Ammu,” Rahel said.

“Thank you?” Ammu said.

“For my new frock and knickers,” Rahel said.

Ammu smiled.

“You’re welcome, my sweetheart,” she said, but sadly.

You’re welcome, my sweetheart.

The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A little less her mother loved her.

The Sea Queen room smelled of eggs and filter coffee. On the way to the car, Estha carried the Eagle vacuum flask with the tap water. Rahel carried the Eagle vacuum flask with the boiled water. Eagle vacuum flasks had Vacuum Eagles on them, with their wings spread, and a globe in their talons. Vacuum Eagles, the twins believed, watched the world all day and flew around their flasks all night. As silently as owls they flew, with the moon on their wings.

Estha was wearing a long-sleeved red shirt with a pointed collar and black drainpipe trousers. His puff looked crisp and surprised. Like well-whipped egg white.

Estha—with some basis, it must be admitted—said that Rahel looked stupid in her Airport Frock. Rahel slapped him, and he slapped her back.

They weren’t speaking to each other at the airport.

Chacko, who usually wore a mundu, was wearing a funny tight suit and a shining smile. Ammu straightened his tie, which was odd and sideways. It had had its breakfast and was satisfied.

Ammu said, “What’s happened suddenly to our Man of the Masses?”

But she said it with her dimples, because Chacko was so burst. So very happy.

Chacko didn’t slap her.

So she didn’t slap him back.

From the Sea Queen florist Chacko had bought two red roses, which he held carefully.

Fatly.

Fondly.

The airport shop, run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, was crammed with Air India Maharajahs (small medium large), sandalwood elephants (small medium large) and papier-mâchâ masks of kathakali dancers (small medium large). The smell of cloying sandalwood and terry-cotton armpits (small medium large) hung in the air.

In the Arrivals Lounge, there were four life-sized cement kangaroos with cement pouches that said USE ME. In their pouches, instead of cement joeys, they had cigarette stubs, used matchsticks, bottle caps, peanut shells, crumpled paper cups and cockroaches.

Red betel spitstains spattered their kangaroo stomachs like fresh wounds.

Red-mouthed smiles the Airport Kangaroos had.

And pink-edged ears.

They looked as though if you pressed them they might say Mama in empty battery voices.

When Sophie Mol’s plane appeared in the skyblue Bombay-Cochin sky the crowd pushed against the iron railing to see more of everything.

The Arrivals Lounge was a press of love and eagerness, because the Bombay-Cochin flight was the flight that all the Foreign Returnees came home on.

Their families had come to meet them. From all over Kerala. On long bus journeys. From Ranni, from Kumili, from Vizhinjam, from Uzhavoor. Some of them had camped at the airport overnight, and had brought their food with them. And tapioca chips and chakka velaichathu for the way back.

They were all there—the deaf ammoomas, the cantankerous, arthritic appoopans, the pining wives, scheming uncles, children with the runs. The fiancâes to be reassessed. The teacher’s husband still waiting for his Saudi visa. The teacher’s husband’s sisters waiting for their dowries. The wire-bender’s pregnant wife.

“Mostly sweeper class,” Baby Kochamma said grimly, and looked away while a mother, not wanting to give up her Good Place near the railing, aimed her distracted baby’s penis into an empty bottle while he smiled and waved at the people around him.

“Sssss…” his mother hissed. First persuasively, then savagely. But her baby thought he was the pope. He smiled and waved and smiled and waved. With his penis in a bottle.

“Don’t forget that you are Ambassadors of India,” Baby Kochamma told Rahel and Estha. “You’re going to form their First Impression of your country.”

Two-egg Twin Ambassadors. Their Excellencies Ambassador E(lvis). Pelvis, and Ambassador S(tick). Insect.

In her stiff lace dress and her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, Rahel looked like an Airport Fairy with appalling taste. She was hemmed in by humid hips (as she would be once again, at a funeral in a yellow church) and grim eagerness. She had her grandfather’s moth on her heart. She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the skyblue sky that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: redmouthed roos with ruby smiles moved cemently across the airport floor.

Heel and Toe

Heel and Toe

Long flatfeet

Airport garbage in their baby bins.

The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot cbt ecipS tsooC fo aidnI.

Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.

Estha look! Look Estha look!

Ambassador Estha wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenachal.

Ammu watched with her handbag.

Chacko with his roses.

Baby Kochamma with her sticking-out neckmole.

Then the Bombay-Cochin people came out. From the cool air into the hot air. Crumpled people uncrumpled on their way to the Arrivals Lounge.

And there they were, the Foreign Returnees, in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow sunglasses. With an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for their parents’ bathrooms. With sewage systems and septic tanks. Maxis and high heels. Puff sleeves and lipstick. Mixygrinders and automatic flashes for their cameras. With keys to count, and cupboards to lock. With a hunger for kappa and meen vevichathu that they hadn’t eaten for so long. With love and a lick of shame that their families who had come to meet them were so… so… gawkish. Look at the way they dressed! Surely they had more suitable airport wear! Why did Malayalees have such awful teeth?

And the airport itself! More like the local bus depot! The birdshit on the building! Oh the spitstains on the kangaroos!

Oho! Going to the dogs India is.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. 1st ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

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