In honor of the publication of Arundhati Roy’s second novel, I decided to read her first one. I was very impressed with The God of Small Things (1997). Roy tells a story in a way that I’ve never heard a story told before. It is as though she has invented her own language for the novel; she has written not in English, but in a playful, pleasing gobbledygook that describes how bilingual children think and communicate. It is also clear, from the way the story is structured, that this is the predecessor for Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland (2013). The God of Small Things is not chronological, starting with an assortment of details spread out through time and space, and ending with the driving incident of the plot. This creates a sense of timelessness, a feeling that facts and memory are interchangeable and are rarely affixed to time. It also frequently creates an abrupt tone shift at the end, as though the incident on which the novel centers is a buried treasure at the end of a map.
You all should know by now, I include spoilers.
I deeply appreciate Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. I feel as though she would understand me when I say I have laughed in classes about genocide. She tells the story of a miserable family whose members (at some point or another in their lives) live in the town of Ayemenem in the state of Kerala, India. The novel takes place in 1969, when Communism was on the rise and gaining ground in India. In this setting, 9-year-old Sophie Mol dies. Rahel and Estha, who were 7 when she died, deal with the fallout of this incident well into their adult lives.
I love Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. She uses it as such a great vehicle for satire. For example, Roy likens Kochu Maria, the house maid, to “a bottled fetus that had escaped from its jar of formaldehyde in a Biology lab and unshriveled and thickened with age” (p. 162). This is hysterical. I think the formaldehyde is a great detail. Who goes that deep into detail to convey how ugly a person is? Apparently Roy does. Kochu Maria was basically the accomplice who helped Baby Kochamma lock Ammu in her room and falsely accuse Velutha of rape. The description of Kochu Maria is that of an antagonist, but perhaps also of someone who has so deeply internalized her own oppression, it has corrupted her very image.
I also like the radical potential of what Roy says about adults versus children. Many of the adults in the novel are hypocrites. For example, Chacko claims to support the Communist movement, but is a wealthy landowner. And Comrade Pillai, who leads the Communist party, is amicable to Chacko. Pillai compartmentalizes his ideas of Chacko by reasoning that “Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade” (p.115). Chacko reminds me of Yuri Zhivago of Doctor Zhivago (1965). Yuri, too, supports the communists and their movement in Russia during World War I, though he does not realize that if the revolution succeeds, it will have disastrous effects on his life. Chacko also naively supports communists from his ivory tower. Arguably, it is a Marxist (Velutha) who overthrows the balance of Chacko’s life. He loses his daughter after a chain of events that starts with Velutha and Ammu “breaking the Love Laws” (p. 311).
The children, by contrast, are transparent and logical in their belief systems. This is most clearly illustrated in the chapter when Sophie and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, arrive at the airport. Ammu repeatedly tells the adults to ignore Rahel, who she says wants attention, and gets mad at Estha for being shy (p. 139). However, these seem like perfectly reasonable reactions for children to have when meeting strangers for the first time. In Harvey Jackins’ theory of re-evaluation counseling, one would say this shows how little capacity parents (or any adult, really) sometimes have to think about children in healthy ways. The adults are so caught up in their own desires for how things should go, they forget that they are caring for very intelligent, observant young people.
As cruel as it may sound, the fact that Sophie Mol is the character who dies actually makes sense. Sophie Mol surprises Estha and Rahel because she is so not the perfect angel that all the adults make her out to be. She tells Chacko that she loved Joe more than she loves him (p. 180). She refuses all of Baby Kochamma’s advances (which pleases Estha and Rahel–she seems to be their least favorite relative) (p.180). She is also arguably the person who is most in the role of the observer, the “witness” so to speak. She watches the adults force the children to play roles in a ridiculous “Play” (p. 139). She watches Velutha display incomparable kindness to the twins, unlike any of the other adults (p. 181). Thus, when she dies, it is as though Roy is commenting on the nature of observers of injustice. The contradictions we need in order to believe that race, caste, and the hierarchies we enforce are not real exist right in front of us, if we just choose to examine them. Oftentimes, we choose to ignore them, and societal institutions are set up to get rid of the people who choose to look.
It is also interesting to compare the deaths of Sophie Mol and Velutha. A commentary seems to be made here, too. Sophie Mol is simply an observer of things she shouldn’t see, and thus goes quietly into the night, disappears, so to speak. Velutha is not only an observer, but is actively resisting hierarchy. He marches in the streets with the Marxists, he has learned skills that other Paravans have not, and he falls in love with Ammu. He is in turn actively stomped out by several police, society’s rule-enforcers and hierarchy upholders.
The only part about this book that I don’t digest completely (or perhaps I have truly become a curmudgeonly old person in my mid-twenties) is when Ammu and Velutha finally have sex. While it is described as the “fumble and rush of unfamiliar love” (p. 317), it’s very pristine. There is no awkwardness. I suppose one could argue that perhaps Velutha and Ammu are at an age where sex is no longer awkward, but I don’t believe that either. I think people who are unfamiliar with each other are always a little awkward, especially if they are dealing with each other physically. Human beings do not touch each other nearly enough in civilized society to understand their bodies well. Oddly enough, I think it is the description of how Velutha navigates that puzzles me the most. Perhaps this is my own prejudice coming through. It is not actually his class background that makes me think this–I am sure poor and working class men, especially men as gentle as Velutha, know exactly how to give women pleasure. It’s actually simply the fact that–at least as far as the novel is concerned–Velutha is a man. A straight man. And at least in my experience, men are clumsy. So self-hating and self-conscious that they couldn’t possibly be as deeply attentive as Velutha is to Ammu. That too, on their first night of sex. It was a bit of a stretch for me to believe.
Velutha is the most compassionate character, though. I think even I fell for him a little when he was playing with Estha, Rahel and Sophie when they dressed up in saris. Although they look like raccoons, Velutha treats them with the utmost respect, gives them coconut water, and talks about the weather (p. 181). As an adult, Rahel observes “It is after all so easy to shatter a story…To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do” (p. 181). It is both sad and beautiful that he was a much better parent to the twins than their own parents. It was a good thing he was in their lives. They had at least one kind, respectful adult looking after them. I think that is the real tragedy of the novel. That with Velutha, the twins had so little time.