India

The God of Small Things: A Review

41iffjvqdQL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_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.

 

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Rant on “IndoWestern” Fashion

I usually don’t like categorizing things as a rant. However, today’s post is going to be exactly that: a rant.

There is this horrible disease going around, mostly among Indians, but also sometimes among hippie-bohemian people of the white variety who like to appropriate things. It is called “IndoWestern” fashion.

I don’t know which idiot thought these two things could be combined to still look beautiful. I think Indian fashion on its own has an elegance that is rarely paralleled. Western fashion can be cryptic, but it also has its perks as it is usually more utilitarian. But why, WHY would you put these two things together??

Examples of how bad Indowestern fashion sucks: fusion outfits. First off, I feel like fusion has always been the bottom of the barrel in terms of Indian dance teams, though perhaps that’s not their fault. Bhangra, garba, and raas teams showcase dances and outfits that are specific to a region and are usually narrowly defined. Fusion, on the other hand, can be everything and anything–usually confined to Hindi pop (though I’d love to see teams challenge that norm).

The first mistake they usually make is to take 8 songs and turn them into one mix like it’s cute (hint: it’s not. Stick to like 2 songs per mix, okay, y’all?). Also, instead of trying to find folks who have the potential for leadership and organization, fusion teams usually just attract people who are already friends of people on the team, leading to a clusterfuck that loosely resembles a sorority (except sororities actually have a point sometimes). I will spare these folks the embarrassment of being sourced.

fusionoutfitno

Scarves tied around butts are always so attractive.

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This one is called the Victoria’s Secret-wannabe-sportswear look.

fusionoutfitno3

Can’t be an Indian fusion team unless you’re wearing over-the-top, fluffy pink pants, a belly dancing belt, and a top that doesn’t cover your midriff.

(The exception to this rule is Gator Adaa from the years of 2011-2013. That team had everything: leadership, organization, and class. Shoutout to you women. Y’all were fierce.)

adaa height

Source: Gator Adaa: Fusion Dance Team Facebook Page

To be self-critical, I understand that on first glance, it might seem like I’m slut-shaming. Look, maybe I am, but here’s the thing, right? I’ve seen classy hoes, okay? Remember Rani Mukherjee in Saawariya (2007)?

rani saawariya

Source: India-forums.com

I’d love to see a fusion team showcase a look that is about having fun as a woman in whatever role she is performing, not the “WE HAVE TO LOOK BROWN AND EXOTIC BECAUSE WE ARE DANCERS” look. Other examples of truly heinous Indowestern things:

truly heinous

Source: utsavfashion.com, Clockwise from top left: a green that even your visually impaired grandmother would not wear, royal blue mummu with pink trim for when you want to look like a fish??, a thing trying to be both a dress and a top, WHY WOULD YOU PUT LIME GREEN AND CORAL TOGETHER IN THE SAME OUTFIT THEY ARE SO BEAUTIFUL SEPARATELY, what is this cut, what is this print.

no2

Source: utsavfashion.com, Clockwise from top left: Dafuq is this print, actually kinda cute but I could get from Forever21 for 6 bucks, assflap?, what is THIS print?, for the 7-year-old in you, mushroom-high-psychedelic print.

Right. So what did we learn today, y’all? Indowestern “fashion” is NOT FASHION. Brown women, I suppose you are the ultimate arbiter of what you put on your body. But I do feel like the amount of grace I find (at least in ready-to-wear shit) in the mixing of these styles is little and far between.

indian1

YES! Source: utsavfashion.com. 

indian2

YES! Source: utsavfashion.com

western 1

YES! Source: Target.com

western 2

YES! Source: pinterest search “pants”

noindowesternnoindowesternnoindowestern

Remember Me

IMG456I just finished reading On a Wing and a Prayer, by Arun Sarma. It’s a tragic story, but fascinating because it’s about Assamese people like me. I had never read a piece of fiction about Assamese people before I came across this book. Obviously, there is other literature about Assamese people, and the literature has existed for a long time, but for some reason it took 22 years for me to find. The work is translated from Assamese into English, which makes it even more fascinating. The English text still has the residue of Assamese speech. I can hear the quaint interjections and greetings being said in the language they came from. I can picture the green hills, the village life, and the river that I have seen myself when I read this book. I never thought I would read about that place in an English text. I didn’t know it could exist in English prose.

I have recently learned a lot about the region of the world where my parents are from. It turns out people from northeast India, or the Northeast, are treated in India much like minority populations are treated in the United States. Their level of education is often questioned. They are taunted about their accents, their slanted eyes, and their way of life. They are often denied access to public spaces, or their citizenship is questioned. In essence, they are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. (Sound familiar?)

I didn’t know this until just this past year. Suddenly, many of the encounters I had with other Indian Americans as a child make more sense now. I grew up in the United States, where Indians are often lumped together as a group. Americans are hardly sensitive to the level of discrimination and in-group/out-group dynamics that occur within minority populations. I assumed, before ever having any Indian friends, that I would be fully accepted as Indian if I were to ever to find any because that’s what I assumed I was.

It became very clear to me, upon meeting other Indians (at the age of 5, nonetheless), that I was not like them, at least they didn’t think so. Most Indians I came across didn’t know that Assam is a state in India, let alone being familiar with where it is. They often questioned the authenticity of my “Indianness”, commenting on how I “look more Hispanic”, my eyes are “so Asian”, my features “are not Indian at all”. They thought that because I didn’t speak Hindi (which I can now), or one of the languages they’d heard of, like Gujurati or Marathi, I was not Indian. The people who did know what and where Assam is tended to exotify me even more than the non-believers. They said the sorts of things you’d expect white men at a bar to say to me: “Oh, that’s so diverse!” or my personal favorite, “Wow, you’re so exotic.” To no surprise, I never felt I belonged to the very people who were supposed to claim me as their own.

I ought to explain, it is no mistake that I look more Southeast Asian than South Asian. The region of Assam is a mix of several cultures of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Assam is located in the Brahmaputra valley, on the border between India and China. A number of tribes populate the region, and several different languages are spoken. The culture of the area often more closely resembles those of Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries than that of the rest of north India (Hazarika, 1994). Some of the languages spoken in the Northeast belong in the Mon-Khmer language family, an Austro-Asiatic language family, though it should be noted that Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language (the easternmost Indo-Aryan language, according to the 2001 Indian Census).

Growing up, I never once felt inferior for being Assamese. My mother taught me the significance of my culture since the day I was born. She made sure I learned to speak Assamese. She taught me about Assamese homes, how they worship, what they eat, and what they wear. She taught me their music, she told me their stories. I spend a lot of my time being angry with her. I always wondered why my parents moved our little branch (more like, twig) of the family over here to the United States, and why I had to watch everything over there from afar. I always wondered why my mother never knew what I wanted, why she never understood when I had a problem, and never yielded when I wanted my way.

I have never thanked her for what she gave me. She taught me where I am from and instilled a sense of pride in who I am. She has given me enough knowledge for me to be a vessel for my culture, to be able to transmit it to another generation if I choose to do so. She has filled me with a love for that place that claims me as its own. She gave me somewhere to belong on this lonely planet.

For those of you who know who I am, I have never admitted how important being Assamese is to me. I would go so far as to say I consider my Assamese identity more salient than my Indian one. People have always acted like it doesn’t matter. They have told me it is such a trifling difference, such a confusing distinction, can’t I just be happy being Indian? I always went along with the suggestion because I did not have the tools to explain why it matters, and even if I did, it would be too exhausting to explain. I will not let that be the case any more. In a perfect world, it would not matter. Being Indian would encompass being Assamese. But knowing what I know now, knowing that this small place that claims me already does not have a voice, and has even less of one if I never do anything about it, is not fair. It is more than unfair, it is unjust. At the University of Florida, where there are 50,000 students, there were 5 Assamese people when I was a freshman. That’s 1 for every 10,000 students. By now, two have graduated. That means there is 1 for every 16,667. After I graduate, there will be 2. That is 1 for every 25,000 students. That is staggering. We are exceptionally rare.

And fine, I will concede that resources would be difficult to provide. Frankly, in my experience as part of the Assamese diaspora in Florida, we can usually provide our tiny community enough support without any external aid. That does not excuse your ignorance of us. That does not excuse your exclusion of us. That does not excuse your persecution of us.

I only ask that you remember me. Remember where I am from. Remember what I have said here. You will search a long, long time before you meet another person like me.