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The God of Small Things

October 2, 2010
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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
published by Harper Perennial, May 6, 1998

Set in the state of Kerala, on the southern tip of India, The God of Small Things begins with 31-year-old Rahel’s return to her childhood home in Ayemenem. She is here because her twin brother, Estha, has returned. They shared an uncannily intimate bond in early childhood. Rahel remembers waking up giggling over Estha’s funny dream. But they were forcibly separated 23 years ago, and they haven’t seen each other in years. Silenced by horrific childhood events, Estha rarely speaks.

Estha had always been a quiet child, so no one could pinpoint with any degree of accuracy exactly when (the year, if not the month or day) he had stopped talking. Stopped talking altogether, that is. The fact is that there wasn’t an “exactly when.” It had been a gradual winding down and closing shop. A barely noticeable quietening. As though he had simply run out of conversation and had nothing left to say. Yet Estha’s silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy. It wasn’t an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha’s case the dry season looked as though it would last forever. (p. 12)

Rahel is also deeply marked by the tragedies  that fractured her family and, in many ways, shaped her society.The man to whom she was briefly married didn’t understand her pervasive expression of “something between indifference and despair.”

He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind and demanded obeisance. The Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity … Nothing much mattered … It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the  terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.

Rahel’s childhood home is quiet now — the only people left are Baby Kochamma, who is her great-aunt, and Kochu Maria, the vinegar-hearted midget cook. The novel shifts back and forth in time, stepping back to the summer of 1969 when tragic events, and the cruelty of certain family members, shattered their lives. Much of the story is told in disconnected fragments, giving us a sense of things one can’t bear to speak of. Some of these events are revealed early, and others are so heavily foreshadowed it is no surprise when they happen. This lends a heavy sense of foreboding and hopelessness to the story.

In 1969, we meet the twins’ divorced mother, Ammu; Baba, their alcoholic father, is in the background. Their grandmother, Mammachi, lived through a violent marriage and has a disturbingly intense attachment to her son Chacko. We meet Uncle Chacko, the “Man of the House,” who is intellectually gifted but ineffectual in helping run Mammachi’s business. Chacko is a scholarly Marxist who aggressively seeks the sexual favors of women who work for the family company; he apparently sees no contradiction between his “Marxist mind and his feudal libido.” We also meet Chacko’s beloved former wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Sophie Mol.

This novel spirals, moving back and forth in time, shifting among the perspectives of various characters, and taking us deeper and deeper into the story. This has a mesmerizing effect.

The author also blends lush, lyrical writing with language and imagery that is deliberately crude, disturbing or disgusting. On one hand the language is generously poetic, and we see images of lush green landscapes. On the other hand, we’re bombarded with odors and images of disintegration, filth and decay. This creates a vivid, disturbing world that draws readers in and immerses us in tragedy, injustice, and the deterioration of a family.

The God of Small Things explores a tremendous number of issues, including the cruelty and injustice of the Indian caste system, poverty, repression of women, and the persistent effects of British colonial rule. The ubiquitous effects of colonialism are represented by a once grand, decaying house, across the river from Rahel’s family home, which was once occupied by an Englishman who’d “gone native,” speaking Malayalam and wearing mundus. Tellingly, he is compared to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

This novel delves into various forms of communism, as well as the social injustices that nurture both Marxist philosophy and militant communism. It also explores various social groups, including Paravans, Pelayas, and Pulayes (members of the untouchable caste) and Syrian Christians. And it looks at the complicated role of Christianity in India. The multiple layers of this novel go incredibly deep.

Although I thought this book was well crafted, with beautiful language, and I found it compelling, I didn’t love it as much as I expected to. I had a sense that The God of Small Things is steeped in a many layers of Indian culture and folklore. There are many references to folktales with which I’m unfamiliar. For example, we hear about Karna the Warrior and Dushasana. These tales reflect many of the novel’s themes, including revenge, grief, and rage. All of this was mingled with allusions to Western pop culture, like “Elvis the Pelvis.” 🙂 I felt that if I’d understood the cultural context of the novel more fully, I would have loved it more.

Nevertheless it’s a beautiful book, and at the heart, when you peel away all the layers, it’s a love story, albeit a tragic one.

She kissed his closed eyes and stood up. Velutha with his back against the mangosteen tree watched her walk away.

She had a dry rose in her hair.

She turned to say it once again: “Naaley.”


Read More Reviews: Fyrefly’s Book Blog; The Little Reader; Boston Bibliophile; Bending Bookshelf; Caribou’s Mom; Things Mean a Lot; Reading Reflections; Tony’s Reading List

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 8:31 pm

    I agree, it’s mesmerizing! Thanks for stopping by my blog & linking to my review- I appreciate it, and I love your blog!

  2. October 3, 2010 8:40 pm

    Did you cry? I read this book for a book club, and of the 8 ladies who read it, I was the only one who wept. They even seemed baffled by my emotional reaction to it.

    • October 3, 2010 9:12 pm

      I didn’t cry, but I can definitely understand your reaction. It’s awful seeing children suffer.

    • October 15, 2010 11:19 pm

      Charley–I cried and cried. I think I’m the only one in my book club who had this reaction, too!

  3. October 3, 2010 10:00 pm

    I’ve seen this book around for awhile now but I have yet to pick it up. Sounds like it is packed with all sorts of themes and allusions but your review makes it sound like just the type of complexity I am drawn to – it’s on my list now!

  4. October 9, 2010 1:25 am

    It’s funny that I never knew this book was set in Kerala, because I’m from Kerala. I always thought this book was set in another Indian state called West Bengal. Now I want to read it more than ever! I’m so glad I came across your review!

    • October 9, 2010 1:29 am

      Oh and Ammu is my nickname, courtesy my parents. 🙂 I know it’s not a big deal, but it’s the first time I’m seeing my name (even though a nickname) in a book. 😀 Ok, now let me go cover my face in embarrassment, lol.

  5. October 15, 2010 11:21 pm

    You describe this book so well–the juxtaposition between the beautiful and the grotesque, the achingly beautiful prose. Some of the nuances were lost on me as well (and maybe I didn’t even notice I didn’t understand?), but I loved loved loved this book. It’s so rare that I’m so deeply affected by a book but this one did the trick. I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I can understand feeling like you could have gotten more out of it.

    • October 15, 2010 11:24 pm

      Thanks for the wonderful comment. I’m glad reading this book was such a profound experience for you. I love it when I connect with a novel that way.

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