Sunday, 1 January 2012

The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things is a rich sprawling family saga focussing on the effect of the 'love laws' on one family. It gives an insight into life and politics in Kerala and is filled with rich, vivid descriptions and verbal inventiveness.

Rahel and Estha are twins, Rahel female and Estha male. They are not identical ("two egg twins") and have the usual complement of fingers and toes but, we are told, they have only one soul between them.  "Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream."

Rahel is the central consciousness in the novel and it begins with her return to Ayemenem, the village she was raised in. The house is owned by her aunt, Baby Kochamma but it is her brother Estha she has come to see. They were separated in the aftermath of the funeral of their cousin Sophie Mol. Rahel remembers the funeral, with her own impressions of a still living Sophie in the coffin. "Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth." Estha doesn't talk anymore and hasn't done so for years. Will Rahel penetrate his silence? She has brought sounds back into his internal life. "The world, locked out for years, suddenly flooded in, and now Estha couldn't hear himself for the noise."

The book circles around the funeral, gradually revealing the full story behind Sophie's death and the twins separation. Rahel's eyes are described as "drownable in" and at times the book reflects these eyes. Images and details wash over you and the language moves from Joycean word conjunctions (softsounds; dullthudding; sourmetal) to childlike singsong and nicknames to idiomatic dialogue to poetic and often startling passages. At times it feels like a fireworks display, sometimes set off for effect rather than necessity. But many times it hits home, opening a door to the world of the book with lyrical intensity.

Sophie's father is Chacko. At times he reminds me at times of Leopold Bloom, though less admirable. At the airport, waiting for his (ex) wife and daughter, Chacko is
"...carrying somethingTwo roses red.
Scarred by the loss of his child. Still in love with his (ex) wife. Sexually fantasizing about working women. Just hints that he might have some basis in Joyce's character but not similar at all really. (You might as well ignore the last paragraph then.)

But still Joyce is certainly a presence. The childlike language is reminiscent of the beginning of Portrait of an Artist. Like Ulysses, The God of Small Things has it's basis in myth but the myths are Indian. This is pointed out when these myths form part of the story when Rahel and Estha see them performed. The parallels are made clear. The subject matter of The God of Small Things is certainly the stuff of myth, family, feuds, inheritance, contested affairs, exile and return, twins...) "It didn't matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again."

After the funeral the twins mother Ammu tries to tell the true story of what happened to the police but they don't want to know - "'If I were you,' he said 'I'd go home quietly.'" We know that someone is broken. Before the funeral "Esthappen and Rahel had learned that the world had other ways of breaking men. They were already familiar with the smell. Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze." People can be broken when they don't fit in with what they are supposed to be. Roy is clearly arguing that we need to change the world so that more people can fit in.

The book is also reminiscent of Rebecca in the way that the end is foreshadowed at the beginning and the rich, evocative descriptions of the natural world that act to heighten the emotional impact of places and events.

There is also the caste system; miniature gifts carved from wood; pickles; politics; communism; paedophiles;  illegal banana jam; boating; elephants; lovers; domestic violence;  and the smallest, and greatest promise of all - "Tomorrow*."  

* This is the last word of the book, a lover's promise, repeated again and again, like Molly Blooms "yes" in Ulysses.


  1. Great Post-there is a lot of interesting material relating to the caste system in India. The author has been a strong advocate for the segments of he population left behind by the commercial advances of India-some of her essays are really brilliant-I enjoyed reliving the book via your insightful post.

    1. Thanks Mel. I must try to read some of her essays. I am also hoping to contribute a few posts to your Irish Short Story Week. I have a lot of short stories but, like essays, I don't read them as much as I enjoy them.