Comments on ‘The God of Small Things’
We do not have a Shakespeare in our midst A Shakespeare might have known how to create out of pure imagination. He might have known how to make his readers weep and laugh through the pages without himself doing so - a master craftsman, a detached creator almost like God! Well, we do not have any such one in our midst who could create sheer, unpolluted and impossible joy of an ‘As You Like It’ or thick, weighty, overwhelming pain of a ‘Hamlet’. What we have instead are some talented and some not so talented people prone to writing who live out their own life stories in the pages, sometimes mixing a mild dose of imagination just as an expert cook uses spices. But the backbone of the narrative remains the life of the author. The intensity in the words comes only when the author describes something s/he has gone through.
For Estha, a flying bird signifies ‘the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. The world with all its practical wisdom, cruel ways, prosaic thinking ruins the vulnerable, the delicate, the sensitive. This is exactly what happens with Estha. His eyes have been described as ‘hunted’.
There is a spate of such fiction these days. The difference comes only with the caliber of the writer. But there cannot be any doubt about the fact that this novel of the present wave is born out of narcissist compulsions of the author. Some succeed in enlarging the frame and bringing in some universality; others make it a morbid tale of self-love and self-justification. Arundhati uses the material from her life in a very unsettling, unique way. She subtly mixes the grotesque with the delicate and the worldly. She crosses limits. She sets her own rules.
The novel, ‘The God of Small Things’ is the biggest success story of recent Indian fiction simply because of Arundhati ability to shock in style, to describe sex without looking vulgar, to portray child abuse with compassion, to suggest sibling sex as an urgency, police atrocities as suggestive of a larger sickness, and to show our society as one big cell pool without stench.
The stuff is the same, just the same: inter-caste love and sex, child abuse, social ills etc. Her life is uncommon in its utmost commonness. But its presentation gives it the tinge of sublimity. Just as a seventy mm screen transforms ordinary acts into symbols and comments, Arundhati’s power of uncompromising portrayal alters ordinary into extraordinary. She creates her own language. Sentences need not necessarily be grammatically correct. Spellings are played upon. New words, new meanings, and new images are created.
The positioning of the author in the scheme of things is important to understand the novel. ‘The God of Small Things’ is a story of Estha, a boy and Rahel, a girl. They are twins. Arundhati is more or less Rahel. Estha is her wronged brother. He is wronged in various ways. Their mother Ammu is also wronged. Ammu, Estha and Rahel are on one side, the rest of the world on the other. It is a tale of self-love and self-defense. Whatever Rahel does is compassionately described. Whatever the world does to her is described with extreme hostility. Words transform everything. Words are so deceptive, really. Use words in one manner and the situation arouses sorrow, use words in another manner and the same situation arouses repulsion. But then, this is fiction, an art of using words. And we can hardly expect an author to write her own tale with someone else’s perspective.
Before going into analysis, our own loyalties as readers need to be fixed. Naturally we are with the author’s team. But I must warn that fixing loyalties as readers is a tricky business. Usually you sympathize with a character who looks and feels like you. But what to do with a novel where no one comes near you. To go for a reader’s necessary process of identification and catharsis, you have to imagine and then sympathize with a character and her group. But for this book, we as readers will exercise our right to go back on our loyalty sometimes and offer one or two terse comments on our side as well. This, to me, seems to be a suitable way of criticizing this book simply because I cannot commit myself completely to one side here. The activities, actions, reactions, problems and their solutions used and found by our side become too much for my sensibilities. This is where I say that Arundhati goes beyond limits.
Let us begin with Estha and Rahel’s relationship. It is true that they are a butchered lot. They suffer humiliation, abuse, unjust accusation, separation and what not. But to suggest sex between the siblings as a kind of urgent and only solution seems absurd and perverse to me. Arundhali is against love laws. Throughout the novel she satirically repeats the words, ‘... Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.’(l77) She tears apart traditions, caste consciousness, and any rule which even remotely dictates ‘who should be loved. And how. And how much.’ But what she finally suggests between brother and sister is in no way acceptable in the name of rebellion against love laws, ‘Estha, sitting very straight, waiting to be arrested, takes his finger to it (Rahel’s mouth)... His hand is held and kissed... Then she sat and put her arms around him. Drew him down beside her... There is very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next. Nothing that… would separate sex from love. Or needs from feelings… Only that there was a snuffing in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-coloured shoulder had a semicircle of teeth marks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.(327-328)
What Arundhati suggests here is not only disgusting but also against her own view. At more than one point in the novel, she criticizes inbreeding among Syrian Christians. She says that inbreeding in a community increases genetic disease as well as cases of insanity. ‘Chako said that the high incidence of insanity among Syrian Christians was the price they paid for inbreeding.’(223)
At one point she is against inbreeding and yet at another she suggests the worst form of possible inbreeding. A very simple answer that comes to my mind is what film critics used to say about Raj Kapoor’s films. He was always ahead of his times in portraying sex on screen. When other heroes only dared to look in the heroine’s eyes, he would kiss her. When others started kissing, he began striptease calculatingly unfolding the heroine in Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sunderam, then Prem Rog, and finally Ram Teri Ganga Maili. And he did it in style - fetish vulgarity. The same is true here.
Arundhati has words, wonderful words. She has tremendous style. In the novel also breaking of love laws proceeds step by step. In Ammu’s times no one dared to love a low caste man, so Ammu did that. In Rahel’s times, no one would bother if an America returned divorcee goes with a Paravan, or Dhobi, so she goes for her own twin brother. Certainly it startles and shocks the reader. I am told that Raj Kamal Jha’s novel, ‘The Blue Bedspread’ is all about sibling sex and incestuous relationships. But then he might be lacking in panache.
Amitabh Bachchan presented Kaun Banega Crorepati where the prize money could go up to a maximum of one crore. The show was an all-time record- breaking success. The TRP ratings soared up and up. Anupam Kher and Govinda also presented their respective shows, where the prize money could go up to ten crores or so and yet the shows were flops. So that is the power of chic and élan. That is how the market works, be it a tale serial, film, modish novel or any commercial product. That is how I view ‘The God of Small Things’.
The book is the single biggest hit of Indian fiction. I do not think that it will make a mark hundred years hence. But for the most powerful now, it has succeeded in raising a storm, turning our Arundhati into an international star. She knows how to use her celebrity status. It is a different matter altogether that awards, prizes, and sale statistics are no measure for a book’s real worth. Gandhi never got a Noble, and Premchand never a Booker. And Saddam Hussain would have got Noble Peace Prize, had he surrendered before the Americans prior to war.
But for the sake of this present thrill that the book has provided, let us talk about it. And there are some, if not many, literary reasons also for its success. I will try my best to keep my cynicism away that the book does generate in me.
Estha shows signs of withdrawal right from the beginning. As a boy he is sensitive. He is inclined to keep the hurts to himself. Quite significantly, he is called a ‘keeper of records’ at one place. He keeps a record of all insults and injustice that he receives. The whole description of Estha is centered on inwardness, ‘He retreated into further stillness. As though his body had the power to snatch its senses inwards (knotted, egg-shaped), away from the surface of his skin, into some deeper more inaccessible recess.’ (93) To match such an intensely introvert temperament, Estha faces extreme pain, insult, abuse, and injustice. He is held responsible for Sophie Mol’s accidental death by his cruel, spinster aunt Baby Kochamma. Needless to add that he is not responsible for the death. He is sexually abused by Lemon drink man at Abhilash Talkies. More than that the man instills fear in Estha lest he might not disclose the crime to anyone. As though this was not enough, he is separated from his mother and sister and sent to a drunkard father and a step mother at Kolkata.
Things could not have been worse for this unfortunate boy. Silence is his reaction, his revenge against this brutal world. It is as though the agony has over flown the danger level mark and there is nothing left to say. Verbal communication loses its meaning. Rahel cannot reach out to Estha except communicating through the body, the senses. That is how things have been portrayed in this novel. There is no let out, no vent, no room for Estha. The doors are shut. He is suffocated. After Abhilash Talkies experience, all that he could do was to vomit, ‘He vomited a clear, bitter, lemony, sparkling, tizzy liquid. The acrid aftertaste of a Little Man’s first encounter with fear.’ (119) It is fear that throttles Estha and finally chokes his voice. Arundhati, in a brilliant piece of analysis explains the tragedy, ‘You’re not the Sinners. You’re the Sinned Against. You were only children. You had no control. You are the victims, not the perpetrators.’(191) But there is no such help, no anger, no redress, no justice and no solution. Only, there is Estha who is quiet, who walks miles and miles, even in rain, getting drenched and who is obsessed with washing clothes. It is not clothes he is washing; he is trying to wash and clean his childhood. Childhood should be free, innocent and protected. But unfortunately there happened murky, ghastly things in his childhood, over which, he had no control. His responsive, communicative side is destroyed when he is separated from Ammu and Rahel, the two people in the world he loves and wants to live with.
Little Estha draws his own lessons, ‘(a) Anything can happen to Anyone. And (b) Its best to be prepared.’ (194) Perhaps he does not realize that there are certain things for which no amount of preparedness works. What follows is a very cruel and very touching description of Estha’s departure. He is panicky. He does not want to go. The pages bear the pain of parting of a small son from his mother. Then the three of them start daydreaming together, ‘Ill be a teacher. I’ll start a school. And you and Rahel will be in it. And we’ll be able to afford it because it will be ours! Estha said with his enduring pragmatism... We’ll have our own house, Ammu said. A little house, Rahel said. And our school we’ll have classrooms and blackboards, Estha said’. (325) With this sort of daydreaming, Estha parts. The school never happens. Ammu dies. Rahel goes to boarding schools, one after another. Estha loses his voice. He is silenced like death itself. His life goes waste. He is rightly compared to the wronged mythological hero, Karna. It is Estha’s words that Kathakali man is voicing, ‘Where were you... when I needed you most? Did you ever hold me in your arms? Did you feed me? Did you ever look for me? Did you wonder where I might be? Did you know how much I missed you?’(233)
The psychological dimension of Estha's case is only too glaring. Estha is sort of an enigma right from the beginning. His report card as a child says, ‘Does not participate in Group Activities.’ (11) The seeds of looming silence were always there. Silence can be unnoticeable as also very loud and obstructive, ‘Yet Estha’s silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy.’ (10) The whole tragedy can be summed up in the Darwinian law of survival of the fittest. For Estha, a flying bird signifies ‘the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. The world with all its practical wisdom, cruel ways, prosaic thinking ruins the vulnerable, the delicate, the sensitive. This is exactly what happens with Estha. His eyes have been described as ‘hunted’. Arundhati also points out the conditional love that Estha and Rahel receive from their mother. Ammu is a disciplinarian. If they behave according to the code, they get love; if they flout rules, they get less love. This type of mother terror weakens the twins internally, thereby making them less armed to face the world.
A kind of superhuman attachment has been suggested between Rahel and Estha throughout the novel. They may be two bodies but they have one soul. Communication need not be verbal between them. One knows instinctively what the other is feeling or going through. If one is standing at the door, the other knows even without any noise that the latch is to be undone. This feeling of oneness has been suggested and not concretely defined. This tells a lot about Arundhati’s narrative techniques. The language is full of short, suggestive and pert remarks. Here and there shock treatment is given to the reader. Describing Ammu’s huge pregnancy, she suddenly says, ‘That was before they (Rahel’s parents) were divorced and Ammu came back to live in Kerala.’(3) While enjoying the scenario of birth and life, this sad sentence like a bitter pill is administered on the reader. As one reads the novel, one has the feeling of a great, big mystery being unfolded. It is like a ticking bomb that is about to explode any time. And explode it does when Sophie Mol dies, when Ammu mates with Velutha, when Velutha dies of police torture, when Estha stops speaking, and when sex is suggested between the twins. The bomb of human tragedy keeps exploding in this story. The whole book has a fateful tragic air. The oft repeated sentences like, ‘It’s true. Things can change in a day.’ are like tolling bells indicating impending disaster. These repeated lines are a symbol of fate, of unchangeable human destiny. Repetition of certain selected sentence throughout the novel is one of the major techniques of Arundhati. It is an effective technique as well. When nothing else makes an impression, mere repetition does.
Sorrow is an integral part of this novel. The story begins with the death of nine years old Sophie Mol, a cousin of Estha and Rahel. Her tombstone read, ‘A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly.’ (7) It is at the funeral itself that the boundaries are drawn, ‘Though Ammu, Estha and Rahel were allowed to attend the funeral; they were made to stand separately, not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them.’ (5) Our group is held responsible for a crime they have not committed. They have no role, no deliberate role at least in the tragic death but guilt is pressed on the tender minds of the kids. As the novel proceeds the tragic air sticks. The talk of punishment to kids is so painful. Pain comes almost as a person in different attires throughout the novel. When Margaret, Chako’s ex-wife comes from England, Arundhati writes, ‘But around her the air was sad, somehow. And behind the smile in her eyes, the Grief was a fresh, shining blue.’ (143) The book does not let you soar. With every joy, the hint of sorrow is intricately packed.
Similes are one lovely asset of Arundhati. The similes are the soul of her now legendary narrative skills. The similes are so impressive that one wants to remember them and preserve them. They are unusual, shocking, and yet so exact. Usually an abstract idea is clarified for the reader with the help of a concrete comparison. But here, there is no such pattern. The insects are like ideas (9), eyes are like a boat in the river (19), church swells like a throat with voices (6), when marrying, Rahel is like a passenger drifting towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge (18), the abandoned garden is like a circus whose animals have forgotten their tricks (27), Rahel’s coming teeth are like words in a pen (37) and Ammu’s bridal dressing is like polishing firewood (44). The similes of this book, in fact, deserve a separate, full length paper. They are simply beautiful. They evoke a deep feeling, a very profound, sad sentiment. They drive the message home. They are definitely the best part of Arundhati’s linguistic arsenal. The cucumber becomes elderly, anything permanent is as permanent as a government job, eyes of an old lady are like butter spread behind specs, and television voices are noisy silence.
The prevailing conditions in India are another regularly hinted area of this novel. Nothing is articulated coherently yet much is conveyed. Right in the beginning, the role of police, and their attitudes are displayed when Inspector Thomas Matthew ‘stared at Ammu’s breasts as he spoke. He said the police knew all they needed to know and that the Kottayam Police didn’t take statements from Veshyas or their illegitimate children... ‘If I were you’, he said, ‘I’d go home quietly,’ Then he tapped her breast with his baton... Behind him a red and blue board said:
E fficiency (8)
Indian police is reduced to a cruel joke. Arundhati’s political agenda (for which she is so famous now) has its seeds in this novel. Passing comments like giving reservation to converted Christians or the harm done by pesticides purchased from World Bank loans hint at the political agenda of the author. The tragedy of India is that even after five decades of political freedom she has not been able to realize its potential in any field. ‘In the country that she (Rahel) came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.’(19) The author’s sarcasm is always there; ready to surface itself any moment at the slightest provocation. She says that ‘we live(d) in a society where a man’s death could be more profitable than his life had ever been.’ (281)
The bitter, comic taste comes when the people of Ayemenem receive Rahel and Estha back. The crudeness of perceptions is sharply brought out. ‘It occurred to Comrade Pillai that this generation was perhaps paying for its forefathers’ bourgeois decadence. One was mad. The other divorced. Probably barren.’ (130) The Indian concept of success is ‘a house, and a Bajaj scooter. A wife and an issue.’(134) ‘An issue’ means a child. This is how India is portrayed.
Rahel goes to America after marrying an American, Larry McCaslin. She gets divorced soon and returns. But a single word has not been dropped at or against McCaslin or American culture and way of life. As I hinted earlier, the narcissism of the author is only too obvious when she deals with Rahel. An uncommon beauty with speaking eyes when she is called a jazz tune, we know that Arundhati is talking about herself. Rahel is not held responsible for anything. Her decorating cow dung cakes with flowers in school or colliding with other girls to know whether breasts hurt- everything is described with narcissistic tenderness. The culmination of this self-love is reached when sex is suggested between Rahel and Estha without any tinge of guilt or regret as though it is the most natural thing to happen in the world!
Ammu’s tale again is a self-extension of Rahel’s narrative. She too is declared innocent in Arundhati’s court. That is how of course, a child would describe her mother. Ammu begins her innings with a blunder by marrying a drunkard and liar. Things reach a tragic climax when Mr. Hollick, the English plantation manager offers to help the family if the extremely attractive Ammu ‘be sent to his bungalow to be looked after.’(42) Ammu’s husband has no objection to the honourable proposal. It’s one of the most tragic things in this world when a husband agrees to send his wife to another man.
Ammu returns to Ayemenem with her so vulnerable, so tender, so innocent ‘frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in/arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her tout and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.’ (43)
Well, this lady, Ammu, has no time and no thought for herself. She knows that her chance at happiness is forever gone. Her abandoned sexuality, her emotional and physical needs emerge from her inner recesses at times. When she listens to soft, romantic songs on radio, something stirs within her. Her life is juxtaposed between two sad polarities - ‘The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber.’ This rage of a suicide bomber being her rejection of her sensual urges. When her longing for coziness gets unbearable, she walks wildly, swims at night, and wears flowers in her hair. She has been written off by the society. A divorced woman from an inter caste love marriage is dangerous indeed. She has nothing to lose. She becomes a woman with an unsafe edge.
Finally, in a futile attempt to fight her cruel fate, this gloomy, beautiful, young woman falls in love with a low caste Paravan, named Velutha. He is also a man loved by her children during the day time. In the nights, it is her turn. Velutha too is portrayed as no ordinary man. He is quite a man- skilled, educated, and thoughtful in his own way. Above it all, he is acutely aware of the injustice of the caste tag. The chemistry between Ammu and Velutha is simply exploding. He loves her. She is loved by him. Together they refuse to budge to the love laws of the society as to who should be loved and how and how much.
But then Velutha is just a man, no demigod. He has no magical power with which to fight society. He could do only one thing at a time. When he held Ammu with both hands had no other arm with which to fight the shadows that flickered around him on the floor.., in the shadows there were metal folding chairs arranged in a ring and on the chairs there were people, with slanting rhinestone sunglasses watching.’(215)
Velutha is killed by the police for flouting social laws, for being a Paravan, and still loving a Brahmin Syrian Christian. He is brutally, mercilessly, torturously killed by the police. The caring softness of his love is wasted, ‘Ridges of muscle on his stomach rose under his skin like divisions of a slab of chocolate. He held her close, by the light of an oil lamp, and he shone as though he had been polished with a high-wax body polish. He could do only one thing at a lime. If he held her, he couldn’t kiss her. If he kissed her, he couldn’t see her. If he saw her, he couldn’t feel her.’ (215)
Velutha is the god of small things. This book is a rejection of all things that are big, great, dignified, correct, or perfect. It is imperfection that is portrayed here. Human weakness is celebrated with a bang. India with all her caste/class dividing consciousness has been targeted. With Velutha’s death, the question of unethical treatment of lower castes is forcefully raised. Taboos are broken. If they are broken a little too far with Estha and Rahel, we can only say that much is to be forgiven to those who write well. I do not weigh Arundhati by any prize or ‘copies sold’ statistics. I can give her just one title, ‘An Excellent Word Weaver’.
Roy, Arundhati. 1997. ‘The God of Small Things’. New Delhi: Penguin Books (2002).