The God of Small Things – H3a Reading Group Review, 2 November 2011

The God of Small Things
by  Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things is Arundhati Roy’s first, and to date, only novel.   It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and was all but buried beneath a tsunami of praise when it first appeared.  Amongst the reviews of this book, certain words keep coming round, words like ”lyrical”, “lush”, “witty”, “rich”, “affecting”,” intricate”,  “poetic”.  

In our reading group’s discussion of this book, these words were echoed and amplified:  “cinematic quality”, “prose bordering on poetry”, “wonderfully crafted” and, simply, “beautifully written” – all these phrases cropped up during our debate.

Both for those who had been to India and those that had not, the novel did a superb job of presenting that country and many were moved by the way the juxtaposition of the beauty and the squalor of life in the sub-continent was so effectively portrayed.

However, the group was not unanimous in giving unqualified praise to this novel.   As the discussion unfolded, it became apparent that the book probably has greater appeal for members of the group who, as one person put it, loved the kind of author who can spend three pages “being lyrical about a leaf”.   Others, whilst acknowledging that the book was very well crafted, felt a rising urge to say “Get on with it.   Get to the point!”.

A number of the group had heard the recent interview with Arundhati Roy conducted by James Naughtie for the BBC Bookclub and found that some of the author’s comments were helpful in getting to grips with the book.

One issue that came up in the interview and again in our group was whether what happened between the twins, Rahel and Esta, at the end of the book really was an act of incest.   The member of the BBC audience went so far as to suggest that Arundhati Roy had included this incident “by mistake”.   Interestingly, some of our group had hardly noticed the incident and those that had, really put very little store by it.   Arundhati Roy would not be drawn on the topic but merely said that, firstly, there was not a sentence in the book that was not intended to be there;  and secondly, that:

“Yes, in some conventional way, it could be looked upon as incest but …… it was a sharing of an unimaginable grief and an unimaginable sense of loss and isolation;  a trying to heal wounds that both had in such terrible ways”

One of the main themes of the book – a commentary on the caste system of India but also on the wider issue of human relationships generally – was what Arundhati Roy calls the “Love Laws”,”  laws that decide who should be loved, and how, and how much”.

She admits that this particular incident in the book might be shocking but, in defence, she adds:

“there is so much that IS shocking in the world, and some much terrible grief humans inflict on each other and on very vulnerable people”.

Some members of the group felt there were parallels to be drawn between the caste system in India and divisions in society in Turkey.   However it was generally acknowledged that, as in most countries, there is an element of class division in Turkey, there is certainly no India style caste system.

A number of people remarked on the clashes of family, class, politics and culture that repeatedly came up in the book:  clashes between Indian culture and the “anglo” aspect admired by many of the characters, made flesh with the arrival of Margaret and Sophie Mol;  clashes between generations, with Pappachi and Mammachi and their children, Chacko and Ammu, and Ammu and her twins; clashes between the various castes, clashes between communists and traditionalists.

Much of the book is spent, as someone aptly put it, “following Rahel around” and for some, one of the great strengths of the book was the way it portrayed the world as seen through the eyes of children.

It made us consider the effect that the world of adults has on children.   It evoked for some powerful memories of what it meant to be a child, helpless, a victim of the deeds, confusions, denials of adults.  Equally, it gave insights into the unfiltered, unsocialised thoughts of children, in their sometimes brutal, heartless, instinctual rawness.

One particularly poignant aspect of childhood is the inability of children to understand cause and effect , which in general – and particularly in this novel – can lead to children blaming themselves for things which they either did not do, or about which they should not be deemed guilty.

One member noted how the novel tapped into the “unsocialised” aspects of human beings, and the destructive forces that can be released when unfettered human instincts become active and override socialisation.   “If ever I read a godless book, this is it” she noted.

One of the challenges of this novel was its structure.

The book had a modern cinematic quality, jumping back and forth in time, now viewing the event from this person’s perspective, now from that person’s.   If ever the book were to be made into a film, neither the art director, nor the set and costume designers would be overly taxed.   It is all there, ready for them, in the book.

It is interesting to note that, in her interview, Arundhati Roy mentioned that she also wrote screen plays and trained as an architect so maybe this experience is an influence on her novel-writing style.   One member of the group likened her style to that of a film’s story board editor who portrays all the main scenes on cards and then juggles them into a format that best fits the telling of the story.

Quoting Arundhati Roy in the interview:

“I had no idea at the start what was going to happen or what I was doing.   I was a screen writer and I started with this image of twins in the sky-blue Plymouth, advertising Pickles on the roof, stuck at a level crossing.   I didn’t start at the beginning and end at the end.  It was written all over the place.   For months I was stuck at that level crossing, thinking ‘I am going to get old and still be stuck at this crossing’.   Then I realised what was going on, that there is one strand that actually takes place over a single 24 hours and another that goes over years.   So I sat and made a graphic, in the way I was trained as an architect, and then I realised ‘There, that’s what it is’”.

As one reviewer wrote:

“The details don’t fall into place until the end of the book but making our way there, we move through such a landscape of sensory imagery that we seem to have lived the tragedy long before we can understand it”. (Laura Shapiro Newsweek)

As we agreed about Catch 22, we are not normally troubled by time shifts in novels.   These days we are used to film plots which start at the end or in the middle, then stagger like drunks seeking their own front doors, off round the flower beds, until finally, like the key and the lock, the denouement and the start are reunited.

However, The God of Small Things is unusually challenging in this respect.

Arundhati Roy gives a clue about what to expect when she is writing about the Kathakalli performance which Rahel attends when she comes back to Ayemenem at the age of 31:

“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.   The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably….. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen……you know how they end but you listen as though you don’t”

The time shifts of this novel – now in two very specific weeks in December 1969, now a couple of days in June 1993 – constantly keep us on our toes.  Keeping up with these transitions is key to following  the novel as a whole.   As a member of the group observed, it is fascinating to note the clever ways the author signals these changes of time.   She seldom flags up directly a shift from one period to the other.   More often it is the subtlest picking up of a thread from a previous visit to that time period that gives us the clue.    This means, as one member perceptively commented, this novel cannot be rushed – it needs to be read carefully if one is not to be lead astray by missing a time shift.

On the surface of it, the plot of God of Small Things is pretty straightforward and a précis in chronological order is attempted below.   What made the book so absorbing for some members – and infuriating for others perhaps, is the interaction of the perspectives of the main characters, together with their back stories, and the way in which these bring about the tragic events at the heart of the story.   As we progress through the book we gather bits of information on the way, from a bit of someone’s history here, from a casual comment or hint there, as though we are putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

It is perhaps relevant to wonder what we learn from God of Small Things.   After all the setting in Kerala, the relationships between members of this Indian family in the 60s and the 90s, the Indian caste system, the nature of Indian politics at that time – nothing here within the real experience of the average Western reader.

But there are bigger issues here that touch all humans.   Perhaps the clue is in the title.   It is the Small Things which come together to make the Big Things seem almost inevitable. That could be applied to any life, anywhere.  In her interview she stresses that it is not the Small Things of themselves that make up the story, rather it is how the Small Things connect to the Big Things.

In the case of God of Small Things, maybe it is the small things that cause one big bad thing to happen:   Ammu running away from home, subsequently meeting, marrying, and leaving her alcoholic husband;  Margaret’s moving away from her claustrophobic home and meeting, marrying and divorcing Chacko;  the small outburst from Ammu that convinces the twins she no longer loves them;  the bitterness of Baby Kochamma born from unrequited love and her desperate moves to save the family’s face;   Estha’s singing which leads to him being abused and then planning to run away.   Any one of these things on its own perhaps would not have brought about the deaths of Sophie or Velutha.

One member noted that so many of the characters are seeking happiness and they all seem to conclude that the route to happiness is through loss or moving away from either a relationship or a place:  Both Margaret and Ammu leave failing marriages;  Rahel and Baby both leave India for America;  Chacko goes to Oxford;  Valutha leaves his village for several years;  Estha is forced to leave his home and his twin sister.   He suffers the loss of his voice, the voice that got him into trouble in the first place when he sang through the Sound of Music.

Is this what the book is about?    About determinism, fate, call it what you will?    Was it inevitable that violating the laws of love – “who can be loved by whom, how and how much” – would lead to these tragic consequences?

Book Summary/Plot Overview

(Credit to Schmoop Study Guides)

This time frame puts the events of the novel in chronological order as the characters experience them in their lives. This is not the order we read them in, since the book is a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards

Once upon a time, in a town in India called Ayemenem, there was an Imperial Entomologist named Shri Benaan John Ipe, who we will refer to henceforth as Pappachi (grandfather). One day Pappachi discovers what he thinks is a new breed of moth. It’s the biggest thing that has happened to him. He’s devastated to be told that all he found was an abnormal breed of an already-existing species. Later on, the powers that be decide they were wrong, but the new moth is named after a different scientist. Pappachi will resent this for the rest of his life.

Pappachi is married to Mammachi, an accomplished violinist, whom he beats. Pappachi and Mammachi have two children: a daughter named Ammu and a son named Chacko. Chacko goes on to study as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he marries a white woman named Margaret. They have a daughter named Sophie. While she’s pregnant, Margaret falls for a guy named Joe, whom she marries after divorcing Chacko. Chacko is heartbroken and moves back to Ayemenem.

Meanwhile, Ammu, seeking a little excitement in her life, moves out of her parents’ house to live with an out-of-town relative. She meets Baba and marries him. In 1962, they have twins: a boy named Esthappen Yako (Estha) and a girl named Rahel.

It turns out Baba is not only an alcoholic, he also tells lots of lies, big and small, for no apparent reason. One day Baba loses his job, but his English boss says he will work something out for him if Baba will let him sleep with Ammu. Baba runs this indecent proposal by Ammu () and beats her when she refuses. Ammu takes the kids and moves back to Ayemenem. So that’s it for our back-story.

A major chunk of the novel takes place in 1969, when the twins are 7 years old. Joe is killed in a car accident, and Chacko invites the grieving Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol to come to Ayemenem for the holidays. Chacko, Ammu, Baby Kochamma, Estha, and Rahel drive to Cochin to get them at the airport.

On the way, two big things happen. First, traffic stops almost entirely when a huge march of communists floods the streets. Rahel is really excited to see Velutha, who does the maintenance work at Paradise Pickles and Preserves, Mammachi’s factory. He’s waving a red flag. When she calls his name, he disappears into the crowd and things get tense in the car.

The second big event on the way to Cochin is that the family goes to see The Sound of Music, which is the twins’ favorite movie. Estha has to stand in the lobby because he can’t stop singing along. While he’s alone in the lobby, he is molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. This experience fills Estha with unending fear.

The family stays overnight at a hotel, and the next day they meet Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma at the airport. Rahel worries that Ammu will love Sophie Mol more than she loves her. When they get back to Ayemenem, everyone makes a fuss over Sophie Mol. Rahel feels like she’s playing a supporting role in a play in which Sophie Mol is the star. She runs off to talk to Velutha, telling him she saw him in the march. Velutha tells her a fib, saying the person she saw was his long-lost twin. Ammu sees them together and we start to realize that Ammu and Velutha are actually very fond of each other.

Meanwhile, Estha is completely terrified because the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knows where he lives and can come for him any day. He runs into the factory and thinks Two Thoughts while he stirs a pot of banana jam. These thoughts are: Anything can happen to Anyone, and It’s best to be prepared.

Estha thinks about getting a boat and rowing over to the History House, a deserted home that once belonged to an Englishman who “went native.” He figures the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man won’t be able to find him there. When Rahel finds him rowing the jam like a boat, Estha tells her about his plan. They end up finding a small rowboat and get Velutha to fix it up for them.

Not too long after this episode, Vellya Paapen, Velutha’s dad, comes to the door crying. He tells Mammachi and Baby Kochamma that Ammu and Velutha are lovers. This is a huge scandal, since the society is driven by class rules, and Ammu is much higher up. Velutha is what is known as an Untouchable, basically meaning that he’s the lowest of the low in Indian society. In their world, an affair like this is totally unheard of.

Baby Kochamma and Mammachi trick Ammu into going into her room and they lock her in. When Estha and Rahel come to the door and ask Ammu why she’s locked in her room, she screams that it’s their fault.

Estha and Rahel decide it’s time to get out of there. Sophie Mol convinces them that she should go, too, so that the grownups will be really sorry.   That night they get in the boat and start rowing across the river. They’re almost all the way across when a log collides with the boat and topples it over. Rahel and Estha swim to the other side, but when they call for Sophie Mol, she doesn’t respond. They realize that she’s drowned.

They end up falling asleep in the History House, not realizing that Velutha is asleep in the corner waiting for Ammu to meet him for their nightly rendezvous. In the meantime, Baby Kochamma and Mammachi have decided to try to get Velutha to leave town so the whole family can avoid the shame of being associated with him.

The problem is, before they can put their plan into action, Sophie Mol’s body is found. Time for Plan B. Baby Kochamma goes to the police, making up a bogus story about how Velutha tried to rape Ammu and kidnapped the kids.

In the meantime, the police come to the History House and savagely beat the living daylights out of Velutha. He survives the beating for the time being, and the police drag him away. Rahel and Estha see the entire incident. Later on, Inspector Thomas Mathew tells Baby Kochamma that she has no case – Rahel and Estha don’t seem to have been abducted, and it’s pretty clear that Baby Kochamma made everything up. Since she is in trouble,  Baby Kochamma freaks out and asks to be alone with the kids. She blames Rahel and Estha for Sophie Mol’s death and tells them that because of what they did, Ammu will be jailed and will most likely die – unless they rat out Velutha. She tells Estha that the inspector will ask him one question and that his response to it should be “yes.”

At Sophie Mol’s funeral, everyone ignores Rahel, Estha, and Ammu, who stand apart from the rest of the family.

After the funeral, Ammu goes to the police station to clear Velutha’s name. Inspector Thomas Mathew tells her it’s too late – Velutha is dead. Baby Kochamma is appalled  when she finds out that her story has been pulled apart yet again.

She decides to get Ammu out of Ayemenem. She finds that it’s not hard to exploit Chacko’s grief to set him against Ammu. Ammu has to go out on her own and fend for herself. Estha is returned to his father, Baba. Rahel stays with Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, who eventually send her off to school.

Rahel is kicked out of school a few times for misbehaviour. The last time she sees Ammu is when she’s 11 and Ammu is 31. Ammu looks awful and is suffering from a lung disorder, most likely tuberculosis. When Ammu dies, Rahel and Chacko go together to have her body incinerated. Rahel goes on to study architecture in Delhi and eventually moves to the United States. She marries a man named Larry McCaslin. He loves her but is troubled by how distant she seems when they make love. They eventually get divorced.

Rahel works random jobs in New York and Washington. When she is 31, she finds out that Estha has been “re-Returned” and goes back to Ayemenem. The Ayemenem House in 1993 is totally different than it was in 1969. Baby Kochamma has discovered satellite TV, and all she and Kochu Maria (the housekeeper) do is watch television while the rest of the house lies in a shambles.

Baby Kochamma tells Rahel that she doesn’t know what to do with Estha. Since the day he was Returned to Baba, Estha has given up speaking entirely. He goes on long walks around Ayemenem without telling anyone where he’s going.

Being back in Ayemenem brings back a flood of memories for Rahel. The twins go through old items like their Wisdom Exercise Notebooks and look at little trinkets that they collected as kids. Rahel and Estha spend a lot of time together.

They end up having sleeping together and holding each other for a long time afterward. The narrator acknowledges that, like Ammu and Velutha, Rahel and Estha have violated the Love Laws that “lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>