The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
Random House, 321 pp., $23.00
The central character of The God of Small Things (she is just called “Ammu”—Mother—because the story is even more about her twin children) is a South Indian woman who has few advantages in her background but who refuses to be docile: “Must we behave like some damn godforsaken tribe that’s just been discovered?” she snaps when her English sister-in-law enthuses about quaint, exotic Kerala. And it is hard for Western readers not to respond as much to the rich and (to us) exotic setting of Arun-dhati Roy’s powerful first novel as to its tragic story. Banana flowers, vine-covered trees, jackfruit, wild pepper; cormorants, purple herons, giant spiders, a drenched mongoose; a blind old lady in a starched sari, ruby rings, and 1950s sunglasses with rhinestones at the corners; a hut smelling of woodsmoke and fish curry, on the wall a picture of Jesus with lipstick and a bleeding heart; bedizened Kathakali dancers playing out the death of Dushasana till dawn by the light of an oil lamp. We have learned something about India from the other brilliant Indian novelists now writing, but more about the North than about tropical, Marxist Kerala, some twelve hundred miles south of Delhi.
But Roy—and everyone will have heard by now that she is beautiful, bohemian, wrote in secret for four years a book that has been fought over by publishers, and is therefore not un-exotic herself—Roy has insisted that she is not marketing fairyland: “To me, this is exotic,” she said to interviewers in London. What she describes here is a landscape and a society that she grew up in and that she knows in every small detail; she herself may be the goddess of small things. Nor, she has insisted, is the book meant as an exposé of Communist rule in a South Indian state, or the harshness of the rural family code for women. The story is not just about “some godforsaken tribe” but about love and cruelty, time and disintegration. It is frightening, beautiful, unrelenting.
The Kochamma family are educated, anglicized Keralans, by religion Syrian Christian, living in the ancestral house by the village of Ayemenem. Grandfather to the twins Rahel and Estha was a government entomologist, who doggedly beat his wife with a brass vase. She, Mammachi, scars from the beatings still on her scalp, plays Handel’s Water Music on the violin and runs an efficient pickle factory. Her sister is Baby Kochamma (Indian nicknames and family connections make the reader stumble at first), a gross and malevolent old woman who has turned Catholic because of a thwarted love for a priest. Mammachi’s son, Chacko, who also lives with them, was a Rhodes Scholar, rowed for Balliol, married an English woman who left him for a more conventional mate, and is now a half-hearted Communist and a lapsed pickle-maker. Ammu is his sister, and mother of the boy and girl twins. On two counts she is something of a scandal: she both …