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 married a Hindu and divorced him for alcoholism. She is a little wild, not quite predictable, and once upon a time wore backless blouses with her saris and carried a silver lamé purse on a chain. In certain moods she will go for a midnight swim, or smoke a cigarette. But she knows there is nothing ahead of her but the family house and the village: “A hot river and a pickle factory.”
And her twins. To her Rahel and Estha seem “like a pair of small bewildered 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”—and will do, by the time the story ends.
Estha (the boy) is eighteen minutes older than Rahel (the girl), but they share a Siamese-twin soul. When Estha has a dream, Rahel dreams it too; when something is done to Estha by the Lemondrink salesman, she knows about it, though she wasn’t there. Estha wears pointed shoes and sings Elvis (“Moonin’ an’ a groonin’ gonna satisfy mah soul”); Rahel likes to practice Sydney Carton in front of the mirror (“It is a far, far better thing…”); both, with Ammu, chant Kipling together (“We be of one blood, Thou and I”). They can write backward as well as forward. Estha knows how to make banana jam, in the pickle factory; pectin he thinks of as one of three brothers, Pectin, Hectin, and Abednego, busy hammering an ark like sons of Noah. Has their father, the twins wonder, perhaps lost their address? They know they are outsiders, being both half-Hindu and children of a divorce. They are seven.
Seven, that is, when the crux of the story takes place in 1967. Its terrible aftermath takes the narrative forward until they are in their thirties, meeting again after a long, deadly separation. Roy’s use of flashback is subtle, constantly comparing these seven-year-olds against what they are to become, what time brings about; it demands close attention of the reader. They are to be made into “a pair of actors trapped in a recondite play with no hint of plot or narrative. Stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else’s sorrow. Grieving someone else’s grief.” And there is no one to say: “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.” The fact that, through misunderstanding, indifference, and cruelty, they are all moving toward tragedy is hammered in by Roy’s phrases, like a Greek chorus or a tolling bell: “Things can change in a day.” After that day,
While other children of their age learned other things, Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws. They heard its sickening thud. They smelled its smell and never forgot it.
Like old roses on a breeze.
It would lurk forever in ordinary things. In coat hangers. Tomatoes. In the tar on roads. In certain colors. In the plates at a restaurant. In the absence of words. And the emptiness in eyes.
The actual events of a day, and what led up to them and followed after them, must not be revealed in detail here, to spoil Roy’s subtle, inch-by-inch revelations. They concern the breach of what she calls the Love Laws (who is permitted to love whom, and when, and for how long), the power of institutionalized cruelty (in this case India’s caste laws), and the indifference of the natural world, in the shape of the river that runs through the story and the woods of Ayemenem, gray-green and powerful, reflecting a yellow southern moon. There are fish in the river, called pallathi, paral, koori, karimeen, and the reader is played like a fish by Roy, and finally made to gasp with pain. The changed river that Rahel finds when she goes back to her homeland twenty-three years after the day that changed things is a picture of the desiccation of what was once her family:
It greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed.
A dam has reduced it to a trickle choked with weed and plastic bags, carrying excrement and scum and gasoline down to the sea. Kari Saipu’s house, deserted home of a suicide and the “History House” where Ammu’s Untouchable lover was clubbed to death by a policeman, has been converted into a Heritage Hotel, where bearers in ethnic uniforms serve the tourists drinks. Some of its contents still remain, labeled “Traditional Kerala Umbrella” and “Traditional Bridal Dowry-box.”
There is a third child in the story besides the twins: visiting from England is their cousin Sophie Mol, daughter of Chacko and his English ex-wife. The book opens with the funeral of the drowned eight-year-old Sophie. The river, in those days before it was drained of its power, has crumpled her skin, and fishes have eaten away her eyes.
Roy is superlatively good at recreating the world of children, not just their reactions to such horrors but their ordinary life of play and invention, fear and hope—sometimes ruthlessness too. Rahel is a little jealous of pretty Sophie with her pale skin. She finds a column of ants:
They were on their way to church. All dressed in red. They had to be killed before they got there. Squished and squashed with a stone. You can’t have smelly ants in church.
The ants made a faint crunchy sound as life left them. Like an elf eating toast, or a crisp biscuit.
“Let’s leave one alive so that it can be lonely,” Sophie Mol suggests. But they all get squished and squashed. And an Antly Bishop must be waiting in an empty Antly Church (someone is fantasizing) until he shakes his head sadly, looks at the Antly stained-glass windows, and goes home to his wife for an Antly Afternoon Gnap.
Another time the three children dress up in saris as Mrs. Pillai, Mrs. Eapen, and Mrs. Rajagopalan and go to visit Velutha, the beautiful Communist Untouchable. He treats the three ladies with the greatest courtesy—for “it is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain.” Both twins have fears about shattering, which in the end add to the piling up of tragedy, the time when the Untouchable is touched: Rahel a fear that her mother will never love her quite enough, Estha that the soft-drink merchant who has molested him will find him again. Shatterers are always people who have obliterated all connection with childhood: “Men without curiosity. Without doubt. Both in their own way truly, terrifyingly adult. They looked out at the world and never wondered how it worked, because they knew. They worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine.”
As she shifts in and out of the time changes her story requires, Roy stretches the English language in all directions: Rahel’s grown-up teeth wait in her gums “like words in a pencil”; a man clasps his armpits possessively, “as though someone had asked to borrow them and he had just refused”; monsoon rains “bomb still, tea-coloured puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-coloured minds.” In the years after the tragedy Estha falls into silence:
It reached out of his head and enfolded him in its swampy arms. It rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal heartbeat. It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue…. Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it.
That God of Small Things, we think, must be overseer of the bright details Roy nevertheless finds everywhere: sky and bird reflected in the purple balls of a dying dog, bubbles of stolen soap in a crow’s beak, shapes that form in the froth of banana jam as Estha stirs it. But perhaps she intends something bleaker. When she is adult, Rahel cannot explain that in her country the Big God howls like a hot wind and punishes, so the Small God has to be a god of indifference: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it 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.”
The worse things are imposed by place, and by time. Post-colonial, Marxist South India, Chacko explains to his niece and nephew, has displaced them from history. They can’t get in,
because we’ve been locked out. And when we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we cannot understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war…. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.
So their “house of history” now contains tourists, bearers in ethnic costume serving caramel custard, and the objects with labels like “Traditional Bridal Dowry-box.”
That time can be the other destroyer—eroder of innocence, of family happiness, of a country’s integrity—is the theme that runs most insistently through the book. We see that gradually it destroys Estha, and destroys the place he comes from. For Roy, time is brutality, like the boots that trampled over a child’s plastic watch hidden in the forest undergrowth. When Rahel finds it years later, its hands still point to ten minutes to two.
Time as destroyer is symbolized in the old blue Plymouth car that rots away after the family is dispersed, a creeper growing round the driver’s mirror and a dead sparrow on the back seat; the grandfather’s study, where moths have powdered into dust in their display cases, and live ants march across the windowsill. While the ants march and the creeper grows round the mirror, there has been a terrible stoppage of young lives. But the stoppage, “like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the signed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.”
August 14, 1997