Arundhati Roy’s acclaimed first novel The God of Small Things, written over 1992 to 1996, was a huge critical and popular hit, and won the Booker Prize in 1997. Since that time she has written extensively on political and social issues; I think she was most recently in the news expressing support for the Occupy movement. But she hasn’t yet written a second novel, although she has been rumored to be working on one for several years. I have only just recently read The God of Small Things, and it’s easy to see why it garnered the praise that it did.
While there are frequent allusions to India’s post-colonial politics and attitudes, distinctions of caste and class, gender roles, and such issues in Roy’s work, they are examined within the context of one particular family’s story. Twins Rahel and Esthappen (or Estha) are brought up separately after their parents’ divorce. Estha had over the years stopped talking and spent long stretches wandering about before returning, age thirty, to the family home in Ayemenem. Rahel lived a somewhat solitary life before she “drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge” with an American. But she soon divorced and worked odd jobs until she also returned to her birthplace on Estha’s return. The two had always had a psychological link, sharing experiences and impressions in an empathetic way. But they also shared the memory of a tragedy that engulfed their entire family – the death of Rahel’s and Estha’s cousin Sophie Mol during a Christmas visit with her mother Margaret.
That visit was a major event: “And the Air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” Those Small Things can, as the book makes clear, have a momentous effect on one’s life. The God of Small Things is several times identified with Rahel’s close friend Velutha, who worked at Rahel’s and Estha’s father’s factory even though he is an Untouchable (and Marxist activist during a period in which Marxism is attracting an increasing number of followers in India). Time is very fluid in this novel, as we move back and forth through Rahel’s and Estha’s lives and witness the causes and results of the disintegration of their family. Very gradually, we learn of a pivotal event involving Rahel, Estha, their mother Ammu, Sophie Mol, and Velutha. Ammu has apparently had several surreptitious romantic meetings with Velutha across the river that runs through the city. Estha, Rahel and Sophie Mol use the same small boat Ammu has used to cross the river themselves, but tragedy ensues – the tragedy, Sophie Mol’s death, that separates Rahel and Estha for some twenty-three years. To say much more would be to ruin the effect of the novel as the story unfolds.
Part of the joy of the novel is moving with Roy through time and space, following her lead as she, with skill and poetry, hints and allusions and slowly revealed pieces of information, tells this family’s story. The characters take shape over time – not just the major figures mentioned above, but a host of others, like Estha and Rahel’s grandaunt Baby Kochamma (much to be disliked as she tries with various degrees of success to shape her family and the world around her to her own ends) and their uncle Chacko, Sophie Mol’s father, a Rhodes Scholar, Marxist, and proprietor of Paradise Pickles & Preserves.
Occasionally some of author’s verbal tics, for me, get in the way – for instance, the incessant use of nicknames, not nicknames actually used by the characters in the story, but the author’s own fanciful, symbolically important but sometimes distracting designations. Similarly, the frequent combining of words (often used, I think, to reflect the rhythms of a character’s speech), and the accumulations of colorful adjectives, in practice calls attention to itself – for instance, describing Estha’s emotions at one point as “a greenwavy, thickwatery, lumpy, seaweedy, floaty, bottomless bottomful feeling.”
But there are other times when the author’s facility spurs the reader’s imagination. Here is Rahel reflecting on how, through the years, the river that runs through her hometown, once at the center of her life and the location of the novel’s tragedy, has shrunk to near nothingness: “Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon lawn that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.”
At a temple, the young Rahel and Estha witness a performance of kathakali, a form of ancient dance-drama in which very old, long-familiar stories are told. As Roy writes so beautifully of what they see, one can’t help but apply the words to some extent to her own work in this, her debut novel. “To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his own. He teases it. He punishes it. He sends it up like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkeys’ tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream … He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.”