Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things,” set in a small village of Kerala, highlights the realities of class, caste and gender in India, while skillfully creating character complexity./ Courtesy of Chris Boland/ chrisboland.com on Flickr
Arundhati Roy’s breathtaking debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” is a tale of family, betrayal and the limits of love. Taking place in Ayemenem, a small village in the Kottayam district of Kerala, India, the story tells the tale of twins Rahel and Esthappen Ipe as they traverse adulthood after the traumatizing events of their childhood that the two refuse to acknowledge. Concurrently, the novel describes the dangerous burgeoning relationship between the Ipe family, including the twins’ mother, Ammu, and a local carpenter of a lower caste, Velutha. The novel holds a rare combination of beautiful, lyrical prose, and a radical rejection of Western limits placed on time, family and love.
The novel’s setting in rural India allows for a realistic and powerful discussion of international social and political issues that are usually ignored in the canon of Western literature. Velutha’s character is particularly important in the discussion surrounding status and class. Although he grew up in the same neighborhood as Ammu, the rules imposed by the caste system greatly restricted his relationship with her; they were not allowed to play together as children and were forbidden from physically touching. The book also highlights gender relations in India in subtle and powerful ways. In one scene, when Ammu is interacting with a policeman, he “tapped her breasts like he was picking mangoes.” Here Roy highlights the casual yet despicable harassment that women are subjected to, particularly by an institution that is supposed to protect, not exploit.
By highlighting the realities of class and gender in India, Roy never fails to maintain unglamorized, three-dimensional characters that defy stereotypes. Take Mammachi, for example: Rachel and Esthappen’s grandmother is a nearly blind mother of two who is beaten by her husband, and is an accomplished violinist. Along the same lines, Velutha, one of the Untouchables as per his membership in the lowest caste of the Hindu caste system, is also a member of the Communist party and a talented carpenter. Through these vivid and complex characters, Roy breaks down Western stereotypes surrounding the developing world and avoids the single-story narrative that we too often see in depictions of countries like India.
Roy demolishes Western colonialist structures through two main avenues in her novel, the first being a massive rejection of linear time. The narrative is essentially told backwards, starting with Esthappen and Rahel as scared and silent adults, progressing towards their childhood to explain what made them this way. Roy’s discussion of “Beginnings and no Ends” in a time when “Everything was Forever” further demonstrates the importance of ambiguous, non-sequential time. In this way, Roy uses her non-chronological plot to disrupt linear narratives of healing and progress. Time is also an important component when it comes to describing Ammu and Velutha’s relationship. Once more, the novel starts from the end of their relationship and progresses towards the beginning, tracing their first love affair in the final chapter, after Velutha has died. The very last line of the book is Ammu promising that she will see Velutha “tomorrow.” Here Roy places the reader onto a precipice at the end of the story; we are waiting for a tomorrow that has already happened and one that will never come.
The novel further dismisses Western notions concerning the boundaries and categorization of love. Roy begins and ends the book with a discussion of the “Love Laws” that—as the author puts it—lay down who should be loved, how, and how much. This conflict is seen in many of the relationships depicted. No character personifies this tension quite like Velutha. Because of his low caste, Ammu keeps her distance from Velutha although she is in love with him, and warns her children to do the same, noting that loving him can only lead to trouble. The consequences of the “Love Laws” are also delineated in Esthappen and Rahel’s complex relationship. Rahel recalls that as children, she and her twin brother had a hard time defining their bond. Not only were the two best friends, but they often referred to themselves as a single unit, a “Me” rather than “Us.” Roy notes ominously that this “confusion lay in a deep, secret place.” Each of these relationships blurs the lines between different types of love; the boundaries between platonic, familial and romantic love cease to exist in the world of this novel. Here Roy radically pushes back against the Western prioritization of romantic love by suggesting that other forms of intimacy are not only just as important, but often also indistinguishable. In this way, the novel stands as a cautionary tale, a warning against “Love Laws” and other Western ideologies that police how we are allowed to care for each other.
Although “The God of Small Things” is only her first novel, Roy’s unique voice shines through every sentence of her prose. Through winding, melodic sentences and vividly realistic imagery, Roy truly places the reader on the streets of Ayemenem, in the childhood bedroom of Rahel and Esthappen, on the back of Velutha’s handmade boat. Roy’s beautiful, melancholic tone will both break your heart and make you grin from start to finish; this gut-wrenchingly beautiful story will stay with you long after you put the book down.