The God of Small Things book review
There is a particular kind of person I cannot stand. It’s not the one who shouts into his cell phone on a crowded train – he may be hard of hearing, rather than simply rude. It’s not even the one who pushes in front of me in a queue, or even – god help us – the misguided fool who propels an overloaded shopping cart into the express-no-more-than-15-items line at the grocery store.
The person I really loathe is the one who condescends to inform me – and they always do it with condescension: “Oh, I never read fiction.”
The subtext of this sentence is twofold: a) “I’m too busy reading important books to waste my time reading about people who don’t exist” and b) “Actually, I don’t read. Period.”
At this point I usually excuse myself to get another glass of wine and find reasons not to return to that part of the room for the rest of the evening.
Camus said fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. Emerson put it this way: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures”. Earlier this year, Arundhati Roy, who writes powerful nonfiction championing human rights and environmental activism, was asked what it is that the novel makes possible for us that no other form of writing does.
“Only a novel,” she said, “can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine. We have been trained to ‘silo-ise’: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.”
There, buddy. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, is simply extraordinary. Without ever appearing to proselytize, she tackles a myriad of issues, some of them centuries old: Indian politics, the caste system, the oppression of women, the consequences of breaking the rules of “who should be loved, and how. And how much”. The characters are drawn so skilfully that if they were to walk into your living room, unannounced, you would know them in a minute.
The story is set in the village of Ayemenem, which is now part of the Kottayam district of Kerala, India. Fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are seven years old in 1969 when the tragedy occurs that will define their future. The narrative shifts back and forth between that time and the period, 24 years later, when they are reunited. While Rahel is the main protagonist, both as a child and a young woman, we are also told the story from the perspective of five other characters: Estha, her brother; Ammu, their mother; Chacko, their uncle; Baby Kochamma, their malicious great-aunt, and Velutha, the kind young man who works for the family and is also a Paravan – an Untouchable.
In a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we learn the family’s history, beginning with Pappachi (Grandfather) who worked as an Imperial Entomologist. Pappachi is an angry, abusive old man; he’s never gotten over the fact that he was not given credit for his discovery of a new species of moth. He drinks heavily and beats his wife. His son, Chacko, attends Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and marries an English woman named Margaret. Together they have a daughter, Sophie, but the marriage doesn’t last. While pregnant, Margaret meets and falls in love with another man, and once the baby, Sophie, is born she demands a divorce. Broken-hearted, Chacko comes back to India, leaving Sophie to be raised by Margaret and her new husband, Joe.
Chacko’s sister, Ammu, is as intelligent as he but because she’s a girl there’s no thought of sending her to university. Longing to get out of the house, she ends up married to an alcoholic who physically abuses her. The final straw, for Ammu, is when he tries to get her to sleep with his boss. She takes their children, Rahel and Estha, and moves back home. By this time her father, Pappachi, is dead and her mother is running a successful pickle business.
Baby Kochamma is a kind of honorary title given to Pappachi’s sister, Navomi Ipe. When she was young, she fell in love with a handsome Irish priest named Father Mulligan. In order to get close to him, she converted to Catholicism and joined a convent. When she realized being a nun would bring her no closer to her priest, she left the convent and went to America to study ornamental gardening at the University of Rochester. Now she lives with her brother’s family, nurturing her unrequited love for Father Mulligan and despising Ammu for being a divorcée.
When the novel opens, the family is preparing to welcome a couple of guests: Margaret’s husband, Joe, has died in a car accident and Chacko invites her to bring Sophie to spend Christmas with them. The excitement over their arrival causes Rahel a great deal of anxiety: will her mother love her less, once Sophie Mol arrives? Will she, Rahel, be replaced?
On the way to the airport their car is stopped by protestors who surround the car and force Baby Kochamma to wave a red flag and chant a Communist slogan. Rahel recognizes Velutha, the family servant, among them; excited, she calls out to him but he disappears into the crowd. The others say it can’t be him – surely Velutha isn’t a Communist – but the seeds of doubt have been planted. Baby Kochamma, in particular, begins to harbour a deep dislike of the young man.
They have planned to attend a screening of The Sound of Music but by the time they get there the movie has already started. Estha, who loves the film, can’t stop singing along. Ammu tells him to go wait in the lobby if he can’t keep quiet. While he’s standing there alone, the man selling orange and lemon drinks molests him, leaving Estha with a haunting anxiety that plays into the final denouement.
The family spend the night in a hotel and then meet Margaret and Sophie at the airport the following day. The twins, especially Rahel, are prepared to dislike Sophie, given the fuss that is made over her. Baby Kochamma in particular makes sure they understand that Sophie, being half English with light-coloured skin and hair, is the star of the drama – Rahel and Estha are only bit players.
Traumatized by the incident at the movie theatre, Estha is worried that the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” will track him down in Ayemenem. Anything can happen to Anyone, he thinks. It’s best to be prepared. He starts stocking up on the necessities of life – food, his favourite toys – in preparation for running away.
Shortly after Margaret and Sophie Mol arrive, Ammu and Velutha become lovers. They meet at night in the abandoned house across the river, and make love under cover of darkness. When their affair is discovered, Ammu is locked in her room. The children stand outside her door, asking her to tell them why she’s crying and Ammu, beside herself with grief, screams to them that it’s all their fault. Everything that’s wrong in her life is because of them.
The children decide to run away. They will use the small boat Velutha mended for them and row across the river to the abandoned house. Sophie begs to go with them, and the twins reluctantly agree. Unfortunately, it’s dark and raining heavily. The boat capsizes; while the twins manage to swim to shore, Sophie Mol is drowned.
Baby Kochamma seizes her opportunity. She goes to the police and swears that Velutha, an Untouchable, has raped her niece, kidnapped the twins, and most likely murdered little Sophie. The police go looking for Velutha and find him curled up asleep in the abandoned house, where he has gone to wait for Ammu. They beat him senseless, cracking his skull, his nose, his cheekbones, his ribs. They rupture his intestine and damage his spine, then handcuff him and carry him out. All of which is witnessed by the twins.
“The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness”.
Later, the Inspector tells Baby Kochamma she has no case. The twins say they went away on their own, Ammu insists she hasn’t been raped. If what Baby Kochamma has said is a lie, she will be charged with filing a false statement.
Baby Kochamma then turns on the children. Asking to be alone with them for a moment, she tells them it’s their fault that Sophie Mol is dead. They will be sent to jail, and their mother will be sent to jail, too. They will never see her again for a very, very long time. Who do they want to save, Velutha or their mother? The Inspector, she tells them, will ask them a question. All they have to do is answer, “Yes”.
The twins, as might be expected, choose their mother. The Inspector takes Estha into the lockup and switches on the light, revealing the dead, battered body of Velutha, his friend: “The Inspector asked his question. Estha’s mouth said Yes. Childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt. Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared”.
Shortly afterwards, the children are separated. Baby Kochamma convinces Chacko to send Ammu away, and Estha is returned to his father. Rahel is sent away to school and goes on to study architecture in Delhi. In 1993, learning that Estha has returned to Ayemenem, she returns home. Having been separated for so many years, the twins are finally reunited – in guilt for the part they played in the tragedy and in the knowledge that they, too, will break the rules of “who should be loved, and how”.
Fiction. The beautiful lie through which we tell the truth.