Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, is a strange and complex work dense with intrigue and tragedy. Winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, it will confound and beguile readers in equal measure while defying description.
The God of Small Things is a strange book. In the early chapters you may wonder if you are reading a story of magical reality, if the characters can see the dead or if the characters and the writing is just… eccentric. I am a patient, stubborn and tolerant reader but early on I could see that many readers may struggle to have the patience for this book. They would find it a little too odd. It is both the thing I would fault most about this novel and the thing I can’t fault it for. It flirts with a fine line. Is it clever or pretentious? Is it brilliant or contrived? It is hard to say. There are passages that I certainly found to be clever, where, as the reader, I felt I had been well manipulated. Others where it felt a little forced, a little too easy. Should you give credit for its ambition or deduct points where you think it failed to meet it?
The aspect that best exemplifies this is the language, but it is difficult to explain and a spoiler to quote. Context gives new meaning to words, events load emotion onto phrases. Both are then inserted and repeated in later passages to… create continuity, disclose causality, condemn to fate.
The God of Small Things is about three generations of a Keralite Syrian Christian family living near Cochin (aka Kochi) in southern India. A formerly wealthy and respected family, they have slowly self-destructed. Family matriarch Mammachi has spent much of her life in submission to a violent and ill-tempered husband who takes out his frustrations at how his life has turned out on her. With a talent for making pickles and preserves, Mammachi starts a small business that may turn around their declining fortunes; their estate being gradually sold off over the years.
Mammachi’s sister in law, ‘Baby Kochamma’ is a duplicitous instigator in the story. Though now an old woman, the disappointment of an unrequited love in her youth has left her deeply bitter and she malevolently looks for opportunities to hurt those around her.
Mammachi’s two children, Chacko and Ammu, both failed in their marriages. Her daughter Ammu, who also suffered from her father’s hand, tried to use marriage to escape from her family, but found her new husband to be a violent alcoholic and has returned to Cochin with her two children, fraternal twins Estha and Rahel. Her brother Chacko, married an Englishwoman while studying at Oxford. Though very intelligent and good-humoured, he is not proving competent at running their little pickle business since returning to India.
Working at the factory is Velutha. Gifted at carpentry and machinery, Velutha is indispensable at the factory but his status as an untouchable means that the respect and dignity he is given is lukewarm at best. Velutha’s talents are matched by his friendliness and both Estha and Rahel see Velutha as a hero of sorts. But there are also suspicions that he may be a member of the communist party, who have a strong presence in the region.
Chacko’s former wife and daughter, though, are soon to visit from England. It is around their visit that the tragic events of the story unfold.
Right from the early pages, Roy discloses small clues to the major events of the story, travelling backwards and forwards in time. Depending on your temperament it can be tantalising, perplexing or, after a while, a little annoying as the intrigue is layered on pretty thick. This is one of those novels that is published without a blurb because nothing can be said. All you can do is quote the passage that everyone who writes of this novel seems to quote:
They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.
John Updike in his review in The New Yorker, I believe, says everything I want to say about this novel, but in a more positive light than I can give it:
Roy peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzling adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations that to discuss the plot would be to violate it. Like a devotionally built temple, The God of Small Things builds a massive interlocking structure of fine intensely felt details. A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does.
The novel is said to be semi-autobiographical and based on Roy’s childhood experiences. The character of Rahel, like Roy, studies architecture but does not pursue a career in it. But speculating about what else may be real or imagined in the plot, like discussing the style, is a bit of a dead-end as well. But the novel does provide some other things to think about.
Despite the success of The God of Small Things, her first novel, Roy has not turned to a career as a novelist, preferring instead to be an outspoken critic on various social, economic and political issues. Some of these have a role in the novel.
The novel talks of rivers poisoned by World Bank loans and of houses built with Gulf money. Roy discusses theories on the prevalence of communism support in Kerala. There is also the obvious element of Velutha and the discrimination he and others face due to their low caste despite independence, democracy and even religious conversion.
Roy also diverts to discuss the decline of a once proud art form of the region – kathakali. For those who have not experienced a kathakali performance, you could say it is like an Indian opera. It involves highly skilled singing, acting and dancing in a performance that traditionally can last several hours. I was thoroughly impressed when I experienced it briefly as a recent (2013-14) tourist to Kerela, it was one of the highlights of the trip. In The God of Small Things, Roy describes the sad fate of a kathakali performer who no longer enjoys the respect his profession had carried for centuries and is now reduced to performing for tourists as part of the ‘local flavour’.
Roy momentarily made me feel bad about being one of those tourists seeing only a bastardised version of a once significant art. But I shook it off. I don’t want to sound cynical or unsympathetic, but I am sceptical of forcibly sustaining traditions that can no longer sustain themselves. It is often a shame to consign them to history books, but the world is constantly evolving and when a tradition loses relevance it is difficult to argue that it should be maintained, especially when the question of how it is going to be funded comes up. If even the locals no longer have the time or money to indulge their own cultural history anymore, preferring more modern or relevant diversions, the tourist version at least keeps some of it alive. The rest can be looked up in the history books for those interested in learning more and should be done so without guilt.
Kathakali performers are all male. The female roles in the performances are done by male actors in costume. This is something the art refuses to budge on out of respect for ‘tradition’. While it is not the reason for its decline, it does remind us that some traditions, if they won’t change with the world even in the face of death, perhaps ought to change or die.
The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. Is it just me or did the Booker seem to favour novels with certain similarities at least for a time? Nostalgic, time-travelling stories where characters in the present look back on the past events that have led them to where they are now? From the Booker Prize winners I have read there is The Remains of the Day (1989), The Blind Assassin (2000), The Sense of an Ending (2011) in addition to The God of Small Things. Among the ones I have not yet read, but sound like they fit the pattern, there is Last Orders (1996), The Inheritance of Loss (2006), The Sea (2005) and perhaps some others.
I can’t say The God of Small Things will rank as one of my favourite Booker winners. There are even some shortlisters I would say I enjoyed more. Whether it deserved to win is something I cannot say. I believe such judgements are best made by comparison with other contenders within that year rather than across years but 1997 stands out as an odd year. None of the authors who frequently found themselves shortlisted during that period (Atwood, Coetzee, Anita Desai, Rushdie, McEwen, Barnes, etc) had a book out that year. With the exception of Jim Crace, you may struggle to find books by the 1997 shortlisters at your local independent bookstore and I certainly don’t hear them being talked about. Was The God of Small Things the best book in a weak year? It sounds harsh to say so. Without reading the others I cannot possibly say and it might take someone with a lot of spare time to read the other almost-forgotten contenders now that we are almost 20 years after the fact, but it won’t be me.
Novels like The God of Small Things, that use a fair bit of foreshadowing, that propel the reader forward with hints and mystery and intrigue often demand a second reading. With knowledge of the events and ending in mind, a second reading can be a completely different experience, especially where much characterisation is written as if in hindsight. Some books, like pop-crime novels don’t leave much to experience again once you know the ending; the better ones do. The God of Small Things asks to be read again but I am not sure I enjoyed it enough to read it again soon.
Nevertheless there are some moments of brilliance contained within this novel; some wonderful metaphors, some satisfying manipulations, serendipities created from nothing. There are also some haunting images and emotionally charged scenes that will stay with the reader for a long time after.