Arundhati Roy published her first novel, The God of Small Things, in 1997. At the time, Roy’s work concerned political activism, human rights, and environmental issues. Her other works include “The Cost of Living,” “The End of Imagination,” and “The Doctor and The Saint.” Much of Roy’s nonfiction maintains a consistent voice on reoccurring issues, which show the reader that Roy’s first novel is a lot more personal than what’s presented.
The novel’s timeline begins around the 1960s and travels through to the 1990s. Arundhati Roy, an amateur writer at the time, took two big leaps with the structure of her novel. The God of Small Things breaks many conventions in writing and is written in a nonlinear narrative.
The God of Small Things takes place in Ayemenem, a small village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. The novel follows two-egg twins, Rahel and Estha, the quiet and the empty. The political and social implications Roy covers in this book set barriers for the two-egg twins. Some of the major themes are Western influence and its domination of the Eastern hemisphere, gender roles in new-born communist societies, and what Roy refers to as the “love laws.”
The narrative’s first section is a flashback to the funeral of Sophie Mol, Estha and Rahel’s half-English cousin. In the beginning, we see Estha and Rahel alongside their single mother, Ammu, apart from the rest of their family during the funeral service. They are purposely segregated from the group, but for reasons unknown. Right away, this scene is a metaphor for the forced segregation allowed by law during the caste system’s existence in India. While the caste system is no longer in place in the novel, its effects remain very much alive through forms of discrimination. The family’s seclusion is an example of the normative, while Ammu and her two-egg twins are examples of the outsider.
Sophie Mol’s presence takes precedence. Even though Ammu is jobless, practically homeless, and raising two kids on her own, she is expected to welcome Sophie Mol and her mother, Margaret, due to all the time at her disposal. Roy highlights the privileges that Sophie Mol arrives to, using the children’s rhetoric techniques and even the children’s literature. The children are expected to learn English for Sophie Mol, with the correct “pre-NUN-sea-ayshun.” The children are expected to learn Shakespeare, so Sophie Mol feels like she is at home, back in England. At face value, the reader is saddened by her death, yet it is noted that the children had a minuscule connection with her and interacted with her through a forced etiquette. Sophie Mol does little to adapt to life in Ayemenem, while the twins do everything they can to adopt English culture.
The second half of the novel takes full consideration of Ammu’s sacrifices. She realizes her mistakes very early on but is the one who suffers the most for other people’s decisions. In her first marriage, her husband becomes a drunk and leaves, and she is stuck taking care of twins on her own. She is left with nowhere to turn except back home at the Paradise Pickle and Preserves mansion in Ayemenem.
However, her aunt, Kochamma, places a limit on her stay. Ammu teaches her children to behave using odd techniques. Rather than using traditional discipline, she makes her children feel guilty. Basically, she tells them that if they do not behave, people will get a bad impression of her. Roy details Ammu’s desire for a clean reputation as a mother. Ammu understands how people react to the idea of single mothers, especially in the cultural context. Her biggest concern is how her children will be received if people realize their mother’s past. Roy’s realistic detail in describing minuscule lessons on behavior and social interaction become extremely vivid in Ammu’s role as a woman in India.
The entire novel focuses on the “love laws,” which basically determine who the twins can love, how they can love them, and how much they can love them. The “love laws” are most vivid in the character of Velutha, Ammu’s hidden love interest, and one of the very few men in the twins’ lives. Before the laws changed in India, Velutha was an untouchable, the lowest caste in the Hindu Caste system. When the Caste system lawfully discriminated against the untouchables, Velutha faced blatant discrimination. Yet, not much changes when the law is overturned.
Velutha cannot claim his love for Ammu because of what her mother might think. Velutha cannot raise Ammu’s children as he’d wish, and he is shunned by most of his coworkers at Paradise Pickles and Preserves. Velutha enforces the children’s innocence with his careful nature, while every other adult in the novel slowly shatters the twins’ curious outlook on life. Velutha sneaks off into the night to console Ammu, even though they admit their love is forbidden. Velutha is the only man who respects Ammu and her choices. And although Velutha is the most wholesome character throughout the entire novel, he is the one with the worst punishment.
It can be argued that Velutha is an allusion to Dr. Bhimarao Ramji Ambedkar, a former untouchable, who was a leader and representative in the anti-caste movement. Arundhati Roy wrote the essay “The Doctor and The Saint” to expose Gandhi’s ideals through his contradictions. Her essay details the vigorous work Dr. Ambedkar did for the anti-caste movement and her rage regarding his lack of recognition. Dr. Ambedkar rallied thousands of untouchables to question the government they lived under. He believed the merit of someone’s worth came from their work and not their birth. Roy argues that Dr. Ambedkar’s work is buried in history because of his background as a former untouchable, while Gandhi’s fame came from him already being a wealthy, educated man.
Velutha’s presence is never recognized, even though the family’s private business is only in operation because of his work. Plus, Ammu is only surviving because she is clinging to the hope that she and Velutha will one day be able to share a life together. No one recognizes the real, undeniable love Velutha holds for Ammu’s children. Velutha’s tragic ending, compared to his careful, good nature is The God of Small Things’ greatest contradiction. Roy moves the reader with pathos, only to show us our own contradictions. We let our biases distort reality.
Arundhati Roy takes us to the other side of the world with a very relevant, relatable topic. The issue with India’s caste system is the same issue the United States has with race. Reading The God of Small Things is a life-altering experience, and one that I recommend taking. Roy’s wide themes explore a specific human experience in its social context, while remaining relevant to a universal audience.
— Miguel Soto, Special Sections Editor