God of Small Things

We might (conveniently) consider Arundhati Roy's 1997 - for a long time the only novel she wrote (by intent, as she turned to social activism and essay-writing, until Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017)) as a turning point in Indian Anglophone writing.  Turning points are always only convenient handles, and there are certainly continuities crossing this imaginary marker.  But in some ways it is true that around the end of the 20th C and into the new millenium, the conception of India - and consequently writing in and about India - seems to shift.  The Anglophone fiction before that seems to be focussed on decolonizing and nationalizing themes and discourses: this took various forms, including the localizing, particularising detail of R. K. Narayan's 'Malgudi' novels (a kind of nationalization through the authenticity of the local), socio-political realism focussing on revealing the condition of certain classes of society (women, lower castes, the rural poor - rather like what happens t8o the English social realist novel of the 19th C), and of course (always) the trauma of partition and the consequences of this for communities and families.  Social realism is the dominant narrative mode (Rushdie is the prominent exception - his Midnight's Children is in many ways the quintessential partition novel, except that his style is so different from other novels in that category) the tone is often (to varying degrees) sentimentalizing, the setting is quite resolutely within the borders of India.  Even in later writers (Rohinton Mistry, for example, or in many of Amitav Ghosh's novels with the exception of Calcutta Chromosome and Circle of Reason), of course, we continue to see elements of this mode of writing.

             However, with the turn of the millenium, we see a noticeably new breed of writing.  In the first place, there is a less consciously literary air to this writing and writers.  Unlike the deliberately 'writerly' writers of the earlier era, many of whom saw themselves as professional writers of the 'Mann Booker' league (like Rushdie), or were intellectuals or activists who had deep roots in India and were concerned with the condition of Indian society (like the Professor of Creative Writing Barathi Mukherjee, or intellectual and activist Arundhati Roy), many of the next generation were not literary or intellectuals to begin with, but had other careers (Vikas Swarup was a career diplomat, Chetan Bhagan and Gautam Malkani were journalists).  Many, too, had a more international outlook and/or had less of a rooted connection with Indian history and tradition. (Some, like Shani Mootoo or Gautam Malkani, have little or no connection at all with India as a place - as their writing also reflects).  They also seem more open to or influenced by modes of writing other than social realism or (as it were) high literary magic realism.

             The result is that there is a very irreverent, playful, eclectic, and culturally heterogenous style represented by the new era of writers like Vikas Swarup, Chetan Bhagan, Gautam Malkani, and others.  The heterogenous discursive influences are at times obvious (the episodic, quiz-show format of Swarup's Q&A/Slumdog Millionaire, the fast-paced MTV or gonzo journalism elements in younger writers like Bhagan or Vikram Chandra, the coming-out-of-closet novel on Valmiki's Daughter), and at times less obvious (was Londonstani influenced by Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange?  Or Calcutta Chromosome by Dracula? Does The Body draw consciously from 'Body Snatcher' or cyberpunk narratives?  Is White Tiger consciously influenced by Swift's satire, the 18th C epistolary form?).  In terms of settting, these novels tend to be more motile and far-ranging than the earlier era of Indian Anglophone writing, with many of them being only partially set in India, or else not at all.  (Which raises the question of what, exactly, is Índian' about such diasporic writing - a pertinent and complex question which we need to keep constantly in mind, and to which we will return at the end of the module).  While some of the big perennial Indian social issues recur in such writing - the role and place of women, religion, communal violence, the caste system - the treatment of such issues is often quite different now, less perturbed, more scathing in an irreverent and impatient way, less serious-minded and willing to use humour to defuse and deflect these issues.

             Roy's 1997 novel is a convenient transition between the two eras of Indian Anglophone writing - more alignded with the earlier era in many ways perhaps, but with also a kind of indication of emerging trends.  In its themes of caste, marriage and the condition of women, history and its deterministic weight, it is like older social realist condition-of-India novels.  It is also arguably sentimental in its treatment of characters like Ammu and Velutha, and thus also has the (unconsciously?) resigned tone to social conditions that is evident in many of the novels of the earlier era.  In its detailed, insider's depiction of the minutiae of life in a particular community (the Kerala village, this family), it also resembles what might be called the 'synecdochal' or 'microcosmic' work of some earlier novels, presenting a detailed and knowledgeable part of India as a kind of testament to how India is as a whole.  Yet in its treatment of the geographical-cultural movement of its characters (from Kerala to Delhi to Madras, India to England), its underlying theme of category 'transgressions' and the impossibility of putting human life into boxes, its (slightly) playful narrative style (the ironic tone, the playfully digressive manner), the liberty at times taken with chronological order (especially in the novel's closing sequence - a pointed if sentimentalizing reversal of the tragedy that the reader knows has already occured, to return to a happier and more touching moment), and in its willingness to speak openly about a shocking theme like incest, GST signals some of the trends in later Indian Anglophone writing.


Kerala in the Novel

The south-western coastal state of Kerala is a somewhat unusual setting for an Indian Anglophone novel in this period.  Given that history played such a large role in Indian novels, the popular setting for novels was the north, where many of the major socio-political happenings could be depicted; the capital of Delhi which was the scene of the anti-Sikh riots, Calcutta which was the colonial capital and the site for a consciously Bengali intellectual-cultural de-colonisation, or the north-west area (Sind, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir) where the impact of Partition and consequent tensions with Pakistan could best be depicted.

             Kerala, a small coastal state, is in many ways a peculiar community in the context of India as a whole.  While India as a whole is less than 3 percent Christian, Kerala is around 20 percent Christian.  It has the highest literacy rate in India, and its people have a reputation throughout India for being highly educated, professional, efficient.  It is also one of the two states in India (the other being West Bengal) with a strongly Marxist flavour and has long been ruled by the Marxist party.  Its language (Malayalam) is a minority language and would be unfamiliar with the majority of Indians, having less "currency" than majority languages of the north like Hindi, Bengali and Marathi.

             Kerala (strangely enough, to an outside reader) would thus have a somewhat exotic flavour to Indian readers from outside the state, and certainly from the north (although of course it would be much less exotic to readers from neighbouring southern states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh).  In this sense, Roy has found a theme and setting which puts both the Indian (non-Keralan) and the non-Indian readers on equal footing - i.e. a suitable theme for an Indian Anglophone novel seeking a global readership.


Christianity in GST

Christianity is very much a part of (much of) Kerala culture, and features very prominently in a number of ways in the novel.  Although the majority of Keralites are Muslim and Hindu, Christianity is a recognised and familiar part of Kerala culture for a number of reasons.  Firstly, provenance: unlike much of Indian (and Asian) Christianity which came in the late 18thC onwards through the agency of White missionaries, and is thus often seen as a White, colonial and foreign religion, Kerala Christianity according to their tradition was brought into the state in apostolic times by Saint Thomas, i.e. came (as it were) directly from Christ through the disciple Thomas without the mediation of Western culture and colonialism.  (The novel alludes to this in the figure of the twins’ great-grandfather, whose being blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch makes him “part of Ayemenem’s folklore” with people coming “down the river in boats all the way from Alleppey and Ernakulam, with children to be blessed  by him” (p. 22-23).  Although not all Kerala Christians belong to the "Thomas" or Orthodox tradition (many are Catholics, traditional denominational ie Church of South India (CSI) and Pentecostal), the distinctive antiquity of Kerala Christianity and its non-Western origins, together with the fairly sizeable Christian community there, combine to give Kerala Christianity a more present and accepted flavour than Christianity enjoys in most parts of India.  (The other exceptions, as a matter of interest, are in Christian-majority states in the North East of India like Nagaland and Mizoram, and to a certain extent in Tamil Nadu).

             However, the entrenched nature of Christianity in Kerala culture also means that it has a flavour quite different from more widely-known conceptions of global evangelical Christianity.  The form of Christianity depicted in GST is traditional, conservative and inward-looking in a way that is entirely compatible with caste distinctions, and other aspects of Indian culture such as dowry marriages, the subordinate role of women, and socio-economic practices which by most evangelical Christian standards would be seen as intolerable and oppressive.  Roy's depiction of Kerala Christianity is warts and all, she treats it as an integral part of the Kerala society that she knows, and presents it without regard for how it compares or contrasts with more widely-known evangelical Christian values.

             There are also glimpses of non-Mar Thoma Christianity in the novel: brief glimpses of Catholicism (Father Mulligan’s bewildered response to Baby Kochamma’s overtures; the convents to which various ladies like Baby and Ammu are consigned, and their inability to deal with the inner workings of intractable individuals); and a brief mention of overseas protestant Christianity (the German carpenter from the Christian Mission Society who apprentices Velutha).  The gap between Kerala and non-Indian Christianity is evident, although the latter does not necessarily come out any better than the former (apart, perhaps, from the German missionary who is oblivious to caste prohibitions).

             These are perhaps not the only use of Christianity in the novel, although it is the most prominent and fascinating part.  Arguably, interwoven into the novel is a more wistful, sentimental, vague/unformed and also idealistic glimpse of Christianity, that runs counter to the inequality and tolerance for social injustice that she associates with Kerala Christianity.  Because it is general and unformed, this Christianity thus becomes compatible with the novel's more general humanist values (love, tolerance, grace, truth, justice) - only that the terminology used to hint at this spiritualised Christianity has recogniseably Christian terms and symbols.  Thus, for example, the name of the pickling factory ("Paradise Pickles and Preserves"), perhaps a hint at Milton's Paradise Lost, so that Ammu and Velutha become a kind of Adam and Eve looking for redemption in a fallen world.  Following the same lines, the novel is fascinated by notions of individuals' past actions persisting to deeply affect their lives and those of others around them - a kind of original sin?

Thus Rahel’s neglected upbringing:

             Rahel grew up without a brief.  Without anybody to arrange a marriage for her.  Without anybody who              would pay her a dowry and therefore without an obligatory husband looming on her horizon. (p. 17)


Her neglect is evident from her desultory schooling and non-existent career.  She then “drifted into marriage” and subsequently into divorce.  All this is an echo of Ammu’s own fate and upbringing:

             Pappachi insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl, so Ammu had no choice              but to leave Delhi and move with them.  There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other              than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework.  Since her father did              not have enough money to raise a suitable dowry, no proposals came Ammu’s way. (p. 38)


Neglect means that education and a career are not possible, and the lack of a dowry makes her “desperate” enough to “marry the wrong man.”  In Kerala society, that in turn effectively means the end of her life and freedom as an individual.

             Ammu’s “sin” (mistake, fate, lot) gets transmitted onto Rahel (but also onto Estha); Pappachi’s disappointment (the moth) and deference to the English (“he didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife”, p. 42) also contributes, as does Baby Kochamma’s malice (arising in turn out of her own disappointment and frustration).  Sophie Mol’s visit to Kerala triggers the tragic chain of events, and that visit is in a way precipitated by Chacko’s failed marriage and his decision to invite his ex-wife and daughter.  Certainly society (the corruption and brutally of the police, the caste system, the dowry system and the condition of women) all contributed significantly to the tragedy.  There is a sense of an infinite regression and diffusion of blame and fault:

                          Still, to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it.

             Equally, it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago.  Long before the Marxists came.               Before the British took Malabar, before the Dutch Ascendency, before Vasco da Gama arrived, before the              Zamorin’s conquest of Calicut.  Before three purple-robed Syrian Bishops murdered by the Portuguese were              found floating in the sea, with coiled sea serpents riding on their chests and oysters knotted in their tangled              beards.  It could be argue that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like              tea from a teabag.

                          That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.  The laws that lay down who              should be loved, and how.

                          And how much. (p. 33)


We may have difficulty understanding or discussing this kind of deferred and diffused blame/guilt, without invoking quasi-Christian notions of “original sin,” fallenness, guilt – not necessarily to replace social kcritiques of caste, gender biases etc, but as a supplement or additional layer to these.

             Sacrifice: notions of innocence despoiled, of individuals in a sense too fine and innocent to deal with a very fallen world – Ammu, the twins, even Baby Kochamma and Chacko in some ways – run through the novel.  In a sense, the death of Velutha is on behalf of them all – if there is any guilt, it certainly doesn’t belong to him alone, but to Ammu too, and in a wider sense to all who failed in love not always for reasons of their own doing.  Velutha’s death thus has something of the sense of a sinless sacrifice to it, an expiation.

Although “love laws” does refer to caste and marriage rules, in the novel it has a wider, more humanist meaning as well.  It refers not only to the fact that Ammu’s relationship with Velutha cuts across caste boundaries (a grey area, especially since no marriage was involved), but to the whole tragic chain of bitterness, betrayal, divorce, loneliness that drives the plot.  It refers to Baby Kochamma’s unrequited love, Chacko’s failed inter-racial marriage, Ammu’s frowned-upon “inter-community” marriage, Rahel’s and Estha’s separation and incest, etc.  It refers to the failure of parental love, acceptance and guidance, and the consequences of this.

             It may also have an additional, Christian connotation:

             She loved her children (of course), but their wide-eyed vulnerability, and their willingness to love people              who didn’t really love them, exasperated her and sometimes made her want to hurt them – just as an educa             tion, a protection.

             It was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone to walk              in and be welcomed. (p. 43)


To say that at the core of the novel is a message about the human need for love need not simply be trite or simplifying, if we also understand that this is at the same time a social comment about India, a psychological study of the broken family and the human condition, and a larger spiritual (quasi-Christian) view of mankind.


Indian and Non-Indian Values

The novel sets up this notion of love in antithesis to the dictates and requirements of the Indian family: submission, duty, self-denial, propriety.  On the one hand, this antithesis seems perfectly logical: the kind of fulfilling love that the novel sees as being a core need of all human beings, surely cannot co-exist with the patriarchy, gender imbalance and social restrictions of Kerala/Indian society?  To a certain extent we can assent to this – yet Roy seems to stack the cards against India/Kerala, because it is not only the caste and dowry systems that individuals have to fight against, but also a virtual tidal wave of negative factors depicted in Indian society: the cumulative and agglomerated unhappiness of every single individual, their bitterness and failings (at least as far back as Pappachi’s and Baby Kochamma’s generation, both Chacko’s and Ammu’s failed marriages, Baba’s alcoholism, Kari Saipu’s “native” lusts, the insecurity of the twins after their parents’ divorce, the death of Sophie Mol’s stepfather Joe), the corruption and ambitions of people like Comrade Pillai and the police, the predatory instincts of even the “Orangedrink man” and Baba’s English employer).  For the tragedy of Ammu and the twins to take place, all these other events in the causal chain (and not merely India’s caste and dowry system) would have to obtain.  What looks like a logical indictment of Indian society, is actually a kind of systemic pessimism in the guise of a social indictment.

             Apart from seeing this as poetic license in order to depict something of the human condition (but is it?  How “human” can it be, if so many rather exceptional circumstances have to obtain before it happens), how else might we read Roy’s “India”/”Kerala”?  The rubric of “writing global India” provides a framework: it is about emphasizing the gap between India as it is, and India as it ought to be within a globalized socius/economy.  The perfect storm of not only social but collective individual failings, is justified as a cautionary or moralizing note about how far behind the “free world” India lags.

             We might see the “love” imperative in GST as a kind of “romance of Liberal Individualism”: the suggestion that love and individual fulfilment (like capitalism) must be left alone to find its own devices, and the worst thing possible would be to impose strictures and regulations that prohibit that flow. 

             This romance is reinforced by the actual “remittance economy” by which NRIs fund local Indian improvements:

             And there they were, the Foreign Returnees, in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow sunglasses.  With an end to              grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases.  With cement roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for              their parents’ bathrooms.  With sewage systems and septic tanks.  Maxis and high heels.  Puff sleeves and              lipstick.  Mixy-grinders and automatic flashes for their cameras.  With keys to count, and cupboards to lock.               With a hunger for kappa and meen vevichathu that they hadn’t eaten for so long.  With love and a lick of              shame that their families who had come to meet them were so…so…gawkish. (p. 140)


Yet note that this romance is not to suggest that India needs to become de-Indianised (as it were), to become exactly like the West.  There is also affection in the novel’s depiction of Kerala, created largely through the child’s-eye view of the land, customs and practices.  Like the returnees’ hunger for local food (“kappa and meen vevichathu”), the novel retains an affection for Indian society – but one that must somehow incorporate a change of (some) manners whose implicit basis is globalization.

Marxism: not necessarily opposed to capitalist and liberal-individualist thinking, since the version of ‘Marxism’ which emerges in the novel is not a strongly dialectical version that seeks to eradicate property and capitalists, but rather

             …a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely              traditional community.  The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them,              never appearing not to.  They offered a cocktail revolution.  A heady mix of Eastern Marxism and orthodox              Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy. (pp. 66-67).


This moderate form of “Marxism” (derided by the Naxalite alternative) is able to accommodate not just caste, but also zaminders and bourgeoisie like Chacko (who is a member).    

On the other hand, the angry Naxalite, anti-caste element is in fact opposed to both Indian traditionalism (caste, landownership etc), as well as to the kind of liberal individualism underlying the romance and freedom that the novel seems to propound.  This makes it too threatening, and disqualifies it as a solution to the problems of Kerala society.  Marxisms – whether the caste-accommodating type, or the violent Naxalite type – are discredited, in part to reinforce the need for a reform via global manners.

Travel/space: this is by and large an Indian novel, certainly with movement (Delhi, Calcutta, even New York etc) which suggests a society in flux and the restlessness of individuals.  Yet it is by and large spatially/culturally rooted, in Kerala and India, and thus rather different from the diasporic novels on this module.  Individuals who leave (Ayemenem, or India) ultimately return.  There is a sense in which individuals cannot find happiness outside of India, that despite what is wrong with India, the solution is not not-India, but an India somehow remade, purified.


Time, Narrative, History

History as trap:

                          Chacko told the twins that though he hated to admit it, they were all Anglophiles.  They were a              family of Anglophiles.  Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history, and unable to re             trace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.  He explained to them that history was like              an old house at night.  With all the lamps lit.  And ancestors whispering inside.

                          ‘To understand history,’ Chacko said, ‘we have to go inside and listen to what they’re saying.’ (p.              52)


History is not just the colonial past, of course, but also Indian tradition – the caste system, the fact that the majority of Syrian Christian converts in the past happened to be from the Brahmin caste, thus the accommodation of Christianity with the caste and dowry/gender systems, the gender roles in the Indian family, etc.  The novel’s tragic theme, the narrative/causal chain that leads to the tragic events of Velutha’s murder and the unhinging of Ammu and the twins, reinforces the notion of history as a kind of inexorable roller-coaster.

The twins’ habit of backward reading: an attempt to re-write history, free themselves from the trap of inherited meanings, undo causality.  (Also becomes a paradigm, a microcosm of Kerala – ‘Malayalam’ as palindrome).  Narrative possibilities, language games, childish reversals and experimentation, all become an attempt to free the individual from cultural/linguistic imperialism, historical determinism, social tragedy.

Part of this narrative play is the over-abundance of intertextuality in the novel.

Explicit references to Gatsby (a passage quoted by Chacko apropos seemingly of nothing – thwarted romance, the impossibility of fulfilment), Heart of Darkness (the Englishman Kari Saipu as “Kurtz”), Kipling’s Jungle Books (jungle and ‘darkness’ again, the feral/abandoned child).  Tempest, which the twins read from (wilderness again, but also the law of the father, innocence, colonialism and language); Tale of Two Cities (sacrifice); Julius Caesar (‘et tu, Brute?’ – betrayal); Ulysses (paraphrased in Estha’s notebook which Rahel reads – exile, trials, return) and others.  On the one hand, this is of course precisely the cultural imperialism that is derided, and very much part of Chacko’s Oxford-forged identity, Pappachi’s thwarted desire to be recognised by the colonial scientific system, etc.  On the other hand, however, it is also a kind of semantic/paradigmatic broadening, an invoking of plurality of meanings that can reinforce the novel’s main theme (desire/love and its thwarting), but can also lead to other and unexpected dimensions of meaning, some of which can contradict that main theme (Heart of Darkness not only refers to India as “dark” society, but also about colonial greed, thus an indictment of global capitalism?  As is Gatsby, which is a critique of American materialism?  Ulysses is about returning, and reinforces the localized setting of the novel – but it also emphasizes the individuals agon and transformation, whereas GST subordinates individual transformation to the bigger issue of the need for social transformation?).

             Narrative and causality: the novel, despite a very strong social realist-causal streak, toys with the possibility of disrupting narrative chronology.  The novel begins with the adult Rahel’s return to Ayemenem, and her attempt to rehabilitate and reconnect with the disturbed Estha.  Buried in this time-frame, and told through flash-backs, is the chronological and inexorably deterministic story of Ammu’s failed marriage, Chacko, the visit of Sophie Mol, etc.  Yet this sense of inexorable historical causality is unwritten (to a degree) by the novel’s ending, which returns to the tender moment of Ammu’s and Velutha’s romance.  The final word (“Naaley” – tomorrow) is the suggestion of hope, not only for individuals, but for societies as well?  Can we escape the determinism of history and social conditions?  Is narrative playfulness a satisfactory answer?


‘God of Small Things’

The title could refer to many things: to the figure of the child, the child’s-eye perspective of the world that the novel adopts for a large part of its narrative; the meagerness of hope, the fragility of happiness; the local (Ayemenem, Kerala, even India – in contrast to the larger world, and the processes of globalization that are so rapidly transforming, and conforming, the rest of the world).  Begging the question of who/what the “god of big things” is, the title suggests the yearning for bigger/wider horizons and possibilities – yet (by deifying the process) it also mystifies it, suggesting a certain hopelessness and passivity.

What, in the final analysis, does such a view suggest about India within globalization?  How (from the novel’s point of view) does one read “romance,” “tragedy,” “history,”  social change?  Are they all big things, or gods?  What does that say about the individual citizen (Indian, NRI, other) within globalization?