Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

14 Dec 2012

(Novel) The God of Small Things by: Arundhati Roy

(Reaction) Cultural Misery by: Antonio Conejos

Roy's novel is about what happens when the Little People start to do things against the Natural Order of the Big People. In line with this, the book as well speaks about how History takes precedence over his, or more appropriately, her, story.

But we don't have to read the God of Small Things to Know how such stories end. The Little Guy gets trampled (beaten to a bloody pulp) by the Big Guy. Her story is defaced from the books, their lives relegated to the margins.

The God of Small Things is not concerned with the consequences of such reckless (and perhaps selfish) actions. That these uppity Little People will drown in their hubris, will get their comeuppance, is assured.

In the God of Small Things it is always the big things (history, nation, culture, tradition) that take precedence over the trials and joys of the individual, of the small people.

And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance... So Small God laughed a hollow laugh... The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune.

The persona

To be sure the challengers of convention are tiny. Estha is described as occupying very little space in the world. Ammu dies alone and sad, beaten by the world, Shadows gathered like bats in the steep hollows near her collarbone. And Rahel never quite fits in, especially in such rigid confines as boarding schools.

Velutha is the smallest of the small, as Ammu points out, Calling her Ammukutty. Little Ammu. Though she was so much less little than he was.

In contrast, the enforcers of order, are all described and associated with order. Chacko has studied in England and likes to read in his Reading Aloud voice Baby Kochamma is a stickler for placing things in their proper place, as seen even in her stated profession, gardener.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that Ammu and her children are always described as physically unthreatening, slim and small, capable of slipping away. In fact it is their penchant for slipping away which gets all of them in trouble.

In contrast, again, the characters associated with upholding right conduct and behavior are always physically large. Chacko, Baby Kochamma and Mammachi are all described as being large, in girth, in voice and most importantly in position. After all, it is Chacko who has locus standi, not Ammu, as the novel points out several times.

There is an essential duality to these two camps composed of members of the same family. On one hand we have Ammu and her children, they have little to no standing in the world. On the other we have Chacko and the rest who are considered pillars of the community, owners of small business, keepers of the enlightened flame of foreign knowledge and religion.

The history house

Eventually the individual stories and yearnings of the small characters crash into the accepted story of History. This is again seen not only in the characters themselves but in the nexus where this crashing takes place.

Most, if not all, of the key elements of the story take place at the the history. Ammu and Velutha go there to explore their love. The twins run away and settle there and along the way Sophie Mol drowns. Velutha is captured and beaten in the shadow of the history house.

This house, and its own history, is a representation of how an individual can get lost in the titanic sweep of history. Thus it is thematically appropriate that the key elements of the novel, which also explore this thought, occur here.

The history house after all was built by an Englishman who had gone native... Ayemenem's own Kurtz. Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness. Immediately then the history house suggests how an individual can become lost in history's greater movements, in this case of the limits of colonialism and integration.

Moreover, the history house also foreshadows the Terror as on the personal level Kari Saipu is also undone by an illicit love. He had shot himself through the head ten years ago, when his young lover's parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school.

A bid to change a story

In the face of the grandeur of the Gods of Big Things (history, nation, culture, tradition) the individual attempts to do something forbidden by history. He and she attempt to be happy.

Personal misery in a God of Small Things is inherited, passed down from parent to child to grandchild like a favored profession, like the unerring proper trajectory of a well brought up sire.

Thus Pappachi's moth is never far from the mouth and thoughts of Rahel. The moth is a representation of bitter memories, fond what-could-have-beens, success and its fleeting nature. All of these poison Pappachi and his bile spreads to Mammachi (herself the product of Pappachi's beatings) and then their children.

The novel can be seen as Ammu's quest to escape the curse of Pappachi's moth. Yet Pappachi's moth is, appropriately, preserved by the Gods of Big Things. In the clash between personal misery and the incessant need of a people, of a nation, of a culture, to be miserable, the individual's quest is always drowned out.

In the end the outcome is (again appropriately) impersonal, a sentence enacted routinely and methodically. ...the absence of caprice in what the policeman did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all... these were only history's henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke it's laws... Men's Needs... Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God's purpose, revealing herself to an under-age audience.


A curious phenomenon occurs when you rewatch an old movie you really liked years ago. Generally what was once stirring and dramatic now feels plodding and stale. Effects that tempted verisimilitude now look like hookers with face paint that just can't hide the stretch marks, the cuts, the hounded eyes.

Childhood movies disappoint because they feel, well, old.

Books I thought were the exact opposite. Reread a good book and instead of feeling staid everything seems even better because you know where the book is going, you can appreciate the thematic movements of the plot, the sly foreshadowings of the climax.

This is how I felt until I reread God of Small Things.

I loved, loved, Roy's novel when I first read it, the dazzling language, the sharp turns of phrase, the zest of the words. Did I mention that I really dug the language?

Years later I decided to reread it again and to my disappointment God of Small Things became The Great Escape, a work best remembered in retrospect rather than the present tense.

Yes, the language was still vivid but it was also relentless, hectoring you with its bile, condemning your inaction in the face of such blatant oppression. On a second reading the novel's language is still beautiful but its beauty is the sneering kind, the kind that knows you are looking and admiring; the kind that knows you want something from it.

I took away from my first reading of the book a sense of wonder, that a story so relatively simple could be told in such a lyrical manner. On my second reading I took away anger, the anger of the novel that is barely repressed; a fury at the unfairness of the world and that inequity was because, somehow but surely, because of me.

Are we doomed to see anger in the place of wonder as we age?

...the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the one you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin.
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