Nearly two decades have passed since the novel The God of Small Things was first published in 1997, launching its author Arundhati Roy to global literary acclaim. The winner of the Man Booker Prize tells the devastating story of an upper caste Indian family that is torn apart when one of its members has an affair with an untouchable.
As a young woman without a dowry, Ammu didn’t have many opportunities to guide her future. She desperately wanted to be freed from her father’s tyranny so she married the first man who asked. “She thought that anything, anyone at all, would be better than returning to Ayemenem.” She had one chance and she blew it, hedging her bets on a man who would prove to be no better than her father, an abusive alcoholic.
After the demise of her loveless marriage, Ammu is left dispossessed and forced to return to her family’s home in Ayemenem, a village in the Kottayam District of Kerala, India. A married daughter holds no position in her parents’ home, according to Indian household customs; but as a divorced daughter, Ammu and her twins, Raheel and Estha, are a humiliating stain on her family’s reputation, or at least in the eyes of her haughty aunt, Baby Kochamma. Ammu knows that her life is over, and it is likely this knowledge of having nothing more to gain out of life that steers her on to the reckless path of forbidden love with Velutha. History is not on her side when she breaks the “Love Laws,” which lay down the rules of “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
She desperately wanted to be freed from her father’s tyranny so she married the first man who asked.
Roy has crafted an intricate narrative web that begins at the end, and ends at the middle. Consequences precede actions, while moments of climax are revealed before they happen, all alluding to “the Terror” to come. The temporal setting shifts from the present day, where the adult twins are reunited after years of forced estrangement; to 1969, when Raheel and Estha’s ill-fated cousin, Sophie Mol visits Ayemenem with her English mother, Margaret, the ex-wife of their uncle Chako.
Ammu’s brother Chako is also divorced, but as a man he retains his respectable position in the household, and is even bestowed the role of patriarch after his father’s death. Men are allowed to have needs; in fact, Mammachi, Ammu and Chako’s mother, has a separate entrance built for her son’s room, “so that the objects of his ‘Needs’ wouldn’t have to go traipsing through the house.” The family home is governed by double standards like this, which work to assert male dominance over the autonomy of women.
The twins see the world through a whimsical lens of innocence. They are desperate to be loved after their parent’s divorce. Ammu despises this weakness in her children, which she feels she must harden them against. “To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic.” Roy doesn’t attempt to sentimentalize the experience of childhood, peeling away Raheel and Estha’s innocence like the layers of an onion until they are a shell of their former selves with nobody left to love them but themselves.
Much of the novel is centered around the arrival of Sophie Mol, and her unfortunate drowning death. In fact, Sophie Mol is dead before she comes to life in the novel; her first introduction is a memory of her funeral: “It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined.”
History is not on her side when she breaks the “Love Laws,” which lay down the rules of “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
But while there are many tragic figures in the novel, in the end, the only true victim is Velutha. As an untouchable from the Paravan class, he wasn’t meant to amount to anything more than what history had designated for him. He wasn’t supposed to be a carpenter, but he was endowed with a “remarkable facility with his hands.” And then he dared to touch what only a touchable was permitted to touch. “Some things come with their own punishments,” writes Roy. But for Velutha, his punishment did not fit the crime of falling in love.
It took nearly five years for Roy to write The God of Small Things, calling the fiction writing experience like “sculpting smoke.” Her use of excessive foreshadowing may have been a way to guide her towards the novel’s completion, like highway road signs signaling the distance of places coming ahead. Yet while this acrobatic narrative may unsettle impatient readers, the narrator tells us that great stories have no secrets, “you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably…You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t.” This statement sums up the haunting experience of reading The God of Small Things.