The God of Small Things

The friend who gifted me this book described it as her second or third favourite book. She had found a copy of it in one of those street libraries – the kind where you swap one book for another – and picked it up for me hoping that I would read it and write a review. On the cover of the book is imprinted the digits of a stranger’s name and phone number after they had evidently rested upon it whilst writing a note.

The God of Small Things is a novel by Arundhati Roy which both criticises India’s obsession with the West as well as its own cultural perpetuation of classism through the caste system. The cast of characters predominantly belong to the Ipe family who live in the village of Ayemenem in Kerala, India. Most of the novel is framed through the perspective of the dizygotic twins, Rahel and Estha. In their early years, both twins live with their mother, Ammu, their uncle, Chako, and their spiteful great-aunt, Baby Kochamma. When the twins are 7 years old, Chako’s English ex-wife, Margaret, and their daughter, Sophie, move to the Ayemenem house following the death of Margaret’s recent husband. Over the next few days, Ammu begins to have an affair with an Untouchable, Velutha, which creates conflict within the house. Tragedy strikes when Sophie drowns in a nearby river whilst accompanying the twins on a journey to the History House across the water during their attempts to run away from home. Velutha is murdered at the History House by the Touchable police who are under the impression that he attempted to rape Ammu and coerced the children into accompanying him across the river. The story describes the emergence of a number of minor woes which accumulate into a couple of large tragedies.

Much of the novel is spent drawing a distinction between the Big Things and the Small Things. The Big Things encapsulate events that are larger than life and could indicate the public turmoil of a nation. They are the realm of Big God, who “howled like a hot wind and demanded obeisance” (pp. 19). The Small Things are those that have a personal impact and are often overshadowed by the larger despairs, so as to give the impression of being inconsequential. The Small God “was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country where she [Rahel] came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening” (pp. 19). The distinction between the public and private despair is further drawn when Baby Kochamma obtains a television for the Ayemenem household. She becomes desperately afraid of “the BBC famines and Television wars that she encountered while she channel surfed. Her old fears of the Revolution and the Marxist-Leninist menace had been rekindled by new television worries about the growing numbers of desperate and dispossessed people. She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine, and genocide as direct threats to her furniture” (pp. 28). As a consequence of the fears that develop from her watching the television, Baby Kochamma ceases to continue her art of garden designing, allowing the beautiful garden that she had maintained for decades to fall into disrepair. Being suddenly inundated with information pertaining to the Big Things overwhelmed her desire to continue the Small Things in her private life that had traditionally granted her great satisfaction.

What Baby Kochamma failed to realise is that these huge disasters she was exposed to on the television are merely products of a number of small, private tragedies which were never given the attention they truly deserve. In terms of plot, the climax of the novel is the big calamity involving the death of Sophie, Chako’s white daughter. Despite being the final tragedy in chronological sense, Sophie’s funeral is actually the subject of the very first chapter of the novel. The remainder of the book involves a series of time lapses during the time between 1969 and 1993, detailing the small events that would inevitably lead to Sophie’s death. The progress of the story seems to be in the form of a coalescing of themes and ideas rather than the conventional rising action that stories in the West tend to follow. The effect that this structure produces is the sudden exposure to a Big Thing that appears to overwhelm all of the other events in the novel, before a slow realisation that each of the Small Things that are touched upon within the story had a role to play in the final tragedy. When Rahel says something nasty to her mother, Ammu, she is told that “’When you hurt people, they begin to love you less’” (pp. 112). The thought that her mother loves her a little less plagues her for the remainder of the story. Her twin, Estha, is traumatised in a more significant manner after being sexually assaulted by the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” who runs the snack stall at the cinema. The combination of these events fuel the twins’ desire to run away from the Ayemenem house and hide away in the History House. The family’s unconventional friendship with Velutha, an Untouchable with a talent for carpentry, means that the twins are able to convince him to assist in repairing the old boat that they would then use to cross the river to reach their new home. Margaret’s decision to move to Ayemenem to recover from her husband’s death leads to Sophie becoming close to her cousins and convincing them to allow her to accompany them during their escape. These are but a few of the Small Things that lead to Sophie drowning in the river, a scenario which could have been avoided if any one of those minor events played out differently.

Sophie’s death holds literary merit beyond just being an important plot point, though: it is also representative of the killing off of the irrational Anglophilia held by many of the characters. The reader’s first exposure to this strange obsession with Western culture is during the family’s excursion to watch The Sound of Music at the cinema, an experience that has apparently been repeated on numerous occasions to the point where Estha has memorised most of the songs. Chako states that “going to see The Sound of Music was an extended exercise in Anglophilia” (pp. 55). Later, when Sophie arrives at the Ayemenem house for the first time, the Indian family obsesses over her. She is described as “littleangel” since she is pretty and white. Rahel, on the other hand, refers to herself as “littledemon” because she is mudbrown with bumps on her forehead that might turn into horns. When a young Rahel expresses a desire to live in Africa, the family cook, Kochu Maria, tells her that “’Africa’s full of ugly black people and mosquitoes’” (pp. 185). Western society is evidently viewed as this idealistic heaven to be admired whilst other cultures, including their own Indian culture, are sidelined and looked down upon. The twins learn of the irrationality of this Anglophilia when they discover their cousin crying. “[Sophie Mol] also revealed herself to be human. One day the twins returned from a clandestine trip to the river (which had excluded Sophie Mol), and found her in the garden in tears, perched on the highest point of Baby Kochamma’s Herb Curl, ‘Being Lonely,’ as she put it” (pp. 189). Sophie could cry, just like they could. And they would go on to learn that she could die, just like anyone else. As adults, the twins attend the performance of an Indian play they had watched many times as children, which appears to be a conscious attempt to engage with their own culture in contrast to their previous obsession with The Sound of Music. The personal, small struggle of the twins trying to find their place in the world is reflective of the larger issue of postcolonial Indian identity. The novel is also, however, critical of the bigotry effectuated by classism and the effect that it was still exerting upon Indian society through the events of the novel.

The long-standing effects of the Indian caste system are criticised intensely by Roy. The character of Velutha is a Paravan, one of the many groups of Untouchables within the caste system. The Ipe family, on the other hand, are factory owners who are considered quite respectable within the society. Roy refers to the idea of unspoken Love Laws which dictate who people are allowed to love, and how they may be loved. The Love Laws are not part of any legislation, as there is technically no law banning the consensual relationships between Paravans and Touchables. But, like the Anglophilia pervasive throughout the society, the irrational rules laid down by the caste system are maintained at a societal scale due to the sum of all of the private bigotries held by individual members of that society. So, when it is discovered that Ammu has had a secret relationship with Velutha, Baby Kochamma takes the issue to the police and frames the situation in such a way so as to suggest Velutha had attempted to sexually assault Ammu. Velutha’s own father even offered to kill him for his transgressions: holding sexual relations with a Touchable person. When the police descend upon Velutha at the History House to arrest him, they discover him sleeping and horrifically beat him as a result of their internal, irrational beliefs. “They were not arresting a man, they were exorcizing fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him” (pp. 309). Baby Kochamma’s private bigotry had led to her taking the issue to the police, then the Touchable policemen’s private bigotry lead to them beating a man to the point of death. Yet another Big Thing that is the product of a number of Small Things.

These days, the Big Things are almost impossible to ignore. The explosive developments in technology over the past century have made the world more connected than ever before. Print media, in the form of newspapers, was once the best method for obtaining information about wide-scale developments within society. But now we also have access to televised news programs and digital media, bringing horrific tragedy and fear directly to the comfort of our own living rooms. It is this direct access to such widespread despair that drives Baby Kochamma to locking her windows and neglecting her beautiful garden. Access to certain media, demonstrated through the example of The Sound of Music, is a practice that further fuels the Anglophilia of the Ipe family and Indian society at large. Never before have people been required to process information at such a large scale. It is entirely unprecedented, but still technology continues to evolve at a rate that makes it impossible to adjust to the overwhelming volume of information. Now we have the Internet and social media, which instantaneously inundate us with information that can be hand-picked or selectively chosen through algorithms. The sudden exposure to these public sources of fear does not give us enough time to consider all of the small components that worked to create that fear in the first place. Without time for reflection and analysis, we can unfortunately develop opinions built upon foundations of irrationality or bigotry. The issue is further compounded when the information delivered to us is misleading or blatantly false. The spread of ‘fake news’ on social media is suggested to be partly responsible for the outcomes of the 2016 USA election (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017).

The way that we experience media today would be equivalent to reading the first chapter of The God of Small Things over and over again. It appears to be just one big tragedy after another. With the development of these new methods of sharing information, it becomes incredibly important to take the time to develop the cognitive tools required to be critical of it. Rather than just reading the first chapter, we must learn to finish the book and understand the smaller components that lead to these events. Understanding the Small Things is not the end of the process, though. We must develop the skills required to be critical of them and challenge them. Just because we understand how something came to be does not make the end product reasonable or acceptable. If the Small Things are misleading or false, then the final piece of information is a lie. The fact that we have individuals in positions of power actively downplaying or outright denying the effects of issues such as climate change is concerning to say the least – this is not characteristic of a society of reasonable interlocutors who are interested in carefully analysing the information they receive.

Reflecting upon the novel, I think I’ve come to understand the importance of being critical of my long-standing opinions. My personal, private opinions may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but they form just one of the many Small Things that contribute to societal behaviour at large. Every Small Thing has a part to play in the great machine that is our world, so I cannot afford to be lazy and contribute to irrational beliefs and bigotry. When I receive new information, I must take the time to analyse the information I obtain and not allow myself to be mislead by clickbait or heavily biased news. If just one of the small events in the novel panned out differently, Sophie would not have drowned in that river. If either Baby Kochamma or one of the Touchable police had taken the time to consider the irrationality of their classism, Velutha’s tragic death could have been avoided. They are my opinions anyway, why would I not want to be critical of them to ensure they are as accurate as possible? There’s not a whole lot of benefit to being wrong in the first place.

There’s something sort of poetic about this book originating from a humble street library. I wonder what series of small events led to it ending up in such a place. What life did the book experience in the hands of the stranger who’s name and number are forever etched into its cover? And what was the sequence of decisions that led to my friend discovering the street library and the book in the first place? There were so many Small Things that worked to eventually deliver Roy’s book into my hands for me to read. So I hope you come to the end of my little review recognising the importance of your private actions and opinions. Strive for righteousness and challenge the irrational during the new Information Age. Your actions may seem small, but they can contribute to some significant results.

Further Reading
Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. (2017), “Social media and fake news in the 2016 election”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), pp.211-36.

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