The God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979. A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it “profoundly depressing”.
Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty. Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.
The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.
It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves
… together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.
Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river. What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.
It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart). On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:
RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways
And Again I say re-jOice
Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect
This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.
The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring up trouble for everyone else. So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.
In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …
She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.
With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy, The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.
About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.
About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism. She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy. Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.
Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading.