The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
This 1997 Man Booker Prize winner leaves you with a brooding melancholy that will take some time to get rid off. Arundhati Roy wouldn’t pen another novel for the next twenty years. Definitely it is a ‘first’ book like no other.
Set in Ayemenem, the tale revolves around Esthappen(Estha) and Rahel the twins of Ammu who has left her alcoholic husband and come to live at her parents’ home. After her father’s (Pappachi) death, the house and the estates and the Pickle Factory run by her mother Mammachi is overseen by her Oxford educated brother Chacko. The family also includes Baby Kochamma, an ex-nun and Ammu’s aunt who nurses within her a lingering animosity towards Ammu and her children. Velutha (an Untouchable), Margaret Kochamma (ex-wife of Chacko) and Sophie-mol (his daughter with Margaret), comprise the rest of the characters whose hopes, dreams, desires and shattered lives come to a harrowing climatic end in this haunting tale of love, loss and redemption.
There is a bittersweet darkness that envelops us as we begin reading and it is relentless. There is an impending tragedy that hovers around and doesn’t give up its hold on you as you read further. The narrative itself is a bit messy, since it shifts from the present to the past quite quickly, and in its fragments we gather bits and pieces as we tread across the painful memories that the words are trying to bring up.
The prose is strangely more poetic than prosaic and hints are given of things that have happened, but not in its entirety. For instance, we get to know on page 4 that Sophie Mol dies. But the circumstances and the how and the why, slowly and maddeningly unravels.
Somehow, everywhere around them is something that has a haunting nastiness. There is Velutha, who is a tragic sacrifice waiting to happen – he is a clever untouchable, a couple of years younger than Ammu. The family pay for his education and he becomes indispensable at the factory for maintaining the machines, though carpentry is his true skill. But in the end he pays the price for his lowly birth in a caste ridden, fear soaked society that doesn’t tolerate any difference in the established scheme of things.
The theme of forbidden love is one of the many threads that we can unknot from this narrative (others being communism, caste system, sexuality, gender roles, abuse of power, trauma etc.) The love laws that pervade their being are brought up again and again, lest we forget.
"They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. And by whom.”
Arundhati Roy’s use of language is very vivid, especially the descriptions and comparisons drenched in similes and metaphors that are at times eye-opening but as the novel continues can be tiresome too because of its unrelenting intensity.
The book has left me with a character that I loathe for the hand she had in bringing together the things that happened, and the way it happened – Baby Kochamma. In the end, it is the small things that leave a haunting behind, because it led to the bigger things that no one could have seen coming.
The book is not exactly something I will re-read. It is not easy to come back to this tale where every dream is shattered and brutal reality pervades.