The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
In my first attempt at reading this remarkable book, I failed to capture the essence of the story. Perhaps this is because there are so many calamities, and they assail the reader relentlessly until the end. But once the reader understands how to read the book, they are held in thrall by its beauty, with every word a pearl, as it soars beyond the sublime.
The story begins with the return of 31-year old Rahel Kochamma to her home, Ayemenem House, in Kerala. The house seemed deserted and was in total disrepair. The only signs of life besides her great-aunt Baby Kochamma, who was contentedly ensconced in front of a new television set, were the bullfrogs and a rattle-snake.
Rahel came back to Ayemenem to see her twin brother, Estha. The two were once inseparable but had been torn apart for almost 25 years ever since the tragedy of 1969, when their cousin Sophie Mol drowned in the river. The death of Sophie Mol is the ‘major thing’: the major thing among many smaller things that finally lead to the family’s ruin.
The twins were raised in Ayemenem House: once a beautiful home and the property of their grandfather papachi, and their grandmother, mamachi. Ammu, their mother, was papachi and mamachi’s only daughter. Mamachi’s head is scarred and dented because of her husband’s beatings. Ammu’s brother, Chako, who was Sophie Mol’s father, studied in London where he met and married an English woman, Margaret: the mother of Sophie Mol.
When Margaret divorced Chako he returned home, and for a while he ran the family’s Pickle Factory. As he flirted with women and communism, the family business slowly plummeted to the ground. When Margeret’s second husband, Joe, dies in a car accident, Chako invites her and Sophie to visit Ayemenem House. The other character, who contributes to the foul air in the family and the bleakness of the story, is Baby Kochamma, papachi’ s spiteful and lying younger sister.
Ammu, sick of her father’s violent temper, left home for Calcutta where she met and married, Babu: an alcoholic, and like papachi, physically abusive. When the abuse affected her children, Ammu divorced him and went back to Ayemenem house. Consequently, Ammu’s status with her own family is uncertain because of her marital disgrace. Even her children, the twins, feel unloved by their grandparents.
The other major character in the story is Velutha, ‘which means White in Malayalam-because he is black’. He is of low caste. In Ayemenem House, his kind was not allowed to touch anything ‘Touchables’ touched. Mammachi knew a time when Velutha’s kind ‘were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that’ others would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into their footprints.
This is the man that Mammachi’s daughter, Ammu, falls in love with. Velutha gave Ammu the affection she never enjoyed, and was to the twins the father they never had. Ammu’s affair with a low caste Hindu was the spark that finally ignited the tragic events in the story: the death of Sophie Mol when the twins were 7 years old.
We finally hear, somewhere in the middle of the story, about the events that led of Sophie Mol’s death. First, Velutha’s father comes to Mammachi‘s door and offers to kill his son with his bare hands for having an affair with Ammu. Malachi responded to this with rage as she imagined Velutha’s ‘coarse black hand’ on her daughter’s body, and ‘his mouth on hers’. Velutha is fired from Ayemenem House, and banished from the property on pain of death.
The narration of Sophie Mol’s actual death is short. She is now visiting Kerala, and staying at Ayemenem House with her mother, Margaret. She joined the twins as they ran away after Ammu had insulted them. After their boat capsized in the river, Sophie Mol drowned, and the twins, ‘who could swim like seals’, survived.
The twins remained in hiding following the accident fearing their family’s wrath. The next morning the police arrested Velutha. They beat him nearly to death on suspicion of kidnapping the twins and sexually molesting Ammu. This was the version of events given to them by Baby Kochamma. In this way, she believed, they could finally erase the stain on their family brought about by the affair.
Then Estha is pressured by his grand-aunt, Baby Kochamma, into saying Velutha is guilty of kidnapping him and Rahel, and he complied. After that, the family evicted Ammu from the house and forced Estha to go and live with Babu, his father. With the death of their cousin, the twins’ childhood was aborted, their family splintered, and an innocent man was tortured to death in prison.
Much as the few hours leading to Sophie Mol’s death changed the twins’ entire lives, tragedy had been looming before they were even born. The Kochamma family is like a military force bent on self-destruction. They are most brutal and savage when dealing with each other. One of the books’ many tragedies is that what it depicts seethes on in many families not only in Kerala, but all over the world.
Mammachi’s dented and scarred head is the symbol of the horrors and decline of the Kochamma family. Its children are doomed early in their lives. They are haunted by the death of their English and white cousin. Even in life, Sophie Mol’s presence tormented them because of her fair skin. Her colour and western manners made the twins feel inferior.
Twenty five years after her death, like the albino whale in Moby Dick that could not be slain, Sophie Mol still had a hold on them. It is as if, though the twins were alive, they had drowned with her. One wonders what really happened that fateful day. Was Sophie Mol’s death an accident, or was it something else?
Rahel came back home after a failed marriage in America. It is as if her former husband was repelled by the presence of a third party in their union: a bobbing, swollen and wrinkled ghost. Estha returned to Ayemenem House because his father had gone away. The twins, now adults and in search for solace and even love, end up in bed together.
My passion for The God of Small things is so strong that I have read it several times, and with each read a new and painful theme is revealed in a manner not dissimilar to the dirty river in Kerala that spewed out Sophie Mol: bloated ‘like a phantom in an empty auditorium‘.
One wonders why Arundhati Roy never followed up this masterpiece with another book. Her novel speaks the most harrowing truth about the power of evil. It is strident in its abhorrence of hatefulness and prejudice. I am certain very few debut novelists have given the world a book as memorable as The God of Small Things.