The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
You may have guessed by now but I like to read a book about somewhere I have recently visited and so having got back from a trip to the Indian state of Kerala, Roy’s debut novel seemed to be the obvious choice. I didn’t let the fact that it had won the Booker Prize in 1997, usually code for challenging, put me off.
The story is set in the village of Aymanam in the Kottayam district of Kerala and the main action takes place in 1969 when the state was under Communist influence and undergoing significant change. I won’t spoil the story but the glue that binds it together is the tragic death by drowning of Sophie Mol but Roy uses this story to comment on and capture facets of Keralan society such as communism, the caste system and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life.
Structurally the book does not tell its story sequentially but moves back and forth, using the recollections of some of the major protagonists, principally the twins Estha and Rahel and their mother, Ammu, to add insights to the chain of events. Stylistically, the book is unusual. As well as being peppered liberally with words and phrases from the local lingo, Malayalam, Roy adopts a style where wordsareruntogether. And where sentences are chopped up. Leaving subordinate clauses hanging as sentences in theirownright. An initially startling but ultimately irksome trait.
At one level the story is fairly superficial and Roy does well to spin a complex web out of it that holds the reader’s attention and maintains the suspense throughout. The ending is dramatic and moving. Her characterisation is vivid and for the most part sympathetic. There are genuinely funny moments as well as moments of pathos and despair. From my direct experience she portrays the
smell and colour of Kerala and its inhabitants, their very particular traits, habits and customs.
But at another level the book explores bigger themes – corruption, brutality (both domestic and police), the divisiveness of the caste system, the struggle of an inherently staid and conservative social structure to deal with the temptations of modern civilization, illicit love amongst other strands.
The relatively thin story and the overlaying of detail upon detail means that we are swamped with small things. These are what concern us in our daily life, what we fixate on and what, to a greater or lesser extent, we can control or influence or at least strive to comprehend. The Big Things impact us but individually we are unable to make much of a dent on the way our society functions and on destiny.
And the God of small things? My vote goes to the untouchable, Velutha, who is the most sympathetically portrayed character and is the personification of the central theme of the book . An active member of the Communist party, he returns to the village to look after his disabled brother, is exceptionally smart and kind to the twins but because of his standing in the caste system is despised and meets a brutal end after his illicit dalliance with Ammu, their mother.
I enjoyed the book and you can’t ask for more than that!