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The God of Small Things

by Ramlal Agarwal
(Jalna, India)

Arundhati Roy's The God of small Things: Life after Death




The period of last three decades of the 20th C has been a period of literary exuberance in Indian English literature. Rushdie's Midnight's Children, sprawling across several narrative modes, three generations and two countries met with extraordinary success. The American and the British publishers saw great possibilities in bringing out Indian writers. They offered huge advances to them. There was speculation that Manil Suri, the author of The Death of Vishnu had finalized a deal for a staggering five-million-dollar advance. The West was enamoured of new literature coming out of the East. The Western media was impressed by the variety of Indian English - its turn of phrase, sensitivity, its culture, and Indian English writers were extolled sky-high and walked away with prestigious awards and prizes. All this filled the Indian English writers with extravagant confidence and they crossed all limits of humility and modesty. Rushdie, in his introduction to Vintage Book of Indian Winting-1947-(99) proclaimed, "The prose writing- both fiction and non-fiction created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 official languages of India and that this new and still burgeoning “Indo – Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books."

He further says, "it is wrong to say that the West is foisting an alien canon upon Indians. On the contrary, the Indians are imposing their style and ambition and verve on the west." Emboldened by such statements, Indian English Writers took to toying with the form, styles and language. Shashi Tharoor came up with a strange concoction of the great Indian epic Mahabharat and the contemporary political turmoil and called it The Great Indian Novel or detailed notes of a screenplay and called it Show Business. Allan Sealy came up with two distinct narrative styles to describe Himalayan seasons and life in the foot-heels of the Himalayas. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things was published in 1997 amid a blaze of publicity and caused a furrow in the literary world. It was sold to publishers over 20 countries for a total of more than one million dollars

The novel, like Rushdie's Midnight's Children, takes too much too fast. It deals with unrequited love, illicit love, profane love, child abuse, casteism, pollution, treachery, hypocrisy political cant etcetera. However, all these are not the main concern of the novelist. Her main concern is to express herself in a language that is peculiar to herself, an idiom that conveys the rhythm and feel of Kerala and Kerala culture which appealed to John Updike, who in his New Yorker review commented: " A novel of real ambition must invent its own language and this one does... ““A Tiger Woodsian debut."

The novel begins with the burial of Sophie Mol, a seven-year-old girl from America visiting her father in India, by drowning when the boat carrying her with Rahel and Estha meets with an accident. Her untimely death sets the tone of the novel. The author becomes reflective. Ammu, the mother of Estha and Rahel, feels guilty. Baby Kochamma feels shaken by the threat to her family. Margaret holds Chakho, her former husband, responsible for the death of her daughter.

The family skeletons begin to tumble out. Ammu, Rahel and Estha's mother, had married an alcoholic and broken with him and returned to her parents at Ayemenem. She develops an illicit relationship with an untouchable but lovable youth called Velutha. Velutha's father, steeped in feelings of gratitude towards his masters, informs the family about the affair. The news stings Baby Kochamma, the aunt of Chacko and Ammu. She dislikes Velutha because he is an entouchable and hatches a conspiracy to trap Velutha in charges of kidnapping and murder of Sophie. It breaks the heart of Ammu who suffers quietly and holds herself guilty of ruining the life of her lover. Estha and Rahel grow up in the background of these happenings. Chakho, a Rhodes scholar, had been to America where he met Margaret and is married to her and has a daughter from their marriage. The marriage falls through and Chakho returns to Ayemenem to look after his mother's pickle factory. Margaret's second husband dies in an accident and she visits Chakho with her daughter Sophie.

Kerala and West Bengal have been pockets of communist dominance and people parrot the Marxist and Maoist slogans but are driven by tradition and Hindu customs. Roy exposes the hypocrisy that characterizes their lives and behaviour. Once Kochamma gets surrounded by communist processionist and sloganeers, while she was on her way to view The Sound of Music with family. She is forced to hold the red flag and shout communist slogans. Kochamma feels hurt and humiliated. The experience of the family at the theatre is far from pleasant. The “His and Her” were nauseating and the ladies had to adapt devious methods to use them. Estha is abused behind the counter when he comes out alone. Roy provides a hilarious account of the incident.

With so much so soon can the dark clouds of storm and thunder remain behind. Sophie Mol's death hastens the lpe family's disintegration, Kochamma's lie is detected. Velutha is beaten to death. The pickle factory is raided by communists. Ammu dies at 31, a viable age says the author. What remains are the fantasies of Estha and Rahel and velutha and Ammu which the author plays out with wild abandon in the last section. At the end of the novel, one is reminded of John Updike's comment “A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does... A Tiger Woodsian debut" However, the language Roy invents, though straining to be rhythmical and reflective of Kerala and its culture, tends to be idiosyncratic and arbitrary and her constant shuffling of narrative structure is pretentious, confusing and tiresome.
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