Every so often, a book comes along that makes you feel it was written just for you. The God of Small Things has won several accolades, not the least of which was the ManBooker prize for fiction. Here, I don’t attempt a deconstruct or even a review, and focus instead on what the book meant for me personally.
A good work of fiction engages the brain, and uses broad strokes of logic to paint a picture of emotion. The more detailed the picture, the more it can draw in the viewer. It should pull you in with the characters, watching, judging, loving, mourning…
As engaging as the narrative of this book was, I did not require half the effort a normal reader would have needed to connect with it. Why? I live inside of it. My home, the place where I have lived for almost twenty years, is a stone’s throw away from Ayemenem, the place where this novel is set. I see characters from this book every single day, living, loving, breathing the same air as I do… For me, this book is a reminder of all the things I hate and love about my home. The book holds up an uneven canvas to my face, and I can see every crevice, smudge, bump, ridge, on its’ surface and the secret folds that it hides in every turn, the ugliness that goes unmentioned and unseen…
Hemmed in by hills on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, the state of Kerala is geographically separated from much of the rest of India, and any visitor to the country would be forgiven for thinking he had crossed borders. Having evolved a separate culture and language, this small state is too incestuous for its’ own good. When too many people live in a confined space, a few unwritten laws and codes are expected to be followed, and Roy takes particular objection to the ‘love laws’.
Rahel, the protagonist in the novel has this to say about when her problems began:
“Equally, it could be argued that it began thousands of years ago. […] That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And by how much.”
The novel glides through the hot and humid summer, barely slowing down to soak in its’ ‘fruity’ munificence, and then barrels down in to the monsoons, relentlessly pursuing a quest for solace. One of the poignant images in the novel is that of Velutha, the untouchable, lying face down in a puddle, his head cracked open, ‘revealing secrets that should have remained hidden’.
The book begins with Rahel returning from her brief and disastrous stint, living in the Americas. She had ‘drifted into marriage, the way one drifts to an empty chair in a lounge’. Helplessness is a recurrent theme throughout the book.
What made the narrative so heart wrenching for me was the fact that I couldn’t identify with the characters. I saw myself among the villains, loud and obnoxious, judging, pushing their views where they had no business to be. There are no bad guys, or even situations, for the reader to hate. That is an indulgence this book does not afford. All the oppressors are weak, small-minded people who draw their strengths, neither from convictions nor even a sense of entitlement, but from sheer numbers. What makes it even more hopeless is that they see themselves as cogs in a larger machine, working for the ‘social good’. They collude to form a bloated, amorphous entity, a spiritless machine, that chews people up and spits out caricatures devoid of features. All looking the same, thinking the same, pointing fingers at everyone but themselves, caught up in an unending delusion that only death can truly cure.
What sends the protagonists Rahel and Estha down this downward spiral of despair and hopelessness? The fact that they were recruited by the amorphous entity, ‘The Big Thing’, made unwilling collaborators in the deviousness that destroyed their world. It was like being forced to dig your own grave, and then having to be thankful for the opportunity.
Who is the God of Small Things?
Sophie Mol, the little kid that wondered and delighted at the small things that life threw her way, whose death made a bigger impact on The Family than her life ever did, offers the first clue. With the death of Sophie Mol, time came to a standstill for Rahel and Estha. The events that followed, came crashing down on them in an unending wave of hatred and despair and hopelessness and rage, stunting their life, trapping their souls in the coffin with the little girl Who Never Had a Chance. The God of Small things was surely this little kid, who, like all Gods are wont to do, cursed her siblings with her death? Perhaps it refers to Rahel or to Estha or to both, for the love they had for their lives and for each other, for the small things that got them going, like being thrown up in the air by the inimitable Velutha, lover of their mother, the Untouchable light of their lives?
The God of Small Things drains me every time I read it. Every once in a while, when I am too caught up in myself, I bury myself in the book. It offers me a cathartic release, a reminder of my insignificance.
The book slashes open a wound. A gaping wound that can only be ignored. It whispers to me about the smallness of the place I call home, about the unspeakable horror I submit to, by following its’ unwritten laws. Urging me to get out. To burn the bridge and never look back.
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”
– Arundhati Roy.