Indian society has several different facets and aspects and The God of Small Things is a novel with these aspects intertwined together. Although there are subtle references to the caste system and colonial imperialism, the novel is a remarkable tour de force in that it describes what Indians went through as they came to grips with ever changing social and economical realities.
The novel actually shifts around in time and takes place in a town called Aymanam in what is now Kerala state. The setting shifts back from 1969 to 1993 where twins are reunited after a long absence from seeing each other. The intriguing part of the story is that it is written primarily from the viewpoint of seven year old children with the interspersing of Mayalam words alongside English. Other themes which are treated extensively in the book are communism (Kerala has always been a very left wing state), the caste system as well as the Christian way of life which is based on the Kerala Syrian tradition (Roy p. 39).
Relationship with parents – family
The main character Ammu Ip faces a hard life from the beginning of the novel as she does not have enough dowries to entertain a marriage proposal. She is desperate to run away from her terrible father Pappachi who beats her mother Mammachi to his heart’s content, the latter is also a very bitter woman (Surendan p. 150). After convincing her parents to send her to Calcutta she eventually marries a man who owns a tea plantation but who in turn ends up being abusive. Ammu eventually gives birth to the twins who will relate the rest of the story and returns to live with her mother and brother in Kerala.
Background in Indian history and politics:
There is a lot of political symbolism in the novel with various underhand jokes and quips related by Roy. There is also an examination of the historical roots of these political realities mainly in the manner with which individuals confront the rigid caste system which leaves everyone in a retrograde situation.
There is also the issue of Untouchables and Touchables with almost all the relationships in the novel affected by these class tensions. Some characters stick to the rules while others attempt to be unconventional and these suffer greatly as a result of their transgression. Practically all the relationships in the novel are affected by cultural clashes with typical examples being Ammu and Velutha who are extremely unconventional and even attempt to bring down the barriers of caste. This risk and daring eventually brings down a terrible punishment for both (Bhatt, Nityandan p 64).
Roy also deals with the theme of forbidden love. Here love is seen as an extremely powerful and quite uncontrollable force which breaks free from the shackles of social codes which are rigidly enforced by the caste system. She implies that conventional society does its utmost to destroy love and in a skilful way, she links love to loss. Roy also links political circumstances to love episodes this demonstrating that unrequited love is closely linked with social circumstances and the practice of the day. Cultural backgrounds are also given their due importance and recur quite often throughout the novel.
Some families resign themselves to living with the caste system, others look to the city for answers and hope of a better life. Unfortunately, once they reach the city, they find that they have brought their customs and their destinies with them. Some of them, out of despair, commit suicide. However, this is not a dark book, as each chapter is filled with humour and matter-of-fact details. Although life in general in not easy, life does go on, and every character has a unique way of coping with their problems. The reader gets to know the main characters very well and Roy is very skilful at making them seem as alive and involved as possible. .
There is a sense of the extended family and the mother is the person who holds the families together in this community – through thick and thin. Orphan children are taken into the brood by the mothers and raised as their own, different points of view are tolerated, flaws accepted, and those in need are looked after. The door is always open to family and friends and all the community looks out for each other. The ways and superstitions of the past are interwoven with the new post-Colonial world and make interesting throughout the book. We see here even more, the contrasting cultures and backgrounds and notice too, that sometimes there is conflict and that these do not always get along together (Mullandey p 75).
The prime example of discrimination exists in the cast system where love is not something which is under discussion and one cannot marry for love in India. This is perhaps the whole crux of the book and Roy is remarkably direct in slamming this message home. Untouchables denied the pleasures and opportunities of mainstream society in the sense that they have few economic opportunities to better themselves due to the rigid structure of the caste system. That perhaps is the greatest discrimination of all.
Another important theme in the novel is the element of betrayal which is quite strong and which runs through the book like a leitmotif. Many times the twins find themselves betrayed by those who wish to continue enforcing discrimination and hence, the caste system.
As a conclusion, I would state that The God of Small Things is a masterful story bRoy where the horrors of ostracization and exclusion lead to a most terrible yet expected end. The descriptive passages of the trials and tribulations through which the main characters go through are not only touching but are also extremely powerful and gripping. Roy’s social study is excellent in his conveyance of the world in which the twins lived, surrounded by ignorance and stupidity if not also superstition. Their reaction to all this was to go against the grain and break down the caste and discrimination system although in the end they paid a hard price for their dissolution. It is indeed a fine novel combining several elements of the past with a look forward to the future.
Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: Critique and Commentary, by R. S. Sharma, Shashi Bala Talwar. Published by Creative Books, 1998. ISBN 81-86318-54-2.
Explorations: Arundhati Roy's the God of small things, by Indira Bhatt, Indira Nityanandam. Published by Creative Books, 1999. ISBN 81-86318-56-9.
The God of Small Things: A Saga of Lost Dreams, by K. V. Surendran. Published by Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2000. ISBN 81-7156-887-4. Excerpts
Arundhati Roy's The God of small things: a reader's guide, by Julie Mullaney. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN 0-8264-5327-9.