Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997, 321 pages)

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize.    The setting is largely in Kerala in Indian.    The time frame for the work is from 1969 to 1993.   The central focus of the book is on two fraternal twins  Rahel and Estha who we meet at age seven.    The twins are separated and are reunited when they are thirty one.   The God of Small Things is not narrated in a straightforward fashion temporally.   We flash back and forth to different periods in the twins lives.   You have to keep your wits about you to follow the follow of the plot.   The plot is in fact quite complicated with many twists and turns.    Basically it is a story of dysfunctional families in post Colonial India.

The grandfather of the twins is a highly placed government entomologist.    He is very bitter because he discovered a new species of moth but a rival claimed credit for it and the moth is named after the rival.   This event essentially serves to ruin the life of the father and causes him to beat his wife, mother of the twins.   One day his brother in law returns to India upon completion of his education at Oxford.   He tells the grandfather to leave his sister alone.   The grandfather complies with this directive but he also never speaks to his wife again.   When the time comes he refuses to pay for the college education or provide a dowry for the mother of the twins.   The mother leaves home and goes to stay with an aunt in Calcutta.     She marries the assistant manager of a tea plantation.   He turns out to be an alcoholic and a wife beat.   She does give birth to the twins while married.   She leaves her husband and returns to her mother.   OK and now the plot begins to get even more complicated but it is very clever so I will not give any more of it away.    There is also a very large cast of characters.   This is not a simple novel on any level.   

To me the pleasure in this novel (though not necessarily its instructive value) is in the many exquisite turns of phrase and startling metaphors and the insight it gave me into Indian culture.    One of the things I have talked about before a few times is the effect of colonization on the psyche of the colonized.  ( Every day I see this here in the Philippines in the ads for skin whitening creams on TV.   I tell my three daughters that skin tone has nothing to do with the quality of a person but it is hard to fight the media on this.)   Colonization  creeps into the souls of the its victims and infects future generations long after the colonizers have left.

Our minds have been  invaded by a war.   A war that we have won and lost.   The very worse sort of war.  A war that captures dreams and and re-dreams them.   A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves. ....Marry our conquerors is more like it.   
Here is a longer quote that shows the sheer beauty and genius of her prose

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust green trees. Red bananas ripen.Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation. But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads

The God of Small Things can be seen as having several political themes.   It is an attack on the caste system, it is a commentary on matters of contemporary Indian politics (Roy is very much a political activist and has been subject to harassment because of her advocacy of independence for Kashmir), a harsh critique on the state of marriage in India, the power of love and Eros,  the special bonds of twins,  and economic injustice.   The characterizations are very well done and I was quite interested in seeing what would happen to the twins and learning more of their story.   There are subtle echoes of Indian religious heritage throughout the work.   Ray also has references to the special relationship of Indians to the English language.

The God of Small Things is very much worth reading.   It will require a bit of effort but I think it will more than repay your efforts.

Arundhati Roy  (1961)  is a very active politically in the  fight against colonialism and its after effects.   She has written several books on South Asia political issues.    She has been harshly critical of the American invasion of Afghanistan, she is a strong critic of the  Indian development of nuclear weapons and is active in women's rights movements world wide.   Many of her views on Indian culture call for radical reforms socially as well as culturally.    Salman Rusdie and others have been very critical of aspects of her attacks on Indian society.   To me Roy is a seeker of the truth.   Her primary focus politically is on justice for the disenfranchised in South Asia.   She is said to have began a second novel in 2007.   It is interesting to note that Indian males have called her "hysterical" in responding to her arguments.


Harvee said...

She writes beautifully. It was nice to have your summary and comments. Now I will try to read the novel.

Rebecca Chapman said...

I love this book too. For me, it was one of those books that you try and try and to get into, and put it down more times than you can count, but the one time that you finally get into it, you really get into it, and you love it. In the end, after lots of fall starts, I love this book.

Did you know that she is in a bit of political trouble at the moment?

Check out this article

Journey said...

I, too, have tried to get into this book several times and never really managed to.
But your review now makes me want to read it for real. ;)
(And after "A Passage to India" I should make a theme of reading India-related books, maybe I find more - "The Moonstone", which I'm also reading right now counts only half. ;-)

fantaghiro23 said...

Hi, Mel. This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Yes, her prose is exquisite and lyrical. Even after a couple of years, i still remember certain phrases such as "the love laws" and "a viable, die-able age."

Ana S. said...

This is one of my all-time favourite books. So incredibly written, and so immensely rich.