To me, a Malayali who grew up in Mumbai, Kerala, is a jumble of memories from summer holidays over the years, memories of feeling tongue-tied when relatives spoke to me in Malayalam. But The God Of Small Things, which came out in 1997, four years before I was born, takes me back to my father’s ancestral house in a small town in the Kottayam district, similar to the one in the novel.
Right from encountering “insects appearing like ideas in the night” to driving down a “bumpy red road through the rubber trees” and the feeling of sitting in mass, women on one side, men on the other, where the “church swelled like a throat with voices”, the book’s creative metaphors evoke vivid memories.
It isn’t just nostalgia about my cultural identity that makes me feel attached to The God Of Small Things, though. I first heard about Arundhati Roy when I was 16. I would listen to my mother and older sister as they chatted about the rhyming verses of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, convoluted tangents in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and rich descriptions in Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel. I was determined to be included in these conversations—and with this disingenuous goal, seeing that we had The God Of Small Things at home, I picked it up.
I began reading, expecting the novel to be full of pretentious and dense prose. But though I didn’t fully grasp the nuances of the tragic story of a family ripped apart by a little girl’s death, I was taken aback by Roy’s whimsical use of language. Her sarcasm is irreverent and impactful. Take the way she mocks the “Big Things”, like a casteist policeman saying, “…He had a Touchable wife, two Touchable daughters—whole Touchable generations waiting in their Touchable wombs.”
To me, the novel’s humour seems strangely similar to the way Generation Z expresses dissent. My generation came of age with the internet and sarcasm, immortalised as memes online, and this is the language we speak. Even when it comes to news, we gravitate towards satirical content, like Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act (2018-20) and stand-up by comedy collectives like Aisi Taisi Democracy. The God Of Small Things seems almost like the intellectual predecessor of this culture.
When Sophie, a child in the novel, notices an elephant electrocuted by the roadside, her father stops to ask onlookers if it is Kochu Thamban, the elephant that used to visit the temple in their town. When they discover it isn’t, Roy writes: “Relieved that it was a stranger and not an elephant they knew, they drove on.” To me, humorously pointing out how the characters are missing the larger point that an elephant dying is bad either way, felt similar to the way people use memes to highlight blind spots about social issues.
The novel’s side characters feel like they could be the subject of quippy tweets, satirical panels by the likes of Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour comics, Sailesh Gopalan’s Brown Paperbag webtoons, or skits on Instagram Reels. Baby Kochamma, who keeps her cream buns and insulin side by side in her refrigerator, is akin to the classic hypocritical aunty, obsessed with upholding outdated social norms.
Whenever I re-read The God Of Small Things, its fluent irony and inventive metaphors feel timeless. Roy’s artful satire, while far more subtle than the humorous political culture of the internet, has a similar quality of drawing you in and making you think about why you are chuckling in the first place.
Angela Mathew is a journalism student on an internship with Mint.