In 1997, when The God Of Small Things was published, I was in high school. I had a passing familiarity with the Booker Prize but the dailies in Kolkata, where I lived then, made sure that all and sundry appreciated the enormity of Arundhati Roy’s win. After all, she was one of “us”, born to a Bengali father and Syrian Christian mother, even though she had grown up mostly in Kerala and lived in Delhi. Roy’s smiling face, framed by her then curly mane of hair, appeared in newspapers and magazines. In those days, hardback fiction in English was way beyond my budget but I persuaded my father to get me a copy. By the time I finished it, I was smitten.
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As a greenhorn in the world of literary fiction, I had never encountered language as fresh and magical as Roy’s—a whole new vocabulary of nonce words and coinages whose echoes and antecedents I would learn to identify much later, when I formally studied Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, G.V. Desani, the stream-of-consciousness movement, in college.
At 17, though, Roy’s exotic medley of words felt like a sensory overload. The sounds, smells and sights evoked by the unique speech patterns of her child protagonists, Estha and Rahel, conjured up the “real world” in a fresh register. It was like being asked to sample a flavour of ice cream one had never tried. With each slurp, the familiar texture felt heightened by the sheer novelty of unknown tastes.
The “Bar Nowl” who lived inside Mamachi’s pickle factory in Ayemenem, Baby Kochamma teaching the twins correct “Prer NUN sea ayshun” of the words of a hymn, Velutha and Rahel doing “a delightful, breathless, Rumplestiltskin-like dance among the rubber trees” (“Oh Esthapappychachen Kuttapen Peter Mon,/ Where, oh where have you gon?”), Ammu losing her “Locust Stand I” with her family—this wasn’t the stuff of realism I knew from 19th century novels. Rather, it was Roy having a ball, making no concession for the reader, ruffling feathers of class, caste and the publishing industry, being wild and carefree in a way she would never again be, especially in her second novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, which came two decades later.
Twenty-five years since its appearance, The God Of Small Things still has the power to give you a high. Its linguistic cocktail hit me hard with every turn of the page. How many established writers, let alone debut novelists, would be willing to take such a bold wager in our heavily footnoted times, when the brightest voices from South Asia often take it upon themselves to annotate and explain regional nuances? How many jokes die on the editing table because eminent publishers want to ensure their list doesn’t challenge the intellect and patience of their “target readers”? What are the chances another Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy will slip through the cracks of prissy, risk-averse corporate publishing ever again?
This is not to say the last quarter of a century hasn’t yielded its fair share of Roy-esque imitators. If I had a rupee for the number of times I have come across the phrase “X-shaped hole in the universe” (insert name of person, pet or object as relevant), I would have a nifty pile by now. But no one could hold a candle to Roy’s idiosyncratic, iconoclastic genius. Any number of eccentric child protagonists or plots riddled with caste politics cannot substitute for the richness of inspiration and lived experience.
This is also not to claim that re-reading a classic after 25 years doesn’t have its perils. So many of us are terrified of the prospect of being disappointed by our favourite books that a second reading remains long overdue, sometimes becoming a permanent no-no.
I picked up The God Of Small Things with some trepidation too. I remembered the broad contours of the plot, though the specificities of people and places had escaped me. But the familiarity didn’t take away from the reading, simply because there isn’t too much suspense built into the narrative. Roy doesn’t trade in cheap thrills or surprises, though her linguistic flourishes now tend to feel too extravagant at times. The editor in me wanted to strike out a sentence here, a paragraph there, without which the novel wouldn’t be any poorer. But overall, hers is the craft of slow unpeeling of layers, giving the reader a long and deep look into the soul of each character. Everyone in the novel guards a precious secret like an oyster, even Baby Kochamma, whom I remembered as a scheming, villainous presence, a stereotypical evil spinster grand-aunt, maligning her “divorcée” niece Ammu and her oddball “two-egg twins” Rahel and Estha.
While re-reading the book, I rediscovered Baby Kochamma’s unrequited love for Father Mulligan, an Irish missionary who had rebuffed her advances, even after she went an extra mile to denounce her religion and convert to Catholicism. Decades later, corpulent and vile as ever, Baby Kochamma doesn’t stop pining for her one true love after he’s long dead. Roy captures her feelings in a quiet but unforgettable scene: “And every night, night after night, year after year, in diary after diary after diary, she wrote: I love you I love you.” It’s a brief passage, tucked into the folds of much more intense happenings, but it turns Baby Kochamma from a vicious poor relation to a woman wronged, licking her wounds even in her 80s, as constant in her animosity as with her affections.
While the crux of The God Of Small Things rests on a forbidden love affair leading to Big Consequences (to invoke one of Roy’s favourite and somewhat overused tics, capitalisation), it is such tender moments that make the novel, and the milieu it evokes, achingly real. In contrast, the overarching themes are laid bare without much ado. We see patriarchy at work every so often—in the sneering condescension Ammu suffers from her family, or the Dickensian humour with which Chacko, Estha and Rahel’s uncle, is turned into a caricature of a “Male Chauvinist Pig”. With his Falstaffian appetite and sheer mess of a life, Chacko is a Shakespearean figure, defined as much by pathos as by his laundry list of failures.
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Finally, all through the novel there is the rumble of communism mobilising workers against the landed gentry, sounding the death knell of the ruling Congress party. Yet, the ancient barriers of caste and untouchability remain sacrosanct, even as workers of the world unite and unionise. In The God Of Small Things, this hypocrisy destroys families and generations and individuals—and it continues to play havoc in contemporary India.
When the fragile ecosystem of Ayemenem comes crashing down in the aftermath of the illicit affair and the accidental death of a child, it brings in its wake the end of innocence for Estha and Rahel. Their childish suffering remains unarticulated, a corrosive guilt haunts them into adulthood, turning Rahel incapable of happiness and Estha silent and withdrawn. The dissipation of their shared trauma—20-odd years later, when the twain meet again—happens through another breaking of the “Love Laws”. The ghosts of the dead must be roused before they can be given their final send-offs. Like the exorcism that Estha and Rahel undertake, many have since been carried out in the pages of South Asian fiction in other forms and contexts. But none remains as potently memorable.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times