Published: April 22, 1997 by Random House (1st published April, 1997)
Setting: Kerala India
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize (1997)
Set on the southern tip of India, The God of Small Things begins with 31-year-old Rahel’s return to her childhood home in Ayemenem. She is here because her twin brother, Estha, has returned. They shared an uncannily intimate bond in early childhood. But they were forcibly separated 23 years ago, and they haven’t seen each other in years. Silenced by horrific childhood events, Estha rarely speaks.
Estha had always been a quiet child, so no one could pinpoint with any degree of accuracy exactly when (the year, if not the month or day) he had stopped talking. Stopped talking altogether, that is. The fact is that there wasn’t an “exactly when.” It had been a gradual winding down and closing shop. A barely noticeable quietening. As though he had simply run out of conversation and had nothing left to say. Yet Estha’s silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy. It wasn’t an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha’s case the dry season looked as though it would last forever. (p. 12)
Rahel is also deeply marked by the tragedies that fractured her family and, in many ways, shaped her society. The man to whom she was briefly married didn’t understand her pervasive expression of “something between indifference and despair.”
He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind and demanded obeisance. The Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity … Nothing much mattered … It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.
Rahel’s childhood home is quiet now — the only people left are Baby Kochamma, who is her great-aunt, and Kochu Maria, the vinegar-hearted midget cook. The novel shifts back and forth in time, stepping back to the summer of 1969 when tragic events, and the cruelty of certain family members, shattered their lives.
Much of the story is told in disconnected fragments, giving us a sense of things one can’t bear to speak of. Some of these events are revealed early, and others are so heavily foreshadowed it is no surprise when they happen. This lends a heavy sense of foreboding and hopelessness to the story. In 1969, we meet the twins’ divorced mother, Ammu; Baba, their alcoholic father, is in the background. Their grandmother, Mammachi, lived through a violent marriage and has a disturbingly intense attachment to her son Chacko. We meet Uncle Chacko, the “Man of the House,” who is intellectually gifted but ineffectual in helping run Mammachi’s business. Chacko is a scholarly Marxist who aggressively seeks the sexual favors of women who work for the family company; he apparently sees no contradiction between his “Marxist mind and his feudal libido.”
We also meet Chacko’s beloved former wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Sophie Mol. This novel spirals, moving back and forth in time, shifting among the perspectives of various characters, and taking us deeper and deeper into the story. This has a mesmerizing effect. The author also blends lush, lyrical writing with language and imagery that is deliberately crude, disturbing or disgusting. On one hand the language is generously poetic, and we see images of lush green landscapes. On the other hand, we’re bombarded with odors and images of disintegration, filth and decay. This creates a vivid, disturbing world that draws readers in and immerses us in tragedy, injustice, and the deterioration of a family.
The God of Small Things explores a tremendous number of issues, including the cruelty and injustice of the Indian caste system, poverty, repression of women, and the persistent effects of British colonial rule. The ubiquitous effects of colonialism are represented by a once grand, decaying house, across the river from Rahel’s family home, which was once occupied by an Englishman who’d “gone native,” speaking Malayalam and wearing mundus. Tellingly, he is compared to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
This novel also delves into various forms of communism, as well as the social injustices that nurture both Marxist philosophy and militant communism. It explores various social groups, including Paravans, Pelayas, and Pulayes (members of the untouchable caste) and Syrian Christians. And it looks at the complicated role of Christianity in India. The multiple layers of this novel go incredibly deep.
I also had a sense that The God of Small Things is steeped in a many layers of Indian culture and folklore. There are references to folktales with which I’m unfamiliar. For example, we hear about Karna the Warrior and Dushasana. These tales reflect many of the novel’s themes, including revenge, grief, and rage. All of this was mingled with allusions to Western pop culture, like “Elvis the Pelvis.” 🙂 I wish I’d understood the cultural context of the novel more fully.
Overall, it’s a beautiful book, and at the heart, when you peel away all the layers, it’s a love story, albeit a tragic one.
She kissed his closed eyes and stood up. Velutha with his back against the mangosteen tree watched her walk away. She had a dry rose in her hair. She turned to say it once again: “Naaley.” Tomorrow.