The God of Small Things

Categories: Roy

Thanks for leading discussion on your own today.  I’m eager to hear the follow up.

11 Responses to The God of Small Things

  1. Catherine Alexandre says:

    Jae- I appreciated the context that you gave us about the book. While I had noticed from the information about Roy in the novel that she had been trained as an architect, I was not aware of the degree to which her life is connected to the novel. I am particularly fascinated by the fact that her mother refused to comment on whether or not the Sophie Mol incident had taken place. I just did a quick Google search trying to figure out if Roy had a twin brother, and it came up with an article in which her older brother George insists, despite him mother’s comments to the contrary that you mentioned in class, “Mary Roy is Ammu,” and then refuses to say who Velutha is, which implies that her mother probably did have a relationship with a man from a lower caste. In any case, it makes me wonder exactly how much of the novel is fiction and how much actually comes straight from Roy’s life, because there seem to be a bunch of important parallels.

    Phoebe- I thought you touched on a lot of interesting points in your presentation. I thought your use of whirlpool imagery was very accurate, and the way you tied in fish was fascinating. I think it’s true that the way people who have been through a trauma tell a story is by circling around and around it until they get closer and closer to the main event at the heart of the traumatic experience, which is reminiscent of a whirlpool and the narrative style in the novel. I also thought that you asked a really important question, which was, according to Roy, “does history shape people or do people shape history?” and when I think about the events in this book, it mostly seems that the characters, such as Estha and Rahel, are shaped by events that they do not choose to instigate, such as Sophie Mol’s death and the orange-drink lemon-drink molestation, but at the same time their actions, such as the fact that the twins decide to run away, and that Estha doesn’t fight the orange-drink lemon-drink man and then tells him about where he lives, contribute to their suffering and important events in the novel. One other moment is when Estha says “yes” to the policeman’s question, thus saying Velutha is guilty of a crime he did not commit and choosing his mother of Velutha. Roy writes, “Had they been deceived into doing what they did? Had they been tricked into condemnation? In a way, yes. But it wasn’t as simple as that. They both knew that they had been given a choice” (302) and it is that knowledge that leads to Estha’s silence and his fear of the power of his words. This quote seems to me to acknowledge the complexity of agency and responsibility in the novel, and the question of how much history affects people and how much people affect history seems to be a complex one.

  2. Siau Rui Goh says:

    Jae –
    I thought your presentation was really helpful and I especially liked the overview of Roy who seems absolutely fascinating. I was surprised to hear about that she was sued for obscenity (seems like she gets sued a lot) because of the cross-caste sex scene rather than the incest in the book – although I guess we sort of established in class that the incest doesn’t come across as objectionable really …but then, Ammu and Velutha’s relationship isn’t meant to come across as objectionable to readers either. Even if, presumably, that offended reader is a firm believer in the caste system, it’s strange to think that a reader can get over incest in a piece of fiction but be unable to come to terms with the latter relationship.

    Phoebe –
    You raised so many fascinating points. One thing that intrigued me was your point about how Sophie Mol’s identity is almost a commodity that the family wants to consume and the general ambivalent regard of her and her mother by the Kochammas, despite their being Anglophiles. Despite being the one ‘Loved from the Beginning,’ Sophie Mol is very much reduced; Margaret, meanwhile, is continually condescended to because of her class. Part of the reason why Mammachi opposes her is because she’s part of the working class and Baby Kochamma quickly establishes her superiority over her by making a reference to The Tempest when they meet, ‘to set herself apart from the Sweeper Class’ (138).

    I also agree with Francie – I think it’s great you brought up that question of ‘History’ in that way. While reading the novel I kept thinking about how ‘History’ – and particularly that of the caste system – was thrown around as a monolithic and almost immutable force. It’s stated early on that Communism takes hold in Kerala because it makes no dent in the communal divides, the ‘deep-rooted’ caste issue that Comrade Pillai brandishes as he tries to wash his hands clean of Velutha. For that reason, the policemen’s brutal attack on Velutha is described as ‘impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal’ (292). Yet it’s obvious that this – being ‘History’s henchmen’ – doesn’t absolve them. In light of this, I think it’s interesting to consider that the caste system that’s so key in this novel actually changed considerably – it used to be a lot more fluid. There wasn’t the rigid hierarchy there is today; there was actual potential for mobility over generations. It was really only built to what it is today by the British (for purposes of positive discrimination).

  3. Meaghan Flood says:

    Jae-
    Your presentation brought up some really interesting and helpful points. Like Francie and Siau Rui I thought Roy sounded fascinating. Hearing about the possible biographical connection between author and work was tantalizing. I know we’re supposed to be hesitant to give in to the biographical fallacy, but I think in some ways, considering the possibility of nonfictional elements in the novel makes the portrait of trauma and family decay more urgent and powerful.

    Phoebe-
    Your presentation was really fascinating. You pointed out so many interesting themes and patterns in the text. I myself was puzzled about the fish in the text, especially by the graphics surrounding the section when Sophie Mol dies. Do you know if fish function as a kind of stock symbol in the Indian or Hindu tradition?

    I wanted to come back to the idea that we started to explore yesterday of the grotesque, open, porous body in the text. There is a constant flow of phlegm, blood, urine, semen, babies out of bodies, and a flow of glass beads, water, food, other bodies into bodies. In the twins, we see the most complete depiction of a grotesque body. They are described as “Siamese twins, physically separate” (5). There is, I think, the implication that they should have inhabited one body, should have been allowed to remain together, a complete whole (“Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons,” p. 311), and instead they have been traumatically wrenched apart, forming two separate, open, incomplete, grotesque beings.

    Just a few lines later, Roy describes the twins’ porous memory: “Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream. She has other memories too that she has no right to have” (5). Right there on page 5, Roy establishes the idea that the grotesque fluidity of the twins’ existence is transgressive; their connection is one that they have “no right to have.” Roy borrows this image of the grotesque and uses it to portray the unspeakable—moments of trauma and transgression—throughout the novel. Consider the image of “dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret,” (8, 303) the image that Roy uses to describe Velutha’s dying body and the image that Rahel recalls while at Sophie Mol’s funeral, linking the vocabulary of the grotesque to the two most traumatic events in the novel. Earlier on, Sophie Mol’s body is described (somewhere…can’t find it) as swollen from the water that has seeped through her skin into her body. Similarly, Ammu “opened herself to a luminous man” when she makes love with Velutha, who “asks to be let in further” (318).

    The narrative of the grotesque finds its resolution in the twins’ act of lovemaking. It is a grotesque act itself, depending on the openness and permeability of the body, but in many ways it is an undoing of the traumatic grotesqueness of their childhood. It is their method of overcoming the “hideous grief” caused by the grotesque events they witnessed as children, and it restores the unity that was violated by their grotesque division.

    The restorative nature of their lovemaking is the culmination of Roy’s argument against “Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits,” the (Love) Laws that artificially divide people. Because we understand that the twins have done what is “right” and “necessary” by breaking the “Love Laws,” we know that the other Laws at play in the novel—laws of caste, class, race, religion, nationality, family—are similarly fluid, open, grotesque, even.

  4. Emily McCabe says:

    Jae: Cool presentation! Hearing about Kerala as a region was interesting and surprising in a number of ways. I would not have guessed that the region was known for its more egalitarian treatment of women and immediately began searching back through the book to find signs of this. Perhaps Amma returns to her childhood home not only because she has no other options (unlike her daughter who migrates temporarily to New York) but because the region has a magnetism and is more open to divorced women than other areas. We don’t see many hints of this, but there also arent that many interactions with people outside the family so its difficult to get a full sense of the community and neighbors judgement.
    I also found it funny and enlightening to hear Roy’s views about the style and content of her work. As Jae pointed out she has produced quite a bit of non fiction titles. Yet people hound her about when her next novel is to be released, leading her to say things like “Im not a fiction factory.” For me this highlighted the social and cultural pressure readers and audiences place on authors to create prolifically and constantly. In Roy’s mind, like in her novel, small things like timing play a role and have significance and meaning. She does not write to churn out books it seems but to place them in their appropriate milieu for maximal impact, writing books or non fiction work when it needs to be written.
    I thought the comment in the John Updike review initially to be a little strange, the analogy seemed to me an odd one, but thinking about it further I agree with his assessment of the novel as “a Tiger Woodsian debut, hits the long socio-cosmic ball but is also exquisite in its short game.” Intimate moments, the vindictive portrait of baby, a glimpse into Chacko’s psyche, a thousand small moments coalesce to form a larger whole with national significance in a really compelling way.

  5. Ty Carleton says:

    Jae: I can’t believe how much of the novel was based on Roy’s life. I’m always much more apt to assume the authors who write autobiographically are the ones who write less intimate novels. The God of Small Things was perhaps the most intimate novel we have read thus far in the course. Of course one autobiographical instance does not necessitate another, but I can’t help but think that since both Roy and Rahel went to architecture school, etc. there are even stronger similarities between the author and her female protagonist. Did Rahel have a twin brother? Did they sleep together? Knowing how personal the story is made me feel more privileged to be reading it, like it was the trusting admission of a close friend. Thanks for your presentation!

    Phoebe: My favorite part of your presentation was your contrasting of Roy and Rushdie. I believe you suggested something to the effect that Roy uses the national to emblematize the familial and Rushdie does the opposite, using a personal, idiosyncratic narrative as an allegory for the nation of India. I found that statement insightful, but feel that it must be warranted.

    All great novels embody a certain reciprocity between the universal and the personal. I think Midnight’s Children is successful because it is captivating as a narrative about individual people, but also operates as an artful metaphor for Indian nationhood and touches upon the even grander realm of ‘the human experience’. Because of Rushdie’s often blatant although usually impenetrable symbolism involving the Indian zeitgeist and political history, it can be argued that Rushdie gives the national narrative primacy and allows the personal and universal narratives to be reflected therein. All three narratives are operative but often Saleem’s character seems to be more reflective of India than simply a boy named Saleem.

    The God of Small Things also operates within the personal, national and universal realms. I think your point was to emphasize the dominance Roy grants the personal narrative in the book. Because we as readers are plunged so deep into Estha and Rahel’s family, we maybe even understand more than any single character in the book does. We are (eventually) told all the secrets, come to know all the characters’ inner psychologies. Thus Roy invites us to view Indian Communism as a mechanism by which she reflects on the caste system as it is experienced by Estha and Rahel and Ammu and Velutha. I think this is certainly true, although it would be unfair to ignore the power of the text to work in the other direction. The personal story of the novel also reflects onto the grander scheme of Indian politics. An antiquated social hierarchy compromises Ammu and Velutha’s deep and genuine love; it’s pretty difficult to not read that politically.

  6. Emily Scarisbrick says:

    I really appreciated both the presentations yesterday for the reasons most people have already noticed. Jae’s commentary on how autobiographical the novel could be, or how ambiguous this element of it is, was really interesting. As was finding out the extent of Roy’s political involvement. Phoebe’s general analysis, and specifically the comment on how the novel ends in the middle but begins at the end, was very astute.

    It’s predictable thing for an English major to say, but our discussion of language really fascinated me today. One of the great successes of The God of Small Things is the theoretical weight behind the poetry. I agree that many of the images are at once symbolic yet somehow resist symbolism because of their personal nature: we don’t want to reduce brutal poverty to a motif, for example, because somewhere it is real. I also agree with Rex’s idea that the repetition – “the dialogue of small things”, as he said – can be viewed as a means of dealing with trauma. I think this is aided by the sensual nature of the reminders of trauma – like the fizzy drinks – because these capture exactly the way memory works, and somehow make the whole body complicit in remembering an event the way real trauma does.

    I was trying to get at this when I linked Esta’s assault to his eventual incest. The orangeyellow drink man sexualizes Esta at such a young age, and in doing so alienates him from his home and family where he no longer feels secure, so basically conflates sexuality with longing for home. Perhaps he also resignifies the indulgences of childhood and the role of adults by making something that seems so mild a potential threat. In short, he makes Esta grow up. This premature alienation from the childhood home is followed by attempts to recreate a home: across the river and then with his father. His relations with Rahel at the end are then his arrival back at home, but still bear the scars of his sexualization. It’s also true that the home Esta and Rahel come from is by no means an asexual environment: the dynamic between Chacko and Mamachi definitely bears scrutiny.

    When Professor Billings asked what types of narratives might feature repetition, it was interesting to me that we immediately jumped to the elderly or infirm. In these instances I think repetition of language would count as hanging onto a world through language. My first reaction was to think of children, and how they build their world through ideas linked to specific phrases, which is exactly what’s happening in the text, although I tend to forget just how young the twins are when everything happens. Roy lets us into the incredibly private world of language, which is just so magical I can’t quite describe it.

    To be more academic about this, I think part of the function of the repetition of phrases and ideas and the categorization is to try and establish an order and a sense to what is going on. It’s a kind of reassurance. But the truth suggested throughout the book is that many things are arbitrary: Sophie Mol dies so quietly at the hands of nature, Velutha dies savagely for no wrongdoing of his own. Even Esta’s final denunciation of his Velutha doesn’t damn him: he was going to die anyway. All the children want at the end is rules and structures, punishments that are in keeping with their actions as opposed to events that run away from them and that don’t seem to correlate to their intent at all. Breaking their world down into phrases is an attempt to categorize and make order in things they don’t ultimately control, to find the patterns and cling to meaning. But this conflicts with the text’s constant presentation of the world (identity, bodies, history) as something fluid.

  7. Amy Prescott says:

    Jae,
    Thanks for providing some background on the caste system and how it relates to the various kinds of Christians, with Syrian Christians as supposed descendants of earlier Brahmin and the New Christians as Untouchables desperate to escape the caste system. I found the relationship between the Paravans/other Untouchables and Christianity fascinating, as a would-be inclusive religion based on loving your neighbor as yourself provided them with separate churches and priests to keep them away from the higher castes (p. 71).

    Phoebe,
    You touched on so many great ideas in your presentation, and I like how you started off by saying that the book was more about style than about plot, how the story flowed from end to beginning to middle instead of chronologically. Although I didn’t find the plot terribly engaging, a few of the novel’s passages struck me as being out of place when compared to the lofty, flowing descriptions that occupied so much of the book; perhaps my status as a non-English major drew me to these passages because they managed to evoke some sort of emotional response without forcing one to drown in it six times over. My favorite scene was at the cinema, where Ammu, Baby Kochamma, and Rahel decided to use the bathroom but the older women insist on not sitting on the public pot (p. 91). The image of two women giggling while holding a young girl up by her armpits, encouraging her to just go ahead and pee already, struck me as such a relief from beautiful yet slow-moving descriptions of other similarly quotidian actions. While reading this I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, but it also forced me to consider Rahel’s identity as a girl and, later on (but described in the first chapter) as a young woman. Rahel enjoys being with her female family members but doesn’t consider that she’ll never be close to them in the same way again (p.92). After Sophie Mol’s death and Estha’s Returning, the rest of Rahel’s social structure falls apart; instead of continuing life in a household dominated by strong women, she’s shunted around to various schools where the teachers notice that she doesn’t seem to understand what it’s like to be a girl (18). Rahel doesn’t experience trauma on the same level as Estha did with the orangedrink lemondrink man, but being separated from the women in her family she was once so close to affected her for the rest of her life.

  8. Georgia Wright-Simmons says:

    Following up on our discussion, I wanted to talk more about the ways the novel mirrors—beautifully—the way we deal with trauma and loss in our lives. The repetition, I agree, is certainly a reflection of memory and the way history works wherein we create something in our memory—we create a history—but then it gradually grows and changes with us as other events come to light and become more important. In this sense, the novel was much like Rushdie (much as Roy apparently dislikes the comparison). To me, the novel created an even more intimate connection between memory and identity, revealing how both depend on one another (changes in your identity will change the way you perceive things, memories will change the way you conceptualize your identity). One of the most important aspects in this was the twins, who show the way that identities are porous and connected intimately to trauma, memory, and one’s specific connection to the two. I was reminded of N. Scott Momaday saying, “If I were to remember other things I should be someone else.” The traumas and connections, and the memories and coping mechanisms created, define the twins. We get to know them through their coping.
    This brings me back to Phobe’s presentation, where she noted that the whole novel is told in the first chapter, to some extent, and then repeated again and again throughout. The interesting thing, though, is that the whole story is told in the beginning, but with a million holes in it. Everything is hinted at but not revealed. It is like a genuine telling of a traumatic story, like a long course of therapy almost, wherein the person telling the story clearly has details they want to share, but cannot bring themselves to do it. It means that the event comes through in every aspect of conversation, hinted at, waiting for someone to ask, “What happened?” but no one does, and so the story must unfold through repeated tellings, with different aspects left out each time until everything finally spills out at the last moment. It reflects the ways in which we both cover and hide our personal traumas from the world and yet manage to work them into every conversation we have in small ways, even though we make it clear we want to “avoid” the topic. Like a child hinting at being sad, and then when asked what’s wrong saying, “nothing,” until it’s finally too unbearable. The hints—the early telling of the story, the early bravery in saying what happened—cover the underlying fear of the truly horrifying events. Likewise, the story is often told with a lot of little humorous quips. I feel as though the greatest sorrow is often covered with the greatest jokes: a defense mechanism. It is the humor you use to cover a story and hide it. It is the guise you create, the brave face, to hide behind to tell your story and like a mask it makes everything a little less personal. The humor trivializes the event by making it smaller—Worse Things Have Happened.
    This all adds up when we realize that the initial chapter doesn’t actually tell the whole story. We spend the whole novel waiting to hear about Sophie Mol’s death, and then we realize that that isn’t the story hardly at all. The initial telling that makes us trust our author and assume that the story will unfold with a few added details on what we already have from the beginning gets turned on its head at the end and we realize that everything we thought we had been waiting for was really covering up something more traumatic through jokes and sort of false leads on what the whole story will encompass. This, in the end, makes it all the more tragic, building up to one big event that we imagine to be the tragedy and showing that it is only marginal compared to the much greater tragedies it has been used to cover throughout the story.

  9. Samuel Davidson says:

    Jae – Thank you for filling in the history of Kerala and the controversies and opinions surrounding Arundhati Roy’s life. I think it’s interesting to research the events which contributed to Roy’s creating the story. I don’t think the story is too much of a biography – or at least any more than most novels, the best of which (for me) seem to be biographical in some way because there an incredible intimacy with the subject matter. I find it more interesting that an author is able to pick small things in their life and create stories around them. I’m sure Roy never saw her Uncle’s pickle factory as this great image or metaphor for preservation of memory/tradition/age…but rather that she took personal events and fictionalized them into universal understandings. That’s the art! So again thanks for that information.
    Phoebe – I was impressed how you just got off to a sprinting start and didn’t let up with your presentation. You seemed to have so much to say. I think your characterization of the novel as a sestina-style narrative was right on, and the way you drew the connection between the fish motif and love – I had never even thought about that in any way. Also, you argued that the backward-looking narrative was a way for Rahel to try to control the history that shaped her life. Very cool!
    It was interesting for me (after spending my last week intently focused on the Line of Beauty, where sometimes persons are “furniturized”) to read a novel where everything is personified. After reading the first two paragraphs it seemed that Roy imagines a living, breathing world. History is one example – at times an inhabited house, at times a narrative, at times an invisible force walking all the characters as if walking a dog. Its very different from how we normally see history. But something I wanted to talk more about is the “impenetrable Touchable logic” (72) which I think simply describes the rules, constructs, and “laws” that Roy works to overturn. Not only did Roy successfully penetrate this touchable logic in many ways, she actually managed to force me to question my own assumptions about my own internal logic. One example is why, for instance, I was so repulsed by the twins having sex. As long as I saw it as a metaphor, I could handle it – but when I thought about the real act itself I was slightly horrified. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was horrified because I’ve just always been told that incest is wrong, in our culture, with its own “impenetrable logic.” Such impenetrable logic is not actually “logic” in the story – it is actually usually just opinion formulated from personal experience, passed down from generation to generation. Sadness, for instance, is practiced before it is experienced. “Rahel wasn’t sure what she was suffering from, but occasionally she practiced sad faces, and sighing in the mirror” (59). Ammu asks Rahel if she had “Learned her Lesson yet,” (94). Rahel had: “Excitement always leads to tears.” Mammachi (also page 59) says that the people in their family only had two choices: “Divorce or inbreeding.” What’s sad is that all of this logic (though penetrable) usually turns out to hold some sort of truth. Estha’s excitement about the film somehow leads to his molestation, Sophia Mol’s excitement about gaining new friends and leaving the house leads to her death. Of course, what I think Roy wants to argue is that this logic is not “impenetrable” in the abstract, but rather that the people of the world create the logic’s fortitude – they make walls around it so that it becomes impenetrable. Roy really emphasizes that the love and beauty in the world lies outside such logic structures – the story ends with an untouchable man being touched an impenetrable woman being penetrated!

  10. James says:

    Jae-
    Really cool presentation. One question that came up for me during it, as well as reading the book–was there any reason given why Kerala was particularly disposed to Communism, as opposed to other regions in India? Specifically, I wondered whether it had anything to do with the prevalence of Christianity there, or perhaps the caste or economic makeup of the state. Also, I wonder (and this is probably impossible to know) how the book was received in Ayemanan. You mentioned there was a legal dustup with the governor of Kerala–but what of the people themselves?

    Phoebe-
    Echoing a lot of people, I really quite liked your presentation. Unpacking the meaning of the river and the fish felt particularly satisfying–and made some of the other details in the book particularly resonant. For instance, if the river is symbolic of caste divides, then there is a certain poignancy lent to the moment when Velutha sees Ammu waiting for him on the steps of the History House and almost drowns in it–as if, for a moment, he is overcome with his own Paravan name.
    Likewise with fish–when you mentioned that Velutha was often associated with them, I couldn’t help but to think of the detail early in the novel that says Velutha, with his magic carpenter hands, made Rahel her favourite lucky fishing rod. If fish resonate especially strongly with him, his fate is inextricably tied with that of the family: before she sees him, Ammu eats a fish in her dream, and wonders if it counts.
    To link this to the larger thread of trauma, that Rex pointed out–what is eaten often carries a powerful significance. I’m thinking particularly of the way “sickly-sweet” comes up over and over again in the book–as the scent of despair, of fear, of the lemondrink and the fizzy cola that Estha drinks. Perhaps it’s a statement about the body that Roy is making, and about its relation to memory–after all, taste and smell are the two deepest triggers for what we remember.

  11. Hallie Woods says:

    Jae – The context you gave in your presentation for the novel was great! Like other people have said before me, I am rather surprised at how closely the author’s life mimics the story. In knowing this I am impressed at how she turns her own life (within reason) into something incredibly lyrical, and with the right amount of mystery. I’d be curious to read Roy’s other writings, to see what she’s like when she doesn’t have such intimate detail to draw upon. Her connections to various political organizations and causes also helped me put that aspect of the book into perspective as well. Clearly it is something that interested her, and therefore creeps into her work, and I felt as though she assumes that the reader already has a strong knowledge of the party politics and therefore jumps right in. That left me in the dust a bit, but oh well.
    Phoebe – Who knew that this entire novel was actually about fish? I hadn’t even noticed the incredible repetition of that imagery throughout, so thank you for drawing my attention to it. As other people have been saying, the use of the river as a physical class divide was particularly poignant. I was thinking that perhaps because Sophie Mol is of a combined world, both white and Indian, and therefore out of place on either “bank” so to speak, this is the reason she is swept away and drowned. She can only truly exist in that middle space. The characters are always talking about how it is her spirit and memory that has lived on, the river simply claimed her body because she didn’t quite fit in.

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