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Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: an analysis and summary

“When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That's what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” ― Arundhati Roy

Introduction to the Author: Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy, a very famous author from India, won the Booker Prize for her book The God of Small Things in 1997. The novel is a semi-autobiographical. Arundhati Roy is also an activist who writes and speaks on issues concerning the environment, non-violence and also on human rights. She has written several nonfiction books like The Cost of Living, The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy, The Greater Common Good, Capitalism: A Ghost Story and many other titles.

The God of Small Things is the story of a Christian family from Kerala. The book is divided into 21 different chapters of varying lengths. The chapters are not internally sequential—flashbacks quietly blend into the present and vice versa. The past intermingles with the present, leaving its traces and influencing events that shock and pain. Following is an analysis and summary of the 21 chapters of the book.

Paradise Pickles and Preserves

Picturesque and apt, strung within the narratives from the first chapter are passages, where the reader can smell the air, see the landscapes, hear the river, feel the pulse of the characters of the story, or just observe this Syrian Christian Indian family from Ayemenem, Kerala. Introduced in this chapter are several characters from this family—the non-monozygotic twins, Estha and Rahel, their mother, Ammu, their grandparents—Mammachi and Pappachi and a grandaunt called Baby Kochamma and her helper, Kocha Maria. Other significant characters are revealed too, as the story progresses.

The present is dotted with past occurrences: that of a funeral, of how children think, of the futility of death, of a child’s understanding and naivety, of a mother’s tears, of unrequited love, of Baby Kochamma’s childhood and her unsuccessful love story, her gardening skills, which are eventually jettisoned because of her fascination for foreign television soaps.

The reader is presented a window into the life of the twins—Estha and Rahel; Esthappen who was once returned to his father; and how his mother had once left and then re-returned to Ayemenem. It is the story of one twin’s silence, a divorce, a tragedy and subsequent returns to the town of Ayemenem in the district of Kottayam.

Introduced in this chapter is Velutha, an Untouchable, who works for the Touchable family (as per the Indian caste system). Within the narrative, is an expressive silent waterway of helplessness of the twins and their mother, and the dissension between the Big God and the Small God. This reference, in addition to that of “who should be loved and how much”, as framed by human laws, are referred to in this chapter and perhaps is the core of the narrative.

Paradise Pickles and Preserves is the name of the factory started by Estha and Rahel’s grandmother, Mammachi. Soshamma, is her real name. Like the clandestine preparation of Banana jam and its dissimilarities from jelly and hence its unlawful use, the family always has its undercurrent disturbances and its oddities, which are well beyond repair.

There is more of now, to be seen, understood and let be—this is the tone of the story from the very beginning. Nothing can be shaped back together; all that had to happen, has occurred. It only has to now, be witnessed. From the present, the narrative returns to the past, where it all started—with Sophie Mol’s arrival. Mol means little girl in Malayalam and Mon means, little boy.

Pappachi’s Moth

Pappachi is an entomologist and his discovery of a new breed of moth, is attributed twelve years later, to someone else. A dysfunctional family that the readers witness could be a result of his severe inputs. Chacko and Ammu are his children. Many elements frame this chapter: Chacko’s Oxford education, his official running of the pickle factory, his escapades; including the story of the Untouchables, the Paravans, the lowest in the caste system.

There is mention of Marxists, of communists, of the political scenario of the country at the time. It is a narration of Ammu’s intercommunity love marriage, which does not turn out well and her return to her father’s house and the brewing edgy behavior to her personality.

The twins, Estha and Rahel, along with Baby Kochamma, Ammu and Chacko, are going to Cochin, to welcome Sophie Mol—Chacko’s English daughter and Margaret Kochamma, his ex-wife, who has recently lost her second husband. They are en-route to Cochin from London. The twins plan to see the Sound of Music, at a cinema theatre, a day prior.

On the way, the family, in their blue Plymouth, bump into a Marxists’ march and Rahel catches a glimpse of Velutha. Therefore, part of the chapter is also an introduction to Velutha, an untouchable who was doing what he was not supposed to. There is also a flashback to Rahel’s time in New York, with her husband, in this chapter.

Big Man the Laltain, Small Man the Mombatti

Laltain is a lantern and Mombatti is a tallow-stick, and this is how a Bihari coolie had once referred to dreams, to Estha. The focus of this particular chapter is on a present encounter—when two siblings meet, after several years. Estha has stopped voicing his feelings. Baby Kochamma and Kocha Maria are in the other room watching television. It is very quiet and most things around them have withered.

Abhilash Talkies

This is one of the most shocking chapters of the novel. Inside a cinema hall, the twins watch The Sound of Music, along with their mother and a baby aunt, but in a matter of minutes, a creep, the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, snatches a part of a child’s innocence, bruises a soul and singes a patch of what-could-have-been only innocent memories. A twin detects what a mother does not and a baby aunt never could.

Overnight, one twin also dreams of a river and waits in close proximity with an anxious father, a sentient co-twin, a mother and a baby aunt, to pick up members of an English family from the airport.

God’s Own Country

The reader returns to the present in this chapter. Rahel sees an ominous house turned into a hotel, where traditional Kathakali dancers entertain tourists. She also meets old people from Ayemenem and reminisces small episodes. Mr Pillai shows her an old picture of Sophie Mol —“a girl who was loved from the very beginning.”

Cochin Kangaroos

Family members unite in this chapter. At the airport, Rahel turns cement Kangaroos, which are really bins, into real Kangaroos in her imagination. While Rahel and Estha have been playfully assigned the roles of Ambassadors, Rahel, is also found communing with the cement Kangaroo figurines, as if they are alive. Upon Sophie and her mother’s arrival, Ammu scolds her twins for their wild manner at the airport. Chacko drives them back to Ayemenem.

Wisdom Exercise Notebooks

Rahel thinks of the past in this chapter, of how her mother, Ammu, passed away, of how Ammu worked and would also teach them English and correct their mistakes in notebooks.

Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol

As the title of the chapter suggests, Kochu Maria makes a welcome cake for Sophie Mol, who is now in her real father’s house. Chacko’s house. Mammachi, Chacko’s mother does not like Margaret Kochamma. Sophie Mol, however, finds acceptance and love.

Mrs Pillai, Mrs Eapen, Mrs Rajagopalan

Sophie Mol, Estha and Rahel have an unusual bonding—a friendship that is not effusive, but subtle. The children playfully turn into ladies, by wearing saris and by acquiring false temporary names like Mrs Pillai, Mrs Eapen and Mrs Rajagopalan. They meet the twins’ friend Velutha, who treats them with respect, for they wish to be treated as children-who-have-now-grown-up, for they have acquired grown up names.

The River in the Boat

When children think like adults, thoughts like “Anything can happen to Anyone” and “It’s best to be prepared”, germinate in the mind of children—at-first-innocent-ideas that can twist life around, in unexpected ways. The children find an old boat covered with moss and stare at the river before them with inchoate mature thoughts, “with the moon and the fishes in it”, as stated by the author. A river, parts of which they knew well—and a part of it—they did not.

The children go to Velutha’s hut after their discovery and first meet his disabled older brother and then Velutha himself, who promises to repair their boat. After this, the children run back to the house, before their mother awakens.

The God of Small Things

Ammu has a dream of a man in this chapter, who holds her by the light of a lamp—“If he touched her, he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her, he couldn’t leave.” Part of her dream, are the people in her life and the sea that is black; the man can swim with one hand and she can too, with both her hands. She stands with him in the dream, but who is he?—The God of Small Things or other things? The cheerful man in her dream with footprints leaves none on the shore, as he swims out. Ammu wakes up from her dream and realizes she was happy in the dream.

Kochu Thomban

This chapter elucidates a time of silent reunions and cleansing. A temple elephant, Kochu Thomban, is asleep, while Kathakali dancers perform to purge themselves of sins and enact scenes from the Mahabharata, which are deep and surreal, where men act out women characters and mythology and art coincide; all this happens, with the twins as the audience.

The Pessimist and the Optimist

The readers are taken back to a fateful meeting that had brought Margaret and Chacko together. In the midst of laughter, while the story of the pessimist and the optimist was being narrated by Chacko, in a café where Margaret worked, a love story takes shape. The chapter also contains a vivid description of a death, an accident. A child’s body has been found, downriver, floating on the river.

Work is Struggle

Chacko meets Mr Pillai, a communist party member, who is also someone who prints stickers, for Chacko’s factory products. In his house Chacko comes across a wooden placard, which said, “Work is Struggle, Struggle is Work”. Before Mr Pillai arrives, he waits for him in his house and meets his combative niece, his son and his wife.

Upon his arrival, Chacko, in spite of his Oxford education feels inferior because he does not have the local power that Mr Pillai has. They discuss a new sticker and Velutha, a man who has an engineer’s mind, but one who still should not be allowed inside the house because he is a Paravan, an untouchable. On the other hand, in another location, Mammachi humiliates Velutha, having learned his secrets. Velutha has nowhere to go, post this.

The Crossing

Three children cross the river—a pair of twins and a little girl—the three in one boat and it is child’s play. Meanwhile, Velutha, beaten down and ambushed, also crosses the river to reach a house on the other side. A house where his father had sickled Kari Saipu’s ghost to a tree—an Englishman’s Ghost who asked for cigars. Velutha carried red nail varnish on his nails that the three children had applied on him. He was, as from the book, “As lonely as a wolf. The God of Loss. The God of Small Things.”

A Few Hours Later

A tentative child and two confident swimmers are on the river bank, they have a sling cloth bag, with pilfered food for their journey: there’s bread, cake and biscuits. The twins are weighed down by their mother’s words, “If it wasn’t for you, I would be free, and I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born. You’re the millstones around my neck.”

The boat was equipped, with potatoes, matches and a battered saucepan. One child who was not initially included had convinced the other two children to travel as a threesome, so that there was more support when a mother came calling, convincing, pleading them to return. The boat sets sail. What adults would fear to do, the children set into motion. However, by the end of it, only two children climbed ashore. One did not. It was four in the morning. The children walked to the History House. Someone else was sleeping on the grass mat in the History House, besides them.

Cochin Harbour Terminus

The story returns to the present. The old Plymouth withers, signboards rot, Baby Kochamma maintains a dairy where she writes ‘I love to you’ to a lost love, one who had changed faith and had passed away four years back; “his rejection of her neutralized by his death”, as quoted in the book. Two siblings examine each other—they remember how a mother had left one of them on the Madras Mail, an event they perhaps could never forget. In the past, Chacko had asked Ammu to leave and Estha is returned to his father and they were separated.

The History House

A company of Touchable policeman cross the Meenachal river. The Kottayam police, go beyond the river, cut through the swamp, pass dragonflies, anthills, chameleons, ferns, flowers, then come to a house, where they find them on a grass mat—a dark man, a little boy and a little girl. They thrash the dark man, collect the children, confiscate their toys and drag the man back to where they came from. They rupture his body and his soul—for being an Untouchable and for daring to love a Touchable. As is said in the book “they are merely inoculating a community against an outbreak.”

Saving Ammu

The children speak the truth, under the influence of two Coca-Colas and then are made to lie, under the influence of Baby Kochamma, a woman who has nothing but jealousies and malice in her heart, remnants of unfulfilled dreams of her own. Estha is one of those children who is influenced. He meets the dark man in the jail, the Untouchable, Velutha—who rests his eyes one final time upon his beloved child. Before Ammu can bring the truth to light, Baby Kochamma enrages Chacko and Ammu is sent away.

The Madras Mail

A lot happens in this chapter. Three touchables had loved an untouchable man to death. Moreover, the Madras Mail takes away one of the three touchables away from the other two. This chapter holds together glimpses of a mothers’ trying-not-to-cry-mouth, highlights a painful separation between a mother and a child, between siblings and how the very essence of childhood is lost.

The chapter also reflects back on the past, when Ammu senses exclusion, for the attention now is on an ex-wife, a white woman, and her beautiful child, Sophie Mol. Ammu remembers the man she loves. The reader is swiftly again brought back to the present, two of the siblings are together now, twenty three years later.

The Cost of Living

The only solace an immersed reader can expect from this engrossing and tragic storyline is possibly in the last chapter of the novel. It ends with a flashback, where one touchable tells an untouchable, “we will meet again tomorrow.” The reader is taken back to the past, where Ammu runs to the riverside to meet an Untouchable under the mangosteen tree, on a patch of land, left behind by an old boat discovered by the twins. A lot is lost as a result of this union—two lives and two childhoods.

Conclusion

Exquisite use of the English language, coupled with a haunting storyline, makes this book, an intense read. The God of Small Things is a pulchritudinous but tragic representative journey through India’s English speaking landscape. This book can stun, like no other, make one feel the anguish and pain of a mother, the sorrow of a child, the sufferings of lovers separated, the forced maturity thrust upon children, the separation of family members. And one will also witness the ploys exhibited by those who envy and the actions of those who cannot forgive.

The story is not sequent, it reveals itself in spurts—what happens now, affects what will happen later, what happened earlier, affects what happens now. There are parts in the story, which could be completely unacceptable to some readers. However, one wonders what the outcome would have been, had untouchability never been a factor and if only everyone was treated equally.

Writer’s Website: www.trishabhattacharya.com

Photo Credit: Image of the book cover of the novel The God of Small Things

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