Phallocentric Surveillance in Arundhati Roy’s "The God of Small Things"

The panopticon diagram
The panopticon diagram | Source

Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison explains how the Panopticon is applied to mediate society to achieve the best behavior. But can panoptic operations work in a society that mediates behavior according to caste and gender, especially when there are double standards? In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, the Love Laws govern who should be loved, how, and how much. The Love Laws function as surveillance to obtain and maintain power and order. However, sexual desire proves to be the one thing that caste and gender cannot successfully regulate. Sexual desire best illustrates and resists the use of panoptic operations in The God of Small Things.

Panopticism and the Love Laws

Ammu and Velutha’s sexual desire provide a perfect venue for tracing panoptic operations in Indian society. The clear opposition Ammu and Velutha have to the love laws exemplifies how “the value scales which serve to classify the world be modified so that the familiar boundaries which organize people into societies, castes and families have to be questioned, moved, or even removed” (Cabaret 75). Because the trysts of Velutha and Ammu break two love laws, the situation must not only be prevented but also ended completely. The families of the transgressors come to fill in the roles necessary for panopticism to work. Vellya Paapen, realizing the potential effects of the transgressions of his son, sets in motion the punishment to mediate appropriate behavior by telling Mammachi, someone who can do something, about the situation. Ironically, Baby Kochamma, who formerly tries to break the love laws with Father Mulligan, comes to be “the representative watcher of purity” (77) and exacts punishment.

The Ammu and Velutha situation illustrates panoptic operations a few ways. Overt sexuality is like a disease that must be contained. Since disciplinary projects grew out of the use of Panopticon for the plague, Panopticism as a means to keep sexual desire under control is easily identifiable in the novel. Ammu and Velutha, despite extreme caste differences, engage in sexual intercourse for pleasure. The only way to contain their lust is to literally separate Ammu and Velutha by locking Ammu in her room (239). Essentially, the two are quarantined—Velutha physically leaving town—until proper punishment can be meted out. When Velutha and Ammu die, the scourge is gone and will not spread. As Brenda Bose argues, the Ammu-Velutha relationship must end in death because while the affair is conducted secretly, it is also done so in full visibility (67). While Ammu’s death is based off of her banishment and resulting loneliness, Velutha’s death is a direct result of crossing caste lines. Panopticism works because power, as well as powerlessness, is always visible. The caste system makes identifying sources of power effortless because Untouchables “were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas,” and “They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke” (71). Velutha’s gradual assimilation of limited privileges of the Touchables threatens the power system established by the love laws and the caste system. So, Velutha must be eradicated and is. While the Ammu and Velutha affair exhibits Panopticism, it also resists the system.

Resisting Panoptic Operations Via Love Laws

How the Ammu-Velutha affair is handled and Ammu and Velutha’s behavior resist panoptic operations. The Love Laws do not effectively dissociate the see/be seen dyad. Ammu and Velutha are completely aware that they can be caught together at any time by anyone, but keep meeting (206). They do not necessarily internalize the fear associated with being caught. The system is undermined by the fact that the affair continues despite the known repercussions for breaking the Love Laws. Ammu and Velutha’s clear desire to be with each other “challenges monolithic social norms and becomes a matter of life and death” (Lanone 130). Even though the Love Laws cannot be seen, individual watchers—protectors of the laws—make their presence known to Ammu and Velutha: “If I find you on my property tomorrow I’ll have you castrated like the pariah dog that you are! I’ll have you killed!” (269). Mammachi and Baby Kochamma’s intent on being known as watchers undermines panoptic operations. Mammachi not only clearly lets Velutha know that she is keeping a keen eye on him (fascinating since she is nearly blind) but also the power she has to make swift punishment come to fruition due to her caste. Another failed attempt of panoptic operations is Vellya Paapen exhibiting pseudo self-policing by trying to keep a careful watch over his son’s actions (73). Even though Vellya’s intent seems like a result of internalized fear, he never physically stops his son. Furthermore, before the Ipe family is aware of Ammu and Velutha’s affair, Velutha is party to a role reversal of panoptic operations. As the Ipe family heads for the movie theater, they are stopped by a Naxalite rally during which Baby Kochamma is forced to wave the red flag and repeat the rally cry (Roy 77). Velutha is not only present at the rally but also looks directly into the car containing the Ipe family. Baby Kochamma’s future major role in Velutha’s death speaks to how “Change is one thing. Acceptance is another” (264). The situation begs one to consider who is watching whom.

How the Ammu-Velutha affair is handled and Ammu and Velutha’s behavior resist panoptic operations. The Love Laws do not effectively dissociate the see/be seen dyad. Ammu and Velutha are completely aware that they can be caught together at any time by anyone, but keep meeting (206). They do not necessarily internalize the fear associated with being caught. The system is undermined by the fact that the affair continues despite the known repercussions for breaking the Love Laws. Ammu and Velutha’s clear desire to be with each other “challenges monolithic social norms and becomes a matter of life and death” (Lanone 130). Even though the Love Laws cannot be seen, individual watchers—protectors of the laws—make their presence known to Ammu and Velutha: “If I find you on my property tomorrow I’ll have you castrated like the pariah dog that you are! I’ll have you killed!” (269). Mammachi and Baby Kochamma’s intent on being known as watchers undermines panoptic operations. Mammachi not only clearly lets Velutha know that she is keeping a keen eye on him (fascinating since she is nearly blind) but also the power she has to make swift punishment come to fruition due to her caste. Another failed attempt of panoptic operations is Vellya Paapen exhibiting pseudo self-policing by trying to keep a careful watch over his son’s actions (73). Even though Vellya’s intent seems like a result of internalized fear, he never physically stops his son. Furthermore, before the Ipe family is aware of Ammu and Velutha’s affair, Velutha is party to a role reversal of panoptic operations. As the Ipe family heads for the movie theater, they are stopped by a Naxalite rally during which Baby Kochamma is forced to wave the red flag and repeat the rally cry (Roy 77). Velutha is not only present at the rally but also looks directly into the car containing the Ipe family. Baby Kochamma’s future major role in Velutha’s death speaks to how “Change is one thing. Acceptance is another” (264). The situation begs one to consider who is watching whom.

A Microcosm of Panoptic Operations

Chacko and Mammachi’s actions in the Ayemenem House serve as a microcosm of panoptic operations. While Ammu’s and Velutha’s desire for physical pleasure needs to be eradicated, Chacko’s desire to be with many women simply needs to be managed. Since Chacko has a higher education and belongs to a higher caste in Kerala, he possesses more power. If anything, he should be the one to surveillance others. But Chacko clearly shows disinterest in overseeing others via the demise of Paradise Pickles and Preserves. However, his mother, dubbed the sleeping partner of the business, assumes Chacko’s rightful position not only in the factory but also in the house. Mammachi’s status as sleeping partner becomes ironic as she oversees her son’s sleeping behavior.

The Chacko and Mammachi scenario illustrates panoptic operations several ways. According to Mammachi, Chacko “can’t help having Man’s Needs” (160), but the way in which Chacko satisfies his needs can. Although Susan Stanford Friedman believes “Chacko does not upset the family by having sex with lower caste women from the factory, even in his own house” (255), Mammachi sees to it that if Chacko’s sexual behavior cannot conform to the Love Laws that they conform to her standards. Mammachi’s action of having a separate entrance built for Chacko’s room to avoid his exploits being visible is her way of containing the “plague” on her house. Mammachi helps to internalize Chacko’s fear of constant visibility and his eventual aloofness. As quoted in Cabaret’s essay, “Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards” (85). The words of Rahel prove most poignant. Chacko’s arrogance and lack of attention to power structures lead to him losing everything he actually loves: Margaret Kochamma, Sophie Mol, and dignity. The only recourse for Chacko is to immigrate to Canada. Chacko’s self-removal from Kerala society can be read as him submitting to panoptic operations. The constant attention from his daughter’s death, his sister’s actions, and his mother prove too fine of a microscope to be under. Although panoptic operations are illustrated with Chacko and Mammachi, the situation also works against the system.

Power and Panopticism

Power relations and visibility come into question concerning Mammachi’s efforts to control Chacko’s libido. Chacko’s clear desire for the undesirable, Untouchables, completely undermines the power structure so carefully set by the caste system. Ammu and Chacko are equally guilty of breaking the Love Laws, yet Chacko does not face any punishment. The clear double standard emphasized by Friedman as to how Chacko receives no punishment for his transgressions, whereas Ammu and Velutha do, proves why panoptic operations are resisted (255). A sexual and hierarchical double standard keeps the basis for the effectiveness of the Panopticon questionable: “They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory” (Roy 31). If one reapplies Bose’s theory of punishment for sexual transgressions, Chacko does not get punished because his deviance is not visible. Therefore, the see/be seen dyad can no longer serve as a means for maintaining order. The fact that Mammachi clearly wants to keep Chacko’s relations under the radar demeans the system even more. Also, Mammachi’s means of balanced justice questions the premise of power. Using money in exchange for broken Love Laws makes each woman aware of Mammachi’s presence but not Chacko. Mammachi’s efforts are futile, because the women do not care for Mammachi’s sense of fair trade and Chacko remains ignorant of his mother’s dealings. Her actions verify Rahel’s summation that “this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question” (31).

In Sum

Since Kerala is in a state of flux due to the growing intrusion of Marxist beliefs, panoptic operations become unstable and even at times reversed. The concept of who watches whom becomes entangled and used for very personal reasons couched in societal ones. What should be a self-sustaining system becomes questionable and unreliable. The fact that the strongest basis for panoptic operations in the novel is sexual desire only complicates and further destabilizes the usefulness and effectiveness of the Panopticon. Because those who are on the periphery, and thus totally visible, can be contrasting figures like Velutha and Chacko shows that Panopticism is not based on status as much as wrongful actions. In the end, both men leave Kerala prematurely, albeit in very different capacities. The premise for surveillance is not necessarily the transgressions of love laws but the audacity to use the phallus as a means to cross steadfast cultural lines to make a potentially political statement.

Works Cited

Bose, Brinda. “In Desire and in Death: Eroticism as Politics in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.ARIEL 29.2 (April 1998): 59-71. Print.

Cabaret, Florence. “Classification in The God of Small Things.” Reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Ed. Carole and Jean-Pierre Durix. Dijon: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, 2002. 75-90. Print.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Paranoia, Pollution, and Sexuality: Affiliations between E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity. Ed. Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 249-261. Print.

Lanone, Catherine. “Seeing the World Through Red-Coloured Glasses.” Reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Ed. Carole and Jean-Pierre Durix. Dijon: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, 2002. 125-143. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Harper Perennials, 1997. Print.

Stephanie Crosby
Stephanie Crosby | Source

About the Author

Stephanie Bradberry Crosby is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and Reiki Master. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, and Education and high school English teacher. She is a doctoral candidate in Education: Curriculum and Teaching. She runs her own home-based business, Naturally Fit & Well, LLC, which includes her all-natural, handmade, and customizable product line, Natural Herbal Blends. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.

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5 comments

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plutopanes 5 years ago from revolving round the sun

wow (that's all)


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StephanieBCrosby 5 years ago from New Jersey Author

Well thanks. I'll take that. I'm glad someone finally commented on this hub/essay.


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plutopanes 5 years ago from revolving round the sun

i like it. :)


rahul 4 years ago

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Thank you for the compliment. Thanks for reading!

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