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Social Background: The God Of Small Things
- The Caste System
- Character Development
- Velutha- Character Analysis
- The History House and Heritage
- Video- Interview with Arundhati Roy
The Caste System
The God of Small Things is a novel written by Arundhati Roy (1997) that deals with many social issues in Indian society. Its characters, even small ones with no role, throughout the entire novel, come up against the forces of Indian society and class as it has been structured for centuries around very rigid ideas known as 'The Caste System'. The Novel does take place after this system had stopped being a legal social policy, however the characters still find themselves limited by what is and is not socially acceptable. Roy portrays these social rules through the eyes of the two protagonists, Estha and Rahel, two twins, who names these rules 'The Love Laws'. They name it so because to them, this redundant social system still controls who you can and cannot love. It also appears to control what jobs certain people can adopt, it basically dictates who is considered better than others. Roy Deals with the problem of untouchability plaguing Indian Society. The entire story takes place in the Ayemenem House in Kerala and most of the stories drama takes place within the context of division of Indian people through the Caste System. It tells the story mainly of the relationship between both twins, but also of the relationship between their mother Ammu and Velutha. Both are forbidden by the Love Laws as Estha and Rahel are too close for siblings, and Velutha is considered too low class for Ammu.
As previously mentioned, the story revolves around two relationships, however they are both portrayed through the point of view of the twin siblings, but most from Rahel, as her 7 year old self, and also her 31 year old self. So what they understand about the Love Laws dictates how they illustrate the relationship between their Mother and her lover, Velutha. Growing up both kids view Velutha with nothing but admiration. They have known him all their lives as he worked at the family Pickle Factory. He was a constant figure in their lives and as such they love him. They begin to understand the Love Laws a bit more when the family inadvertently stumble across a Protest in the street on their way to the cinema. The Twins notice Velutha among the Protesters but are met with angry tones from the family when they bring it up.
Because the story unfolds in the same way the twins understanding of the social situations develop it is actually easier for readers to also understand this system for what it really is, an oppressive force that even though its outdated, still has lasting effects on people.
The Family, a quite confusing and Muddled one at that, is portrayed as very strict and stick rigidly to the Caste system for fear of what people would think. Ammu, Estha and Rahel's mother, is concerned with appearances and keeping up a good family name. Ammu and the twins are discriminated against by the family though, because Ammu willfully divorced her husband (because he tried to force her to sleep with his boss) thus making the children grow up with no father. Ammu's only choice in life now is waiting for death, with no education (Since her father thought it was an unnecessary expense) she has literally no options. The twins are treated almost with disdain due to their mothers actions as shown at the funeral where they had to stand separate to everyone else.
However, the family is far from perfect. Mammachi Is the twins Grandmother, a woman who is beat by her husband, and sticks to herself. Baby Kockamma is the twins grandaunt and is vindictive and manipulative, going as far as accusing Velutha of sexually assaulting Ammu in order to keep the families social dignity. Chacko is their uncle, who fathered Sophie Mol during his short marriage and it is Sophie Mol and the events that surround her death which sets the plot for the noveli
Homecoming is an important theme in the novel, as it portrays how people who abide by the Love Laws are respected more. For Sophie Mol, and the twins, Homecoming signifies exactly that, being home, and being where you belong. For the twins, this is because of their separation, their relationship as children (feeling as though they were one person) was seen as wrong, so being separated meant that they were abiding by the Love Laws. Ammu and Velutha on the other hand, betrayed societies rules, and so died, away from home, not with family. As outcasts. This served as almost punishment for their life choices.
Throughout the book, there are many examples of caste prejudice to/from nearly all members of the family. Chacko tells the twins at one point that they come from a long line of 'Anglophiles' simply because they enjoyed The Sound Of Music. To Chacko their Indian heritage is hugely important and must be maintained but the twins are interested in many aspects of Western Society. This idea crops up again as Chacko uses the History House as a metaphor for both the families history and Indian History. The twins are fascinated with all things British and as such must be losing ethnic background,b according to Chacko. Velutha is the character who shows how real prejudice works though, as although Ammu finds emotional support in him, he is an untouchable. He is called a 'Paravan' by the family, and the twins are told that Paravans should walk backwards with a broom so to erase their footprints so the touchables wont have to walk in them. This demonstrates the hatred towards lower caste people, as telling children this in an age where it isn't even social policy any more portrays the need to preserve this system and pass it on. Touchables, as demonstrated by both Chacko and Baby Kockamma, feel superior to lower class and thus treat them as such. Although Velutha is a talented carpenter he is openly subjected to social exclusions due to his class. He himself is against social discrimination, hence his involvement in the protest, and also why he doesn't abide by the 'Love Laws', the same can be said of Ammu.
Velutha offers Ammu the what she has been denied all her life, by her family and society, that being happiness. And so too does he offer brief moments of happiness to the twins, which they accept gladly, as it is a way for them to escape the suffocation of the Ayemenem house. Ammu does find herself, at first, jealous of the twins relationship between the twins and Velutha in the sense that they don't seem to worry about untouchability/touchability. She recalls when herself and Velutha were younger, and he would open his palm to hand her something, so she wouldn't have to touch him, yet the children play with him without these restrictions.
When Ammu and Velutha's secret relationship becomes apparent, Baby Kockamma and Velutha's own father conspire to kill him, again depicting the harsh attitudes towards untouchables, as even though Veluthas father is untouchable, he agrees the relationship is wrong according to society and so gives in to what society expects. It is the fear of social disgrace which push them to lock Ammu away and attempt to kill Velutha. Ammu is cast from the family, and dies a at the viable age of 31.
Velutha's sexual exploits are considered wrong because of his social status, yet Chacko can get away with mostly anything as his exploits are chalked up to simple 'male needs', the reason for this being that he he is a touchable and Velutha is not.
The History House
The History House serves as both a metaphorical and literal idea. To Chacko, the history house is a place where tradition an heritage is found, it holds their Indian History, and you have to walk though it, look at the pictures and books, and listen to the whispers of the ancestors in order to understand history and tradition. The Children however, assume the house he is talking of is a literal one, a derelict building on the other side of the river. The twins are forbidden to enter this house, therefor are unable to understand their Indian history and how it effects Indian present. A hypocrisy, one that symbolizes the twins need to comprehend everything around them and the restrictions placed on them which makes them wholly incapable of doing so. They view this History House with admiration, as a safe haven. The History House also serves as a symbol off the twins basic understanding of society. Before they enter it, they view the world with in a childish manner, and as they enter it, they become aware of society, restrictions etc. The event that forced the children to retreat into the History House at the end of the novel is one that not only makes them aware of society, but one that shows them the injustice of living, of societies rules and what their place is in this harsh world. When they witness the death of Sophie Mol, they retreat for safety into the History House, yet what it offers is far from a safe haven, instead they witness the brutal and lasting effects of the Caste System. From this point, everything changes, Estha never speaks again except for the word 'Yes', (a symbol of how he was forced to agree with the police that Velutha had assaulted Ammu), he is then separated from Rahel, and the family is destroyed.
The History House, the literal one, also portrays the ideas of many of the characters, like Chacko, who views it as an example of losing ones history, due to the fact that the previous owner of the now derelict house, is described as having 'Gone Native', and had shot himself after his underage 'lover' was moved away from him when the parents found out about the sexual relationship. This is important as it symbolizes the dangers of losing ones history, to Chacko anyway. The ugly end to the child abusers life, after he had allowed British tradition into his life serves as a punishment almost for letting go of Indian tradition.
Arundhati Roy's 'The God Of Small Things'.
This is easily one of the most beautiful I have read. Social Background and Ethnic importance is only part of this novel, as it includes so many other fascinating features. The eloquence in both description and symbolism in the book is impeccable and moves to enhance both the theme of the title and the Twins point of view as they grow. Postmodern techniques in writing style make it interesting to read, and always filled with suspense, Roy has proved to be a master of this. She fractures the timeline to keep readers guessing, but also so that we experience this story with the same confusion and growing understanding of the twins.
Interview with Arundhati Roy
© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide