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The God of Small Things - A Postmodern Novel
Bran Nicol in his 2009 book, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction, echoes the opinion of many others when he states that the term ‘postmodern’ is ‘notoriously slippery and indefinable’. It is a label given to post 1950’s artistic endeavours. Fundamentally, it is understood as a rejection of its predecessor – ‘modernism’, a period in society when science, rationality and industrialisation were embraced as beacons in the storm that is life (Anderson, 1998). How does postmodern literature reject these institutions? It does so with irony, self-consciousness, a disregard for time as a linear concept and with a critical eye towards injustice. It cares about reality only from a subjective point of view. The reader is not permitted to become engrossed in the tale; instead he is invited to participate, to question. These stories also hope to shock, to rebel against our sense of decency (Anderson, 1998). Can Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things be accepted as meeting these abstract notions? I certainly think so.
K.V. Surendran defines The God of Small Things as a ‘saga of lost dreams from several points of view’. The Ipe family, although of high standing in Indian society, produced not one member who could triumph over life’s tragedies. Velutha, the character who defines the book’s title, is described as ‘The God of Loss’, a being who ‘left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no image in mirrors’. This description is more fitting of his employers, the Ipe family. Their slavery to social convention robbed them of true love, happiness and a relationship with one another. It left death, secrets and emotional scars in their place. Here is one example of how Roy’s work is a true servant of the postmodern movement. Such work is a statement that society is wrong, that change is needed.
Roy’s dissatisfaction is with the social conditions of post colonial India. One criticism is the fact that the upper class holds the English language in higher esteem than Hindi (Bhattacharjee 2010). The character Chacko muses, that they are ‘trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps’. Chacko’s daughter, Sophie Mol, is treated far better than her cousins because she is half English and light skinned. While she holidays with her Indian relatives, a hybrid English culture is paraded before her, while the more Indian part of her heritage is hidden by the family like a dirty secret.
In this world, the true self is suppressed in many other ways. For instance, love is wiped out if it comes about through a natural process. There must be no inter-class relations and the ‘untouchables’ risk death for breaking this rule. These outcasts tend to accept their subjugation without question. One such Untouchable, Vellya Paapen, is even willing to kill his own son, Velutha, when he learns that he violated the social order by falling in love with a woman above his station. Roy’s desire to focus on the negative, to point out the blemishes in the landscape of her reality is one of the ways in which we can determine that her novel is a child of postmodernism (Bhattacharjee 2010).
As previously mentioned, time is dealt with in a nonlinear fashion by the postmodernist. Flashbacks and sudden sidetracks from the story are dispersed throughout this novel in an effort to continually remind the reader of the writer’s presence and her desire to engage with us (Anderson, 998). Our travels take us from the present day in 1993 to the pivotal year of 1969 and it is between these two places that we are shuffled.
Another way in which the postmodern writer reminds us that we are reading a text is through ‘intertextual references’ (Nicol 2009). Again, Roy can be noted for satisfying this benchmark. There are a number of references to works of fiction connected to empire – Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Kipling’s Jungle Book and Joseph Conrade’s Heart of Darkness. This is a very clever way of using established literature to comment on an issue important to the writer’s agenda (Bhattacharjee 2010). In Roy’s case, her objective is to repeatedly confront us with the aftermath of colonialism. She had initially done so with her criticism of the upper classes love of the English language over their native tongue.
The novel opens in the year 1993 with an elegant house in ruins, windows are covered in filth, brass doorknobs in grease and dead insects inhabit empty vases. Thirty one year old Rahel has come back to her childhood home to see her twin brother Estha. He has unexpectedly returned and they have not seen each other in twenty five years. As the story moves on from this point we begin to understand that these siblings did not experience a carefree childhood. We quickly come to realise that although born in privilege, they lived in emotional poverty. Such irony is a classic touchstone of postmodern work. There is no scarcity of the application of this rhetorical device throughout the book.
We travel from the present back to 1969 when the twins are seven. They are happy in each other’s company; it is a relationship without conditions, unrestrained, unlike that of the adults (Bhattacharjee 2010). Their mother Ammu has brought shame upon herself by leaving her abusive husband and returning to her parent’s home, ironically the place she tried to escape by marrying her husband. The twin’s grandmother is also the victim of abuse, her head permanently scarred from her dead husband’s beatings. Like mother, like daughter, Mammachi and Ammu, entered marriages marked by violence. They are evidence of the fact that women are second class citizens in this society (Bhattacharjee 2010). This is another demon, another grievance, Roy is exorcising through her writing.
Irony is also one of the ingredients used to create the character of Velutha, the family’s handyman and an Untouchable. He is the only true innocent of this world; he exudes kindness and showers affection on the twins, something no other adult does. Given his standing in society, his carefree nature is something of a surprise. Devastatingly he is punished for being this way. He is killed for trying to live a life of happiness. There is grotesqueness in this and one cannot but feel outraged by this unfairness. The postmodern novel is clever in the way it gets its reader to join the protest, to become as passionate in a cause as the writer is (Nicol 2009). This is why the postmodern writer crosses the line of decency to nauseate us. Unsavoury events occur to shake us, to leave a lasting impact on our hearts and minds. The theme of the grotesque trickles through this novel like a poison. Early on we discover that Estha’s childhood was destroyed during a family outing to the theatre where he was molested by the ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink man’, a vendor working at the sweet counter.
The twins’ aunt is the incarnation of the malignance seen when the postmodernist looks around. Baby Kochamma’s foulness found root when she converted to Catholism and entered a convent in an attempt to get closer to the man she loved, a priest. She left the convent after she realised her efforts were in vain. She never fell in love again.
Baby Kochamma is the cause of the family’s ultimate downfall (Bhattacharjee 2010). She was determined that harm would come to Velutha, ever since she saw him protesting with the communists. On the way to the airport to pick up her brother’s daughter and ex-wife, the protestors surround the car and force Baby Kochamma to wave a red flag and chant a communist slogan. Although Velutha had nothing to do with her humiliation she directs her hatred towards him nonetheless.
Ammu comes to see what her children love in Velutha and so their domed love affair begins. Inevitably, the affair is exposed. Her family lock her in the bedroom while they deal with the Untouchable. It is then that she screams at the twins: ‘If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be here! None of this would have happened! I wouldn't be here! I would have been free! I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born! You're the millstones round my neck!’ Deeply hurt by her words, the twins decide to run away. Their cousin Sophie Mol begs to go with them. While crossing the river at night, their boat capsizes and Sophie drowns.
The death of Sophie Mol is the central point of the novel. The child herself ‘became a memory, while the loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season’. This dysfunctional family collapsed under the weight of their loss (Bhattacharjee 2010).
When the family realise what has happened, Baby Kochamma takes the opportunity to destroy Velutha. She goes to the police and accuses him of being responsible for the little girl’s death. She also tells the police that he raped Ammu and kidnapped the children. He is hunted and beaten by the police in front of the twins, a further anguish to add to their childhood memories.
The twins tell the Chief of Police what really happened to Sophie Mol. He fears the repercussions the wrongful attack of Velutha will have when the communist community learn of it. Baby Kochamma is now in trouble with the police so she convinces the twins to back up her story. Estha is the one she really pushes to condemn Velutha. She convinces him that his mother will go to jail for having an affair with an Untouchable if he does not do as she says. He is taken to the cell where Velutha is kept. Here Estha sees his beloved father figure naked and nearly dead and is traumatised by the state he is in with ‘blood spilled from his skull like a secret’. Velutha dies that night and Estha bares the weight of his death, along with guilt over the death of his cousin (Bhattacharjee 2010).
After Velutha is condemned Baby Kochamma convinces her nephew Chacko that his sister Ammu and the twins are responsible for his daughter’s death. As a result, he kicks them out of the house. Ammu is forced to send Estha to live with his father as she can’t provide for two children on her own. The postmodern novel does not care if grief and tragedy is disproportionately handed out. Estha gets more than his fair share and as a result enters adolescence and adulthood as a mute. Roy, like a true postmodern writer, does not try to inject a more favourable tide onto her creation’s shoreline. The postmodern writer is not concerned with ensuring good triumphs. Indeed, right and wrong are relative concepts, so too are the things conventional society deems inappropriate. When Estha and Rahel are eventually reunited in 1993, they sleep together. They do this as a result of the shared grief they have carried around; the fact that incest is a strict social taboo is irrelevant (Bhattacharjee 2010).
The good and pure are targets in this novel. Velutha is the victim of much deceit. Estha is fooled into accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit. As a member of the communist party, he should have gotten the support of his party leader when he was accused of the crime. Instead, Comrade Pillai uses Velutha’s predicament to lead a communist siege on the family’s pickle factory (Bhattacharjee 2010). For the twins, it is not even their role in Sophie's death that haunts them throughout their lives, but the fact that what they had always feared had come true; they had lost their mother’s love.
This novel exhibits an overwhelming focus on death and other dark themes, such as the decline of morality. Postmodernists are concerned with the loss of ethics that modernity has brought about (Nicol 2009). One example of ethics lost is Ammu’s abusive husband trying to make her sleep with his boss, this was the reason she eventually left him. Rahel’s thoughts wander into places quite dark for a child. She convinces herself that Sophie Mol is still alive in her coffin. During her funeral she imagines blood spilling from the ceiling painter’s skull ‘like a secret’. The exact same phrase is used to describe Velutha, as Estha sees him, dying in the cell (Bhattacharjee 2010).
The God of Small Things is a model example of postmodern literature. Typically, characters in such writings are constantly put into situations that highlight the conflict between different sections of society - divisions drawn by class, colour, creed and gender (Nicol 2009). Ironically present in the title of the book, a deity is not really welcome in this work or others in its genre. There is no absolute truth, there is no fairytale ending, the good have less of a chance of endurance than the deceitful (Nicol 2009). Roy takes us to dark places. Her story is a mixture of stories, none that leaves the reader warm inside. She has followed the postmodern formula to the letter and because of this; all of her characters suffer great loss. Velutha was the only one to display bravery, to attempt to live a life worthwhile. Lamentably, heroes do not go unpunished in the postmodern world.
Anderson, P. (1998) The Origins of Postmodernity. (London: Verso)
Boehmer, Elleke. 2000. ‘East is East and South is South: The Cases of Sarojini Naidu and Arundhati Roy’, ‘Woman: A Cultural Review, 11:1/2, 61-70
Nicol, Bran. 2009. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction (Cambridge University Press)
Roy, Arundhati. 1997. The God of Small Things (London: Flamingo)
Roy, Arundhati. 2002. ‘the ladies have feelings, so ….’ In The Algebra of Infinite Justice (London: Flamingo)
Surendran, K.V. 2000. The God of Small Things: A Saga of Lost Dreams (Atlantic Publishers)
Bhattacharjee, Archana. 2010. Indian Social Values; A Study of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things from a Post Modernism Perspective. (Bilingual Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences)