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Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

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Peripheral Beings and Loss in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
Ng Shing Yi investigates Roy's invisible narratives

By Ng Shing Yi

The God of Small Things is couched in the consciousness of small things, the intimacy of language, and the minute undercurrents of a situation. It involves small, inchoate, personal emotions that burgeon into insurmountable, impersonal forces. From attention paid to the smallest detail in the pulsing, object-laden landscapes of Ayemenem, the novel ebbs into barely discernible emotions, which in turn grow into cogent observations about history, time and the postcolonial world. Like the postcolonial world that exists on the periphery of the Western colonial one, the postcolonial condition of the characters in the novel is one of marginality and liminality, a condition that renders them unclassifiable, alien to any easy categorization, just as their history is one of invisibility and amnesia. In a novel that carries shades of incipient socialism and feminism, the postcolonial condition is reinforced by the added drawback of being an Untouchable or a woman, as Velutha, Ammu, Rahel and Estha are: their marginality is so acute that leitmotifs of absence and loss accompany them in the novel. Like the small things upon which the novel dwells, the main protagonists of the story essentially occupy peripheral positions in their family or society. The God of Small Things attempts to overturn their marginality, their absent histories, by recording the careful detail of their lives, each minute fantasy and idea, the small creeping emotions that culminate in passion or despair. The novel exposes the corruption and inhumanity of socialist party politics (or more specifically, politicking) and capitalism, both of which are domains of power and of subtle colonial imperialism. As if to underline that their marginalized narratives constitute a hole in chronological history, time in the novel is synchronized: the traumatic events of loss and expulsion are told in brief, crystallized flashbacks. While “small things” may ironically connote triviality, the novel is ultimately concerned with marginality, absence and loss: in other words, the invisible narratives that are consumed by power, politics, or imperialism.

A subtle indictment of capitalism and politics takes place in the novel, as evinced by the capitalist takeover of the History House, an old mansion in Ayemenem, and its conversion into a sterile hotel for foreign tourists. Roy writes:

So there it was then, History and Literature enlisted by commerce. Kurtz and Karl Marx joining palms to greet rich guests as they stepped off the boat. Comrade Namboodiripad’s house functioned as the hotel’s dining room, where semi-suntanned tourists in bathing suits sipped tender coconut water (served in the shell), and old communists, who now worked as fawning bearers in colourful ethnic clothes, stooped slightly behind their trays of drinks. In the evenings (for that Regional Flavour) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances (‘Small attention spans,’ the Hotel People explained to the dancers). So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos.

The History House is situated in an area that Roy has termed the Heart of Darkness; the reference to Kurtz functions as an ironic, postcolonial inversion of Joseph Conrad’s remarkably, unconsciously racist text. When capitalism or commerce invades non-Western ex-colonies in strains of economic and cultural imperialism, they effect the reduction of postcolonial cultures into exotica or palatable, marketable products. Roy offers a perspective from the postcolonial end, in the guise of the dancer whose kathakali performances constitute an ancient and sacred art:

But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to become clerks and bus conductors. Class IV non-gazetted officers. With unions of their own... In despair he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.

He becomes a Regional Flavour.

In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee.

The postcolonial individual, trapped in his liminality and ‘unviability,’ cannot withstand the forces of capitalism, trivializing commerce and sterile marketing. Roy’s indictment of capitalism and politics is often sardonic, carrying a kernel of bitterness at the inevitability of betraying one’s original culture or individuality. For instance, Velutha’s being sacrificed by his own Communist Party, represented by the power-hungry Comrade Pillai, to the police officer Thomas Mathew, is a clear polemical indictment of self-interested politicking and the betrayal of the people it is intended to serve. Indeed, the novel sets itself up as a testimony to the fragility of the small, marginalized things (such as the kathakali dancer and his art) which become consumed by the forces of history and power.

Other than capitalistic and cultural imperialism, the postcolonial mentality may contain within itself a kind of residual enslavement which manifests in the psychic perception that white, ex-colonial powers possess an inherent superiority over black, ex-colonized subjects. While this may be understandably enforced by the ex-colonizers, it becomes particularly tragic and ironic in postcolonial subjects. Vellya Paapen and Baby Kochamma, upon discovering Ammu’s affair with Paapen’s son Velutha, who is from the despised Paravan caste or the Untouchables, exhibit their own indebtedness to colonial prejudices:

Vellya Paapen told Mammachi what he had seen. He asked God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own bare hands. To destroy what he had created...

[Baby Kochamma] said (among other things) – ‘How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed, they have a particular smell, these Paravans?’’

And she shuddered theatrically, like a child being force-fed spinach. She preferred an Irish-Jesuit smell to a particular Paravan smell.

The colonial hierarchy of who is superior and who is practically subhuman is echoed in the caste system of India, wherein Touchables are not allowed to interact (other than on a master-servant basis) with Untouchables. In the complex social differentiation that pervades Indian society, discriminatory hierarchies continue to be deeply embedded in the psyches of its members, whether they are Touchable or Untouchable, colonial or postcolonial. These are prejudices that extend to within the family, wherein the daughter is usually less favoured than the son, and the unmarried or divorced woman is despised:

Ammu leaned against the bedroom door in the dark, reluctant to return to the dinner table where the conversation circled like a moth around the white child and her mother as though they were the only source of light. Ammu felt that she would die, wither and die, if she heard another word. If she had to endure another minute of Chacko’s proud, tennis-trophy smile. Or the undercurrent of sexual jealousy that emanated from Mammachi. Or Baby Kochamma’s conversation that was designed to exclude Ammu and her children, to inform them of their place in the scheme of things.

Within the family whose matriarch is Mammachi but whose head is necessarily the male heir, Chacko, Ammu, the divorced daughter, occupies a marginal position that is economically dependent on Chacko and culturally bound to conventions of decorum and subservience dictated by her society and reinforced by the older women in her family. As she is conscious of, her life is often described as being “over,” having been married once before. She is one of the small things, creatures of marginality and near-invisibility, that constitute the subject of the novel. Together with her children, Rahel and Estha, as well as the mostly-absent but pivotally significant Velutha, they form the novel’s heart: socially marginalized, their personal histories constitute what Roy would call “a hole in the Universe.” That is, their narratives are largely absent from the larger narratives of history and politics, since they are mostly victims rather than enactors of the rules comporting their society. Roy writes movingly, and bitterly, of the amoral social-historical phenomena that leaves in its wake oft-unrecorded trauma and victimhood. For instance, Estha and Rahel watch police brutality during the arrest of Velutha, who is passively sleeping in the verandah of the History House:

The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal and yet paradoxically impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

Men’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify... It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an under-age audience... This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it. History in live performance.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature – had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcizing fear.

The depersonalization of historical or social forces results in unacknowledged consequences, such as the stripping away of humanity and the inconsequentiality of small, eradicable human beings. As emphasized, Velutha was “not... a man” to the police officers who were needlessly brutalizing him. Perhaps, to them, he was not considered legitimately human by virtue of his Untouchability and his crime of aspiration towards acceptance in a splintered society, and they felt it was their historical or social prerogative to put him in his proper place of inferiority, invisibility, or marginality.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


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  Other Essays in this Issue

On Small Places and Big Spaces
By Lee Seow Ser.

Xu Xi's Hong Kong in Four Decades
By Amy T.Y. Lai.

Related Links

Arundhati Roy unofficial website
External link.

Arundhati Roy profile
External link.

Arundhati Roy profile
External link to Luminarium.

Interview with Arundhati Roy
External link to Salon.

Another interview with Arundhati Roy
External link to The Progressive.

Arundhati Roy on the Iraq War
External link to Counterpunch.

Arundhati Roy on the greater common good
External link.

Review of The God of Small Things
External link.


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