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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
Page 2

Such a place of invisibility, or “a hole in the Universe,” as Roy would put it, essentializes the postcolonial condition of abandonment, liminality, and consequentially, vulnerability. Velutha, who tries to be a Communist, is abandoned by his Party; he loves the twins and their Touchable mother, and is persecuted for this love:

Lesson Number One:
Blood barely shows on a Black Man...

They stepped away from him. Craftsmen assessing their work. Seeking aesthetic distance. Their work, abandoned by God and History, by Marx, by Man, by Woman and (in the hours to come) by Children, lay folded on the floor. He was semi-conscious, but wasn’t moving.

“Blood barely shows on a Black Man,” in its clarity, is an unswerving indictment of the persecution and oppression that postcolonial subjects continue to undergo despite colonialism’s alleged end. This is due to the residual mentality that imposes laws of social inequality upon those who are perceived as dangerous enough to rebel against the rules that make up society and tradition. The marginal beings, or small things, that fall through the cracks of recorded history, are rendered silent, ineffectual, either through force or through their own sense of despair and the inevitability of losing small things:

“...In some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cosy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.”

Caught in the liminality of abandonment, of belonging nowhere, small things appear trivial, and their loss remains unrecorded, forgotten. In comparison to the large forces of history and society, personal effects become ludicrous, disposable. Roy’s novel rails against the victimhood and loss that characterizethe narratives of small things, and powerless beings, emphasizing that from small things grow unbridled significance and large, humanistic meaning:

She smelled of milk and urine. Chacko marvelled at how someone so small and undefined, so vague in her resemblances, could so completely command the attention, the love, the sanity of a grown man. When he left, he felt that something had been torn out of him. Something big.

That is perhaps the technique of the novel, in a nutshell. It proceeds from small material things, and inchoate notions, that bloom or explode into large uncontrollable passions, or transcendental ideas on humanity and society. A small baby, smelling of milk and urine, as Sophie Mol does, holds such power over Chacko’s heart that upon her life and death pivots the sanity and meaning of a man’s life, as well as the lives of his dependents, Rahel, Estha and Ammu.

Roy’s method of storytelling echoes that of the kathakali dance, an art that narrates the Great Stories, or ancient myths, of Keralese folk history. They demonstrate the seemingly paradoxical concern with both attention to detail and the transcendental humanism that mounts from those same, significant details. Perhaps, they subscribe to the belief that, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put it, “God is in the details.” The kathakali dance and its mythic storytelling switches smoothly between the minuteness of detail to humanist tragedy of the highest order:

So when [the kathakali dancer] tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his own... He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey’s tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive mischief of Krishna’s smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.

He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.

Roy’s novel functions on the same technique, swooping into the intricacy of intimate situations, and drawing back to paint an enlarged landscape of humanity and the world that it constructs for itself. There is a God in small things, the novel insists, embodied in the marginal Black Man of Velutha, in the hidden narratives of women, children and untouchables:

[Velutha] stepped onto the path that led through the swamp to the History House.

He left no ripples in the water.

No footprints on the shore.

He held his mundu spread above his head to dry. The wind lifted it like a sail. He was suddenly happy. Things will get worse, he thought to himself. Then better. He was walking swiftly now, towards the Heart of Darkness. As lonely as a wolf.

The God of Loss.

The God of Small Things.

Naked but for his nail varnish.

Velutha’s nakedness, or vulnerability, is embellished with nail varnish, which of course, was painted on by Rahel and Estha while they were playing with him. It is a testimony of their love, a small detail that is mocked by the policemen who brutalize him and then ridicule him for wearing nail varnish. Abandoned, unprotected save for the love of small children, betrayed by those same children, and annihilated, Velutha’s tragedy of being the victim of senseless inhumanity and amoral history is the axis around which the novel and the rest of the narratives, pivot.

Synchronicity of time characterizes the novel’s narrative, as the stories of Velutha and Ammu are told in brief, concentrated flashbacks and the present is narrated as a kind of aftermath or debris, in which Rahel and Estha float about like survivors of trauma. The novel proceeds without providing the reader any illusions of a happy ending, by employing poignant, stinging flashbacks that focus on the small, significant details within a large tragedy, such as Ammu’s fleeting encounter with a bus conductor, mumbling quietly, “I’ve killed him”. By drawing the reader into the microcosm of the lives of Ammu, Velutha, and the twins, one undergoes the realization that these small lives, ruined by large impersonal forces and the petty tyranny of men, are not trivial at all, but contain a portrait of humanity in exquisite miniature:

“...Instinctively they stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things...

They had to put their faith in fragility. Stick to Smallness. Each time they parted, they extracted only one small promise from each other.



In light of what happens (which the reader already knows, since the narrative is told backwards), the hope and naivete of the passage resist the potential of irony to become, instead, great, insupportable pathos. With foreknowledge of mortality and loss, the love between these small creatures of marginality appears foredoomed, and yet, such a passage illuminates the importance of detail so small that it is usually missed, usually invisible.

The novel never escapes despair, and yet it does not discount hope. A tightrope is walked between the bitterness with which Roy watches the encroachment of capitalism into the postcolonial world and the corruption power brings into the hearts of men, rendering them cruel and inhuman, and the strangely transcendental hope offered in the glimpses of small, tender moments that are threaded like little beads on a necklace. The God of Small Things ends not with the inevitability of Velutha’s death, or Ammu’s. In an inversion of time that holds events in stasis like the painted time on Rahel’s toy watch, Roy’s novel concludes with the consummation of hope that the lovers effect, rebelling against their circumstances of being peripheral beings living in the absences of history. Despite appearances of being concerned with details of triviality, The God of Small Things proves, consequentially, that the small things lurking in the human heart are what, in their simplicity and unshakeability, give rise to the complicated cataclysms or terrible inertia that constitute history and society.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


Is Arundhati Roy's writing an extension of politics by other means? Discuss this in the Forum!

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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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