Book Review: The God of Small Things

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Note: This originally rose out of a feature I guest-wrote for an ongoing series over at Ars Aromatica, which consists of a book review followed by an fantasy outfit based on said book. If you want to see the original post (the book review is identical) then head on over here.

The everyday world itself must be shown to be subliminally spiritual. It is an old idea: The secular world is secretly full of saints who don't even know they are saints. It is they who keep God from destroying it altogether.
~Donald Kuspit, A Critical History of 20th Century Art

The God of Small Things is often compared unfavorably to works like Midnight’s Children, an unjust comparison considering that, beyond superficial qualifications (both novels about recent Indian history) the two works share about as much in common as the writers themselves (one a Keralan Christian and the other a Muslim from Mumbai by birth, in a country where regional, ethnic, and religious differences mean everything). Whereas Rushdie writes veritable tapestries on a large scale, detailing the exploits of multiple generations and entire nations in an ongoing saga, The God of Small Things is a miniature of a scene set in a specific time and place, drawn in painstaking and exquisite detail that yields gruesome facets upon closer examination.

At the surface, The God of Small Things is a novel about transgressive love within a repressive society: upper-caste Indian woman falls in love with a pariah, the two embark on a torrid affair, and eventually both suffer brutal deaths as punishment for flaunting the mores of their community. The main characters are all outcasts in their own way: Ammu, who&#8212with "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber"&#8212defies the restrictions placed upon her as a high-caste Indian woman and a divorcée; the twins Estha and Rahel, born of Ammu’s “disgraceful” inter-religious first marriage, who like to play “perverse” word games and ask inconvenient questions as precocious children are wont to do; and Velutha, who with the native dignity of a prince totally incongruous with his status as an Untouchable, refuses to accept his inferior lot in life. Their defiance is passive, not exemplified an any outright act of rebellion: their real "crime" is that they do not conform to the demands of the larger society.

To a reader within modern Western culture, where individuality and the "pursuit of happiness" take precedence over all, it is all too easy to categorically cast the the effectors of these mores as villains, or deride the entire society for being inhumanly repressive (though it is significant to note that individual freedom and rights are a new concept even in the West). However, it is important to note that Indian society relies on its rigid class divisions to maintain order. These divisions (the "Big Things," as Roy calls them) stand in contrast to the titular "Small Things"&#8212a ragged beggar, spiders and mice and cockroaches, misbehaving children&#8212that represent the ambient noise of chaos that pervades even the most orderly lives below the surface. As such, an individual flouting the order of those class divisions amounts to an incarnation of that chaos, threatening to destroy the framework of the whole society.

In order to protect that society, chaos is destined for destruction: beggars meet untimely deaths, vermin are exterminated, and children are disciplined away from mischief and their small games. In that light, the punishment suffered by Ammu and Velutha may be harsh, but it is not totally arbitrary: as oppressive as their lives are&#8212especially Velutha’s&#8212acceptance and even approval is readily available for them if they conform to the roles they are supposed to play. As they refused to do so, their punishment is justified.

This conception of order and justice is further reinforced by the inclusion of a fragment from the Mahabharata, acted out in a traditional Kathakali dance performance transposed from the grandeur of ancient Vedic myth to the all-too prosaic squalor of modern India. Roy's version of the tale focuses not on the hero Arjuna, but his half-brother, rival and antagonist Karna. Reflecting their respective destinies within the saga, Arjuna has been secure in his princely status all throughout his life, while Karna is rejected and demoted to a lower caste simply because of his illegitimate birth. Karna's death at Arjuna's hands is considered justified, not because Karna "deserves" defeat&#8212for Karna is kind, noble, courageous, and generous to a fault&#8212but simply because victory cannot be legitimately his due to his position as an antagonist, at the same time that Arjuna triumphs because he is bound to, not because he merits that victory any more than his enemy does.

When the reader recognizes Roy's clear parallels between this myth and the characters of The God of Small Things, the message of the novel becomes a bit clearer. Despite their shaky place in society, Ammu, Velutha, and the twins are beautiful, full of life, and pure in their desires and motives, in contrast to the drab and bitter characters that populate the rest of their world&#8212very much like Karna&#8212which imbues their deaths and destruction with true pathos. And like Karna's story, Velutha's and Ammu's fate was not a case of the weak being persecuted by the strong (again, a Western concept of asymmetrical power relations) but a function of positions and the society they live in. It is a tragic eventuality, in the classical Greek sense of the word: an outcome brimming with sadness and regret, but logically inevitable. Ammu and Velutha's trysts&#8212an open defiance of the "Love Laws," in Roy's highly idiosyncratic language&#8212achieve nothing but the destruction of several lives. As with all true tragedies, there is a sense of stasis... or rather, a sense of degeneration, as if nothing ever moves and nothing ever changes, but only decays and falls apart. Such is the condition of life, and designated roles are incontrovertible. The same story must play out the same way each time, with little hope of change or betterment for the designated losers.

Yet, the triumph of tragedy is the movement in stasis, however inapparent. Constant references are made to the titular "Small Things," which embody not only chaos but vulnerability: to insects, to mice and spiders and children, the tender parts of humans and animals... in short, insignificant things that no one pays attention to, are crushed inadvertently, without anyone to care that they are gone. Roy, however, has a keen eye and a deft hand for evoking in writing the tenderness and the odd beauty present in the small details often ignored. Such objects are rooted in nature, and therefore associated with the cyclic destruction and renewal it symbolizes, and it is no coincidence that the triad themes of birth, perpetuation, and destruction also play a central part in Indian lore. A return to one's starting point is not futile: it is the constant act of returning and going that is meaningful.

In this light, both nonconformity and the destruction that follows play a crucial role in the universal scheme of things. Destruction and entropy is necessary to reinforce order and laws that exist (for if transgression never occurred, what would be the use for laws?) or even to create new values entirely. It is no coincidence that Roy places the two pivotal love scenes of the novel at the very end, to punctuate the death and spiritual decay that precedes, for to Roy, degeneration and chaos is the promise of life flickering in the ruins.

"They fretted over his frailty. His smallness. The adequacy of his camouflage. His seemingly self-destructive pride. They grew to love his eclectic taste. His shambling dignity.
"They chose him because they knew that they had to put their faith in fragility. Stick to Smallness." (158-9)

The god of small things is the god of the overlooked, of the small marvels present even in decay and death, and the guardian of paradoxical life both exquisitely fragile and tenaciously persistent.

A Deceit of Lapwings

All happy people are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy people are more or less alike.