THE EARTH TIMES
JUNE 1 – 16, 1997
A bold new voice from the South
By Ashali Varma
This is a book thatdaringly and with amazing simplicity exposes the myths as much as the legends of how former colonial countries have to deal with western values and can only accept them at a superficial level of “sky-blue Plymouths” ad “Coca cola.” Where some people who break the tradition are forever haunted by the history of an India that is rigid, that is unrelenting and that cannot let go of its past, at least not for its small towns and millions of villages. A country where a girl is considered a burden to the family, as arranged marriages are still the norm and dowries still dictate a woman’s appeal to a man.
In her first novel,”The God of Small Things,” a young unknown writer from India, Arundhati Roy, weaves a masterful web of contradictions. These revolve around a family steeped in the traditions of an ancient country–where a family can be Christian but the roots are not deep enough to defy the stigma of the Hindu caste system or of a divorced woman with two children who seeks solace in her father’s family.
With the kind of insight that often seems personal, the author, explores the deep psychological scars of traumatized children who crave to be accepted by their grandparents and a aunt and uncle. Their mother Ammu is a divorcee, in a country where a divorcee is looked upon as a pariah and is only reluctantly accepted back by her own family.
But then Ammu was always a rebel and decides enough is enough, when her alcoholic husband wants to lend her to the Englishman in charge of the tea plantations he works for and is willing to make this sacrifice for his job.
The story revolves around a fairly well-to do Syrian Christian family (20 percent of Kerala’s population belong to this faith), living in Ayemenem, a small town in Kerala, a state in southern India. A family where each member defies the rules, and as Roy writes, “They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”
There is Ammu, the defiant one, the mother of “two-egg twins” (not identical) Rahel and Estha, who not only finds herself a husband thousands of miles away from home but divorces him to come home and then commits the most unforgivable act. She falls in love with an untouchable, a man of the lower caste who is not even allowed to enter the portals of the family home. The twins, all of seven years old, love by day the man who Ammu loves by night.
There is the twins’ uncle Chacko a Rhodes scholar, who marries an English waitress and has a child by her, Sophie Mol, but this marriage too is doomed. He returns to Ayemenem to take over his mother’s pickle factory.
And there is Baby Kochamma, the twins’ grandaunt who falls in love with Jesuit priest but “had managed to persuade herself over the years that her unconsummated love for Father Mulligan had been entirely due to her restraint and her determination to do the right thing.”
But Baby Kochamma carries within herself the hurt of a woman unloved and finds it easy to judge others according to the norms. Norms that are almost universal for most women-“She wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter-according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all.”
Through the eyes of seven year old twins, Roy weaves a haunting tale of people who have been hurt and cannot but hurt others in return. They are the protagonists, they are the fatherless children, universal in their desire to be loved, to be punished for the wrongs their elders do –who want more than anything else to be accepted and loved.
The magic of “The God of Small Things,” is in the prose, the imagery that captures the very universal essence of Being There and Seeing It all as a child. It all brings back memories.
Every once in a while you read a book that makes you catch your breath, that changes the way you view life and its many hidden complexities and “The God of Small Things,” is one such book.