Arundhati Roy’s first and only novel, The God of Small Things, is a story of forbidden love and enduring losses set against a backdrop of political upheaval. In it, the personal, familial, and political grow intertwined and History becomes a being in itself—lurking, monstrous—behind those who breaks its laws. The God of Small Things is a terrifying book that for all its artful foreshadowing cannot prepare you for the cruelty it ultimately unveils.
But first, let us back up a little. Oscillating between past and present, Roy presents the history of a family in southern India. The main action of the story takes place during the 1960’s when communism shook the stability of the newly independent nation. Three generations in one riverside house: the Kochamma family consists of the first generation, Mammachi and Pappachi, their children Ammu, Chacko, and Baby Kochamma, and Ammu’s fraternal twins Estha and Rahel. It is through Estha and Rahel’s eyes—through the lens of childhood innocence shattering against the all too adult—that we see the tragic rise and fall of the family.
The Kochamma family runs a preserves factory called Paradise Pickles and Preserves, a name that serves as a sardonic double entendre, for while the past is preserved and, in a way, pickled in the family, their world is far from paradisiacal. Like the family business, handed down from Pappachi to Chacko, loss itself is passed down from generation to generation.
The most vivid example of this peculiar family inheritance is Pappachi’s moth. As an Imperial Entomologist turned Joint Director of Entomology after Independence, Pappachi felt that “his life’s greatest setback was not having had the moth that he had discovered named after him.” The moth, which he noted for its “unusually dense dorsal tufts,” had not been recognized as a distinct species until after his retirement, when the honor was given to “a junior officer whom Pappachi had always disliked.” Though Pappachi is dead for most of the novel’s chronology, the ghost of the moth remains to haunt his descendants long after his passing. It visits them often as a harbinger of loss. It lands on Rahel’s heart, for example, when Ammu tells her that her disobedience in public made her love her “a little less” and its legs leave “six goosebumps on her careless heart.” Pappachi’s original loss is not only preserved in the form of the ghostly moth but pickled as well, transmuted into an encompassing metaphor for losses of all kinds.
Closely linked to loss, another thing that seems to run in the Kochamma family is love gone wrong, whether unrequited, incestual, or otherwise forbidden. Indeed, the horrors at the heart of Roy’s novel are the consequences of the family’s transgressions against the “Love Laws,” ancient laws that dictate “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Mammachi harbors a more than motherly love for Chacko, who in turn remains hopelessly smitten with his British ex-wife Margaret; the twins share an unnatural closeness; Ammu loves an Untouchable man by night.
Most heartbreaking, in my opinion, is Baby Kochamma’s unrequited love for Father Mulligan. Thwarted by the rules of the Catholic faith, Baby Kochamma and Father Mulligan are reduced to “using the Bible as a ruse to be with each other.” When Father Mulligan’s deputation in Kerala ends, Baby Kochamma converts to Catholicism and joins his convent, hoping in her eighteen year old optimism and naiveté only to be near him, “to love him just by looking at him.” She quickly grows miserable when she finds that “the senior sisters monopolized the priests and bishops with biblical doubts more sophisticated than hers would ever be.” She leaves the convent but remains Catholic. Her marriage prospects ruined by her reputation as a convert, Baby Kochamma grows old alone with her parents in the Ayemenem house. And though she is now the stark opposite of the pretty, innocent girl she was, having grown bitter and corpulent over the wasted years, Baby Kochamma remains fiercely in love with Father Mulligan, filling a trunk full of diaries with the same daily entry “I love you. I love you.”
What I find most gut-wrenching about Baby Kochamma’s failed love is not only its abortive nature—the way it shrivels without ever beginning to blossom—but its effect on her character and implications for the rest of the family. Baby Kochamma’s understandable bitterness poisons others’ lives as well as her own, leading her, perhaps less understandably, to expose Ammu and Velutha’s illicit love and incite a reaction that will come to haunt the entire family on a scale far greater than that of Pappachi’s moth.
All of this is told in a singularly vivid language of Roy’s own creation. As John Updike wrote of The God of Small Things in The New Yorker, “a novel of real ambition must invent its own language and this one does.” Indeed, not only does Roy create her own lexicon with phrases like “skyblue carsounds” but she uses it to poignantly capture the experience of trauma from the perspective of children in the midst of losing their innocence. From Estha’s molestation by the Orangedrinklemondrink man who leaves him with “white egg white. quarter boiled” in his hand and a “green-wavy, thick-watery, lumpy, seaweedy, floaty, bottomless-bottomful feeling” in his stomach, to the smell of Velutha’s blood—“Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze.”—Roy’s devastating descriptions share a sort of radical deconstructionism that reveals how trauma shatters one’s consciousness, breaking experience into indigestible fragments that pickle over the years. A novel unforgettable for both its beauty and terror, the events in The God of Small Things are sure to be preserved in the hearts of its readers as well—and pickled as we mull over Roy’s haunting vision of losses personal, political, and universal.
Arundhati Roy is an Indian social activist and author whose novel The God of Small Things won the prestigious Booker Prize for literature in 1997. Roy is an unusual blend of artist and activist; she has yet to publish a second novel. She left home at 16 and attended the Delhi School of Architecture. In 1984 she met her future husband, film director Pradip Krishen. She went on to write the TV movie In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1989, in which she also starred), and Electric Moon (1992). After souring on the film industry she turned to writing fiction; her first effort was the remarkable The God of Small Things, which sold six million copies. She spent the next decade writing and speaking on political topics like India’s nuclear weapons programs, the Narmada Dam, and the war in Iraq. Her non-fiction books include The Cost of Living (1999), Power Politics (2002), and War Talk (2003). She announced in 2007 that she was beginning work on a second novel.