Book review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

(In which I review “The God of Small Things” and tell you what you should read instead.)

 (A short reading note: I read up to chapter 7, then — thoroughly confused — re-read chapters 1 and 2. It renewed my interest in the characters and clarified some plot lines I had lost.)

 The God of Small Things is the 1997 Booker-prize winning debut novel by Indian writer Arundhati Roy.

TL;DR: Set in Kerala, a region located on the southwestern coast of India, The God of Small Things explores themes of forbidden love, class relations and social discrimination. The story is told in the third person but through the perspective of Rahel, a fraternal twin girl at the centre of the story. The narrative shifts back-and-forth between 1969, the year Rahel’s family is upended by tragedy, and the present set in 1993. The story unravels from its climax, tearing down the edifice of memories and events rather than building up to it. The disjointed narration – jumping from Rahel’s past to her present and interspersed with lengthy side notes – made it difficult to get invested in the story. Arundhati Roy makes extensive use of capitalization and misspelling to reflect the children’s innocent voices and – possibly? — the re-birth of India from its colonial past, recreating itself by patching together pieces of ancient culture and elements of occidental language and esthetics. The God of Small Things is in turn gripping and confusing, with chapters of heartbreaking clarity following long stream-of-consciousness tirades reading like creative writing exercises.

I started reading The God of Small Things last Summer and soon lost interest until a friend posted a picture of her children’s grade 12 reading list on social media. There it was, The God of Small Things. Moved by a certain pride and piqued by the thought of being out-read by my friend’s teenagers, I picked it back up only to be perplexed as to why it would be assigned to Canadian grade 12 students.

I’m of a mind that we should be sent out into the world to work hard and make mistakes at 16. Then we should come back to finish grades 11-12 in our mid-40s once we appreciate the usefulness of understanding things like math, computers, history and literature.

Everything we hand over to teenagers forms them in one way or another. Sometimes, the lesson they learn is not always the one we think they should. When my oldest son was in high school, he got in a fair amount of trouble for reading an English book in French school. In a minority environment, French schools battle the rising tides of linguistic assimilation by making boneheaded rules such as not allowing kids to read English books outside of English class. He was reading Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hand with the Devil in its original English, received the three proverbial warnings, it escalated to the vice-principal’s office, his parents were called, suspension was threatened and all the while I was slowly clapping at the perfect example of how to make kids in a minority language situation despise their mother tongue. The lesson as intended by adults: if you don’t read in French, you will lose it. The lesson as learned by my teenager: French teachers are idiots.

What can The God of Small Things teach Canadian 12-graders? Many things, but probably not the right ones.

The God of Small Things doesn’t show any light shining through the cracks of India’s post-colonial unrest and  firmly entrenched caste system. Through the story of the arrival and accidental death of Sophie Mol in Ayemenem, India appears as a backward, dirty and sexually perverted society. It pours out like an oil spill, turning adults and children into black, spoiled versions of themselves. The God of Small Things follows the inexorable march of abuse and trauma from one generation to next.

Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.” ~ The God of Small Things

The exploration of India’s fight against itself in the face of impossible circumstances is also the theme of Katherine Boo’s 2012 narrative non-fiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For three years she followed Abdul, an enterprising young Muslim living in the slums filling the unused nooks and crannies of the Mumbai Airport. His hopes for a better future crash against the forces of globalization, terrorism and political corruption but his downfall is orchestrated by his own neighbours, vying for the same limited supply of good fortune Abdul had started to scrounge for himself. Boo writes:

Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.”~ Behind the Beautiful Forevers

As a work of fiction, The God of Small Things can afford to wallow in hopelessness. What makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers a more suitable read for a class of privileged 12-graders (or for you and I) is that, telling the story of the living and breathing people who make the Annawadi slum their home, it cannot completely avoid the hope and invention weaved into the human tapestry. The human struggle supposes a fight between adversaries: fear and courage, good and evil, light and darkness.

While Beautiful Forevers explores economic poverty and the fight to survive, Arundhati Roy writes about the poverty of heart of the privileged, the paucity of compassion where never having been received, it cannot be given. Where the fossilization of inequality makes earning your privilege impossible, leaving each person to struggle to be the first one to take before it is taken.  It might have been the reality of rural India on the eve of the seventies, a country grappling with the scars of colonialism and a punishing segmentation of society determined by birth, but is it really the image of India we need to teach young Canadians in 2018? Wouldn’t they be better served by the story of Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a young man fighting to overcome the vagaries of history, rather than that of Baby Kochamma, an old woman who will stop at nothing – including sacrificing a man’s life and her own children’s happiness – to preserve them?

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.” ~ The God of Small Things

Stories of perseverance in the face of impossible circumstances are formative. I read the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre when I was 20 and it was a spiritual experience. 25 years later, I can still feel the confusion of being horrified by the abject poverty, bewildered by the prejudices of those perpetuating inequalities from under someone else’s boot, and moved to tears by the peace and joy found in everyday occurrences such as weddings and festivals. India is a land of extremes, densely packed. Just like the human mind, multitudes and all.

If the goal of assigning The God of Small Things to high school students is to present a fictional account of cruelty and corruption in India, why not do it through a story that also presents its dignity and heroism? The first time I heard Kurt Vonnegut’s now-viral lecture on the shape of stories, my mind immediately went to the day I finished reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I was sitting on my bed, frantically looking for the rest of the story where the bad people got their due and the upright were justified.

In A Fine Balance a man falls into a hole, then another hole, then crap gets poured down the hole, he escapes by falling into a yet deeper hole where he finds a sandwich, but a jerk falls down the hole, eats his sandwich and pisses on the crusts. The end. The bad people are really bad, the government is inept at best but mostly indistinguishable from organized crime and the upright never get their due. By the halfway point of the novel, you start feeling what orientalists calls “Indian fatalism.” The walls close in, your shoulders slouch and you resign yourself to the impossibility of a happy ending.

It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.” ~ The God of Small Things

In The God of Small Things, the impossibility of a happy ending is foretold. It robs you of the hope that propels you through the 600 pages of A Fine Balance. It’s a gruesome and dark read that refuses to give its reader the comfort of anticipation.

In many ways, The God of Small Things is structured around the protection of that sense of discomfort. It opens with its dramatic ending and ends with a perfectly crafted love story. By the time you read the last chapter, you know that this brief episode of sanity will immolate itself and consume everything around it. Your mind is never at ease.

 The uneasiness of the story is only compounded by the narrative voice. The God of Small Things is written in the third person from the perspective of a 7-year-old child. The voice changes from one chapter to the next, sometimes voicing the experience of Rahel as a child and sometimes voicing her recollection of the events as an adult. At times, an omniscient narrator takes the baton for lengthy descriptions of historical, cultural or environmental facts. Re-reading parts of the book to write this review, I came to see Rahel and Estha as representation of the wider political unrest of India, rising out of British rule and scared by partition. The twins are pulled and tugged from every side, between their Malayalam mother-tongue and English, between their anglophile grandmother and their Communist-sympathizing uncle, between The Sound of Music and Kathakali. Together they invent a language by inversing letters and liaising English syllables in creative ways, giving their English the fluty musicality of Malayalam. Their relationship is complex and riddled with dysfunction, like a shiny new building resting on rotten foundations.

He didn’t know that 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.” ~ The God of Small Things

The breadth of what Arundhati Roy tries to capture with the characters of Rahel and Estha makes it difficult to yield to the narrative and let it carry us through the story. The success of stories written in the voice of children relies on our ability, as readers, to slip into the narrator’s skin. To Kill a Mockingbird became the literary classic that it is in part because we lived Jean Louise’s loss of innocence through her own voice. Much has been written on Harper Lee’s reclusive nature, but it was foretold in the way she completely disappeared behind Jean Louise Finch. Given the discomfort that Arundhati Roy seeks to foster through The God of Small Things, I’m hesitant to call her narration “inconsistent:” letting her adult voice peek through the child’s narration might have been a deliberate attempt to yank us from one mental space to the next. But it makes for an exhausting read.

Should you read The God of Small Things? Unless you make a point of reading Booker-Prize winning novels, it’s not a book that I consider unavoidable. In the same topical space, I would only recommend reading The God of Small Things after reading The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. If you want to read books written in the voice and from the perspective of a child, you should read (or re-read) To Kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and – if you read in French – C’est pas moi, je le jure! by Bruno Hébert, a mesmerizing and unsettling book about a Summer in the life of a tormented and traumatized child. If you are interested in the interplay of modernity, culture and ancient religious practices in India but not enough to read a whole book, I suggest watching the movie “Masaan” (available on Netflix).

As an Indian-resident author and an activist on environmental and social issues, Arundhati Roy’s sharp criticism of India is legitimate, but I would caution against making this your first foray into Indian literature if you are from the West. We never get a second chance to make a good first impression.