Thursday, June 27, 2013

The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things is about a family living in India after the Declaration of Independence. Their story isn't told in chronological order but it is revealed bit by bit to the reader.
Rahel and Esthappen (Estha) are seven year old fraternal twins. They are living in Ayemenem with their mother Ammu and her brother Chacko, their grandmother Mammachi and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Their father Baba lives in Calcutta. Ammu left him when the twins were two years old.
The family is expecting the arrival of Margaret and Sophie Mol, Chacko's ex-wife and daughter, who are living in England. Since Margaret's second husband Joe had died in a car accident, Chacko invited them to spend Christmas in India in order to get over the loss. When they have arrived, Sophie Mol is taking centre stage. So Rahel and Estha stroll around on the river bank and find an old boat. With Velutha's help they repair it and frequently cross the river to visit an abandoned house on the other side. Velutha is an Untouchable, whom Ammu and Chacko have known since their childhood. Their family have given him the opportunity to visit a school and employed him as a carpenter and mechanic in the family's pickle factory.
During the guests' stay Ammu is more and more attracted by Velutha. One night they meet at the river where they sleep with each other. As it is not possible for an Untouchable to have a relationship or even an affair with somebody from a superior caste, they have to keep their meetings secret. But one night Velutha's father observes them and, feeling humiliated by his son's overbearing behaviour, reports everything to Mammachi and Baby Kochamma. As a consequence they lock up Ammu in her room. There Rahel and Estha find her and, through the locked door, ask her why she's being locked up. As she is angry and desperate, she blames the two children that without them she would be free and they should go away. Hurt and confused they decide two run away and stay at the abandoned house. But Sophie discovers the twins' plan and demands to be taken along. While the three are crossing the river, which has risen from heavy rainfall, their boat capsizes. Rahel and Estha are able to reach the other shore but Sophie cannot swim and is carried away by the current. After a long search for Sophie, the twins go to the abandoned house and fall asleep on its veranda. Neither do they see Velutha, who is sleeping on the veranda nor does he notice the twins' arrival. Earlier that night, Velutha had visited the house of Ammu's family, not knowing that their affair had been discovered. When he arrived Mammachi insulted him and chased him off.
In the morning the children's absence is detected. Then they receive the message that Sophie Mol has been found dead by the river. Baby Kochamma goes to the police and wrongly accuses Velutha of attempting to rape Ammu and kidnapping the children. When the police find Velutha sleeping on the veranda of the abandoned house, they beat him up so heavily that he almost dies. The twins wake up and observe the whole procedure. At the police station they are forced by Baby Kochamma to confirm the wrong statement which she has made. In the following night Velutha dies in prison.
After Sophie Mol's funeral Ammu and the twins have to leave the family's house because Chacko, manipulated by Baby Kochamma, accuses them of being responsible for Sophie Mol's death. Estha is sent to his father in Calcutta where he attends school and later college. Ammu is forced to leave Rahel in Ayemenem in order to look for employment. But Ammu is not able to earn enough for a living and so she dies of bad health a few years later alone in a hotel room.
Rahel returns to Ayemenem at the age of 31. She hasn't seen Estha since they were separated after Sophie Mol's funeral. She married an American and moved with him to Boston. After their divorce she has been working to make a living. Now Rahel returns to Ayemenem because she wants to see Estha, who has already returned to their family's house. During his stay in Calcutta he someday stopped speaking. After spending a whole day together in Ayemenem, Rahel and Estha, sister and brother, are sleeping with each other.
The fact that Estha has stopped speaking and that Rahel and Estha sleep with each other are only two aspects in which one can see how deeply hurt they still are by the events with Velutha and Sophie Mol that happened long ago.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a novel with autobiographical traits. There are a lot of similarities between the author and one of her characters, namely Rahel. Both of them spent their childhood in Ayemenem and later studied architecture in Delhi. Another parallel exists concerning the parents. Both their mothers lived in Ayemenem and were Christians while their fathers were Hindus and worked on tee plantations. Roy's origin is reflected as well by the free use of Malayalam words as an enrichment to the English language which she plays with in her own way.
In my opinion the story is told in a very interesting way although it may take some time to enter completely into its world and to get accustomed to the author's style. Since the reader is jumping back and forth in time one only gets little bits of information, but the more one gets to know the more one wants to know. During the first reading some questions may occur and are only answered towards the end of the book. One knows for example that something has happened or is going to happen but not how, where and why. Altogether the story is worth a second reading as one detects tiny details and hints which one misses at first.

Now I am going to introduce a character to you who in my opinion is very interesting for it is mostly hidden in the background and acts as a kind of manipulator:

Baby Kochamma

When Baby Kochamma is eighteen, she falls in love with the young Irish monk Father Mulligan. Father Mulligan is expected weekly in the village and every time Baby Kochamma is waiting outside and bathing a village child in the well in order to show herself charitable. The two of them then argue about religious matters just to spend time together. After a year Father Mulligan returns to his seminary in Madras. Baby Kochamma follows him entering a convent there, for she thus hopes to be allowed to see him occasionally. But she never even gets near him and a year after entering the convent she wants to return back home. Her father sends her to America to study since he would not be able to find her a husband due to her "reputation". She returns from America with a certificate in ornamental gardening, but she has not forgotten Father Mulligan. She spends her whole life in solitary occupations, first gardening and later watching television.
When Baby Kochamma is about 68 years old she receives the message that Father Mulligan has become a Vaishnava, a devotee of the Hindi god Vishnu. Through the whole time the two have stayed in contact with each other and Baby Kochamma has never stopped loving him. The message strikes her profoundly as he has given up his vows for a new devotion rather than for her. But neither this nor his death a few years later stop her from loving him.

It is to say that Baby Kochamma had had a very unhappy life always waiting for somebody that was never to come. Therefore she is never satisfied when anyone seems to be content and happy and even delights in other people's misery.
Concerning Velutha she plays a passive and an active part. After the family has found out about the unfortunate relationship, Velutha visits the family's house. Mammachi loses her temper and starts insulting him. But she is not aware that Baby Kochamma is always stimulating and increasing her anger by clever measures such a patting her shoulder reassuringly.
But as always when it comes to Velutha another aspect of Baby Kochamma's character must be considered. Since she is a very traditionally thinking person she has a dislike for Untouchables, which includes Velutha. For that reason and because she fears to lose her family's reputation in front of the police officer, she wrongly accuses Velutha of attempted rape.
She manipulates Chacko as well, so that after Sophie Mol's accident he believes that it is all Ammu's and the children's fault and he does not allow them to live in the family's home any longer.
Baby Kochamma always interferes with the decisions which have a severe influence on the family's future and that is what makes her a character worth having a closer look at.

Caste System

One topic dealt with in the story is the caste system and particularly the position of the Untouchables.  A few decades ago the caste system controlled every aspect in the life of an ordinary Indian, like the profession, the marriage partner and the everyday life. One does not really know about its origin but it is assumed that the castes were introduced by priests to steady their position of power. The myth of Purusha, the divine ancestor, can give an explanation for the emergence of the main castes called varnas in Sanskrit. The Brahmans originated from Purusha's mouth, his arms are represented by the Kshatriyas, his thighs by the Vaishyas and the Shudras are building his feet. The Brahmans traditionally were priests and academics, the Kshatriyas warriors and superior officers, the Vaishyas land owners, farmers and merchants and the Shudras mechanics and day labourers. Below these four castes the Untouchables are found, called Paria, Harijans or Dalits. The four varnas are again split into jatis (subcastes), of which 2000 to 3000 are said to exist.
Untouchability is an important topic in the God of Small Things. When Mammachi is referring to the past, there is a part in which is said that the Untouchables were not allowed to walk on public roads and that they had to wipe out their footprints so that nobody of a higher caste could accidentally step into them. They had to cover their mouths while they were speaking so that nobody had to breathe in their polluted air. They actually were not given permission to exist. This non-existence is referred to several times in the book for example when Velutha does not leave footprints or ripples in the water. This makes him almost inhuman and supernatural.
In Hinduism one believes in rebirth. This is a considerable part of the caste system as it explains some facts which are difficult to understand. Hindus believe that if one lives a moral and religious life and does not commit crimes or injustices one will be reborn in a superior caste. As a conclusion one will be reborn in a lower caste if one does not respect moral and religious instructions and the law. Thus the Untouchables believe that it is justified that they are badly treated and avoided by the community and hence bear their nearly unbearable life. This aspect the author refers to in the person of Velya Paapen, Velutha's father. He feels that it is not right for his son to work in the pickle factory, for this is not a position an Untouchable may hold. When Velya Paapen finds out about his son's relationship to Ammu he is so ashamed that he offers to kill Velutha with his own hands.
In the Indian constitution of 1950 the Untouchability is legally abolished. Today any discrimination due to the caste system is forbidden by law. Nevertheless the caste system has not disappeared from everyday life. Notably in villages the Untouchables are still excluded from the society and live in separate colonies. However, contingents in the education system and in public administration are granted to Untouchables in order to integrate them into the society and increase their standard of living.

D.N. Aloysius

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