'On the next bed, his niece and nephew slept with their arms around each other. A hot twin and a cold one. He and She. We and Us. Somehow, not wholly unaware of the hint of doom and all that waited in the wings for them.
They dreamed of their river.
Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen's bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
It was warm, the water. Greygreen. Like rippled silk.
With fish in it.
With the sky and trees in it.
And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.'
Perhaps only the writer's own words are appropriate to introduce an article on Arundhati Roy's 'The God of Small Things'. Certainly it has sometimes seemed recently as if the words of the novel itself are being drowned out as the global media loudly celebrates Arundhati Roy's 'fairy tale literary debut'(which culminated in the recent announcement of the Booker Prize), often appearing more interested in marketing her image than in the contents of the book. For the mainstream media, Indian and international, Roy is simply the latest and brightest star in the new firmament of Indian writers in English, a group for whom a global market has been developed in the 1990s in much the same way as it was for African American women writers in the 1980s.
Meanwhile here in India intellectuals associated with the CPI(M) have kept up a steady if ineffectual chorus of disapproval, with commentaries ranging from E.K.Nayanar and EMS Namboodiripad's strident attacks on Roy's 'morality' to Aijaz Ahmed's somewhat ponderous 'political reading'(Frontline, August 8 1997) all categorically labelling Roy 'anti-Communist' and 'anti-Left' on the basis of her portrayal of the CPI(M) in Kerala in the 1960s and since. But is this the only possible 'political reading' of The God of Small Things? Do either of these categorisations of the author - reigning deity of 'Indian writing in English' or member of the 'anti-Communist radical cosmopolitan intelligentsia' give us a real insight into the book?
The God of Small Things is the story of seven-year-old 'two-egg twins' Rahel and Estha, their Syrian Christian mother Ammu, who is divorced from their Bengali father, and her landowning family who live in their ancestral home near the banks of the Meenachal river. As Roy writes, 'things can change in a day' and the novel weaves skilfully back and forth among the events of a few days in December 1969, 'the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see.' As this suggests, it is the dynamics of a family, and specifically a declining upper class, upper caste, essentially feudal family in a society undergoing rapid changes, which are at the heart of this acutely sensitive, accurate, witty and extremely powerful novel.
There are several factors which make The God of Small Things unique in the context of the canon of 'Indian writers in English' - including Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and several others, with which Roy is now being categorised . Firstly, in contrast to the writings of any of these authors, the setting of the novel, the world inhabited by Estha and Rahel, is not an urban metropolis but an obscure village which - for them at least - is dominated by the river. The natural world as experienced by children is evoked with an intensity which is perhaps more comparable with Satyajit Ray's cinema version of Pather Panchali than with any other piece of literature.
Secondly, in the God of Small Things the spotlight is turned upon precisely that point in history where the contradictions - and specifically the class contradictions - inherent in the construction of India as a nation came to the fore. Again unlike earlier writers in English, Roy explicitly acknowledges the existence of organised class struggles, with a specific conjuncture in the Left movement in Kerala forming the background to the novel.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, inseparable from its intensely personal themes of love, memory and loss is a savage indictment of patriarchy, and of its specific character in a semi-feudal, backward capitalist society.
This is powerfully conveyed, on the one hand, in the experiences of the children themselves, negotiating a world in which, for reasons they cannot yet fully understand, they are tolerated on sufferance, dogged by the fear of being unloved, although still sharing, with their 'single Siamese soul', 'moments of high happiness'. On the other hand, and more explicitly, it is present in the story of their mother Ammu. It is rarely mentioned, but perhaps in this context no coincidence, that Arundhati Roy is the only woman in the oft-cited list of top-ranking Indian writers in English. Her anger at the crushing and destructive effects of patriarchal oppression runs through the novel, making it explicitly political.
Aijaz Ahmed has accused Roy of believing that 'resistance can only be individual and fragile ..that the personal is the only arena of the political'. Clearly, The God of Small Things is not a novel about mass struggle. Rather, it is about the ways which individuals, particularly women, find to resist the conditions imposed upon them by society. The character of Ammu, who is to commit the ultimate transgression by loving the low-caste Velutha, epitomises this. Roy by turns mystifies and explains Ammu's ability to resist in small ways: 'Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this, there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divorceehood. Even her walk changed from a safe mother-walk to another wilder sort of walk. She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no-one. She spent hours on the riverbank with her little plastic transistor shaped like a tangerine. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims....On the days that the radio played Ammu's songs, everyone was a little wary of her. They sensed somehow that she lived in the penumbral shadows between two worlds, just beyond the grasp of their power. That a woman that they had already damned, now had little left to lose, and could therefore be dangerous'.
Ammu's character has been shaped not only by her experiences as a divorced woman, but as the daughter of a violent father and a resigned, submissive mother: 'As she grew older, Ammu learned to live with this cold calculating cruelty. She developed a lofty sense of injustice and the mulish, reckless streak that develops in Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big. She did exactly nothing to avoid quarrels and confrontations. In fact it could be argued that she sought them out, perhaps even enjoyed them'. Despite this, Ammu is ultimately destroyed by the backlash from the feudal-patriarchal society she challenges; her daughter Rahel however survives by escaping from the stifling confines of the family home into an unconventional life - the impact of her return twenty-three years later is left ambiguous.
Equally compelling is Roy's portrayal of the way women themselves collude in enforcing patriarchal norms, as does the bitter and malignant Baby Kochamma, 'ex-nun, and incumbent baby grand aunt': 'Baby Kochamma resented Ammu, because she saw her quarreling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted. The fate of the wretched Man-less woman...She subscribed 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. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma's outrage. As for a divorced daughter from a intercommunity love marriage - Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject' .
Roy's passionate expose of patriarchy has generated a number of predictable knee-jerk responses including that of being 'anti-men', (a woman friend buying the book at a Delhi bookstall recently was told by the bookseller, 'I hope you don't share her views about Indian men!'), and that of being 'pornographic'. Aijaz Ahmed has expressed his disquiet more obliquely, and in a way which requires more serious consideration. Ignoring the recurring theme of women attempting to gain control over their lives in diverse ways, Ahmed treats the erotic as Roy's dominant concern. He claims that, in her portrayal of the relationship between Ammu and Velutha, Roy has defined sexuality as 'that transcendence which takes individuals beyond history and society, straight into the real truth of their beings', overcoming barriers of class and caste by creating a 'phallocentric utopia'. This he argues, is consistent with the preoccupations of 'Euro-American fiction' from the 1920s onwards. To quote Ahmed, 'what is most striking about that final phallic encounter between Ammu and Velutha is how little it has to do with decision and how much it takes the shape of...'fatal attraction'. Now, the difference between decision and fatal attraction is that whereas decision, even the decision to accept suffering and/or death, is anchored in praxis, in social relationships chosen and lived in a complex interplay of necessities and freedoms, fatal attractions can never cope with such complexities and must be acted out simply in terms of a libidinal drive.'
A number of points arise here. The relationship between Ammu and Velutha is from the outset permeated with an inescapable awareness of history and the social relations within which they have interacted with eachother since childhood. Even Velutha's first word 'Ammukutty' ('Little Ammu'), when they finally meet on the riverbank, takes us back to the time when Velutha, though several years younger than Ammu, used this pet-name while offering his hand-made gifts on his outstretched palm, as he had been taught, so Ammu would not have to touch him. Ammu is shown throughout the novel as conscious not only of her own sexuality, but of her emotional needs and capable of acting on this basis. But the couple's 'helplessness', their inability to take further 'decisions' is not, as Ahmed suggests, due simply to the overwhelming nature of sexual attraction, but a result of the powerlessness of both in real terms - it is this which prevents them from making plans beyond the promise to meet again 'Naaley' (tomorrow). It is precisely because he fails to recognise the extent of women's powerlessness (even upper caste, upper class women) in the face of the sanction of the feudal-patriarchal establishment, that Ahmed can find the murder of Velutha 'entirely credible' but the psychological and ultimately physical destruction of the courageous Ammu 'utterly contrived'.
Finally, Ahmed appears to have rather tellingly used 'phallic' as a synonym for 'erotic' in his critique - in reality not only the approach to sexuality of the book as a whole, but the actual sexual encounter between the lovers described at the end of the book is markedly non-phallocentric, rendering Ahmed's parallel between Roy and D.H. Lawrence somewhat absurd. The role of the (much less explicitly conveyed) incestuous encounter between the twins within the novel as a whole is certainly open to question. But both this and the scene in which Ammu and Velutha make love are portrayed with a sensitivity and integrity which only serves to expose the debased sensibilities of those who have dubbed the book 'pornographic'.
In terms of Roy's approach to the left, the fact that the novel focusses in on individual acts of resistance does not automatically imply, as Ahmed suggests, that the author is espousing a fully-fledged 'subaltern' theory in which wider organised forms of resistance are rejected. On the contrary,organised resistance, class struggle and the possibility of it is an ever-present backdrop to the events of the novel. For the twins and even their mother, misfits in an upper class family, its significance is half-understood - yet it is an intangible but potent source of inspiration, representing for them the potential for subversion and redressal of daily injustices which is epitomised by the somewhat symbolically drawn figure of Velutha, the young dalit carpenter, adored friend and mentor of the twins, and suspected 'Naxalite'. In one of the novel's most memorable passages, the twins, travelling with their mother, uncle and grand-aunt in their 'skyblue Plymouth' car are trapped at a railway crossing in the midst of a workers' demonstration: 'The marchers that day were party workers, students, and the labourers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse. There was an edge to this anger that was Naxalite, and new.
Through the Plymouth window, Rahel could see that the loudest word they said was Zindabad. And that the veins stood out in their necks when they said it.And that the arms that held the flags and banners were knotted and hard. Inside the Plymouth it was still and hot. Baby Kochamma's fear lay rolled up on the car floor like a damp, clammy cheroot. This was just the beginning of it. The fear that over the years would grow to consume her. That would make her lock her doors and windows.That would give her two hairlines and both her mouths. Hers, too, was an ancient, age-old fear. The fear of being dispossessed'.
Roy has described this encounter from the perspective she knows - from within the bourgeois family. But her originality lies in the way she manages to show us the interconnections between the deep contradictions within this family and those between the social class they belong to and the working people, as she gradually lays bare the tensions beneath the idyllic and nostalgic vision of a 1960s family outing to that ultimate 'clean, white' cinematic fantasy, 'The Sound of Music'. One of the central conflicts of the novel is hinted at when Rahel spots Velutha, 'Her most beloved friend Velutha. Velutha marching with a red flag' and starts enthusiastically waving to him. Standing on the car seat, Rahel grows 'out of the Plymouth window like the loose, flailing horn of a car- shaped herbivore' only to be unceremoniously pulled back into the car by her family.
Why then has the novel provoked the outrage of the CPI(M) establishment, literary and otherwise? While one stated reason is Roy's ill-judged allegation - in a passage describing the ravages of tourism - that EMS Namboodiripad's ancestral home has been turned into a hotel where ex-communists serve as waiters, the underlying reasons are clearly broader and more complex. It seems that ironically Roy's very affinity for the left - in the form of the Naxalite movement as she perceives it - is one of these reasons. Notwithstanding Ahmed's claim that this is where the book's 'realism' breaks down, The God of Small Things is unusual in its specific and accurate location of its story at a particular point in Indian Communism's history - the period of the emergence of the ML movement from among cadres of the CPI(M) itself. Despite - or because of - Roy's concrete references to Naxalism, she has been dubbed an 'anti-Communist radical' by Ahmed while commentators like writer Ranga Rao (The Hindu 23 Nov 1997) describe her (with more sympathy) as possessing 'the non-governmental organisation spirit'.
Quite apart from the continuing virulent hostility in 'official' CPI(M) circles towards the Marxist-Leninist stream, the key question here is whether the left should relinquish - or banish - the concerns which dominate Roy's book, all of which are essentially issues of power - to the domain of NGOs. Is it not the left which, even while building an organised and ideologically coherent movement, must continue to symbolise, as it does for Roy's characters, the desire of all the oppressed within bourgeois society for subversion, for turning the world upside down? Surely it is only those for whom, having gained some power within the bourgeois framework, holding on to this power has become the sole raison d'etre, who feel threatened by this, and are compelled to brand it 'anti-left'?
Interestingly, Roy's critics have chosen to pass over her most coherent, though bitter, critique of Communist rule in Kerala which makes it quite clear that it is not Marxism, but the practices of the CPI(M) in that particular state, which she is at odds with.
'The real secret was that communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to. They offered a cocktail revolution. A heady mix of Eastern Marxism and orthodox Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy'.
This assessment is brought to life in the characterisation of Comrade K. N. M. Pillai, the local Party functionary. Again, the family is the site where contradictions become explicit.
'His neat pencil moustache divided his upperlip horizontally into half and ended exactly in line with the ends of his mouth. His hairline had begun to recede and he made no attempt to hide it. His hair was oiled and combed back off his forehead. Clearly youth was not what he was after. He had the easy authority of the Man of the House. He smiled and nodded a greeting to Chacko, but did not acknowledge the presence of his wife or his mother.... Comrade Pillai took off his shirt, rolled it into a ball, and wiped his armpits with it. When he finished, Kalyani took it from him and held it as though it was a gift. A bouquet of flowers...'.
Pillai is trying to convince Chacko, who co-owns Paradise Pickles, of the significance of the (higher caste) workers' resentment of Velutha for having a responsible job in the pickle factory: ' "He may very well be okay as a person. But other workers are not happy with him. Already they are coming to me with complaints...You see, Comrade, from local standpoint, these caste issues are very deep-rooted." Kalyani put a steel tumbler of steaming coffee on the table for her husband. "See her, for example. Mistress of this house. Even she will never allow Paravans and all that into her house. Never. Even I cannot persuade her. My own wife. Of course inside the house she is Boss." He turned to her with an affectionate, naughty smile."Allay edi, Kalyani?" Kalyani looked down and smiled, coyly acknowledging her bigotry. "You see?" Comrade Pillai said triumphantly. "She understands English very well. Only doesn't speak" '.
A political reading of a work of fiction, however, cannot simply consist of an assessment of the author's attitude to specific political parties. It must also consider where the book is positioned in relation to major social and economic forces and contemporary ideological trends. This article has only been able to hint at some of the answers to these questions. What is clear is that The God of Small Things places itself unambiguously on the side of progressive forces, on the side of those resisting the ravages of a semi-feudal, backward capitalist society which India remains today, against the oppressive values which are today being reinforced by the growth of right-wing forces which has accompanied globalisation.
The failure of some on the left to grasp the significance of this springs partly from narrow sectarianism, but also partly from an inability to grasp the importance of patriarchy, the main focus of Roy's attack, to the reproduction of this capitalism. But it is also the case that the particular manifestations of this which are central to the novel - the oppressiveness of caste and gender, the abuse of children - are questions which are today a site of contest between the dialectical materialist approach and the post-modernist one which negates the role of a coherent analysis of real economic and social relations and structures of power in favour of a multiplicity of co-existing subjectivities. In this debate, I would argue, Roy comes down squarely - if perhaps unconsciously - in favour of a materialist approach.
Thus towards the end of the book she describes with chilling explicitness the brutalisation of the dalit Velutha after 'a posse of Touchable policemen crossed the Meenachal river, sluggish and swollen with recent rain, and picked their way through the wet undergrowth, the clink of handcuffs in someone's heavy pocket'. The twins are witnesses to this:
'Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerised by something that they sensed but didn't understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all. They were opening a bottle. Or shutting a tap. Cracking an egg to make an omelette. The twins were too young to know that these were only history's henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear - civilisation's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of powerlessness.
.....There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it. History in live performance.'
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