© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things (1997), was one of the global sensations of late-twentieth-century literature. Not only did it win considerable critical acclaim (and the Booker Prize), but it was also a major international bestseller. The book has its detractors (as all books do), but it has justifiably been praised as a major literary event that, among other things, brought important attention to the Kerala region of southern India, where Roy grew up and which has been underrepresented in Indian literature, especially In the English-language Indian literature that is widely known in the West. The book has also been lauded for the richness of its engagement with a variety of complex cultural and historical issues, as well as for its deft use of the English language as a tool for Indian cultural expression and for its complex, multi-layered, carefully constructed narrative form. Any number of critics have, in fact, commented on the impressive formal structure of the novel. But The God of Small Things is also a very political novel, as one might expect of Roy, who would spend the next twenty years after the publication of the novel engaged in intense political activism. However, whereas the structure of the novel is well-planned, delicately balanced, and beautifully coherent, the political message of the novel is a bit less well thought out.

The Context of the Novel: Kerala and the Modern World

The God of Small Things is primarily a family drama that focuses on the private lives on one rather affluent Indian family, living in the village of Ayemenem, near the town of Kottayam, fairly near the city of Cochin (now Kochi), in the state of Kerala. The key characters of the drama are the fraternal twins Estha and Rahel, who are seven years old in 1969, when the novel’s most important events take place. Their mother Ammu is also a crucial character, as are Ammu’s brother Chacko, her parents, Shri Benaan John Ipe (“Pappachi”) and Soshamma Ipe (“Mammachi”)[1], and her aunt, Baby Kochamma (real name Navomi Ipe). Pappachi is a domineering, patriarchal figure who takes out his frustrations by beating his wife and daughter, until the adult Chacko puts a stop to it. He has, however, died by the time of the events of 1969, causing Chacko to quit his job as college teacher in Madras and move back to Ayemenem. For her part, Mammachi struggles to find meaning in her life by founding her own small business, which the Western-educated Chacko commandeers after his move back to the village. Then, despite his vague communist sympathies, he makes the business into what he hopes will be a growing capitalist enterprise, “Paradise Pickles & Preserves.” Unfortunately, Chacko overextends himself and really has no idea how to operate the business efficiently; he eventually runs it into the ground, then flees Kerala, emigrating to Canada in the wake of the devastating death of his daughter, Sophie Mol.

The ultimate failure of the business is, in fact, one in a long line of disappointments for this family. Pappachi, who had served as an “Imperial Entomologist” at the Pusa Institute during colonial days, had once discovered a new species of moth, but failed to have it recognized and named after him. The legacy of “Pappachi’s moth” subsequently haunts the family as an image of embittering failure. Baby Kochamma and Pappachi are the children of the Reverend E. John Ipe, a prominent Syrian Christian clergyman in Kerala, but Baby Kochamma converted (permanently) to Roman Catholicism after falling in love with Father Mulligan, a young Irish monk spending a year in India. Mulligan ends up staying in India permanently, but of course Baby Kochamma’s love for him is unrequited, though she pines for him until the end of her days. Her loss in love is made even more bitter by the fact that Father Mulligan ultimately gives up Catholicism, but then (Instead of turning to Baby Kochamma) he becomes a Hindu holy man devoted to worship of the god Vishnu, much to her disgust[2]). For her part, Ammu rebels against her parents by marrying a Hindu man in Calcutta, the assistant manager of a tea estate near the city. However, her husband turns out to be an alcoholic and a wastrel. By the time the twins are two years old, he is unable to work at all. In response, the English manager of the estate, Mr. Hollick (who has a long history of dalliances with women who work on the estate), proposes that Ammu’s husband can keep his job if he sends the beautiful Ammu to be “looked after” by Hollick. When the husband agrees to the deal, the infuriated Ammu leaves him and takes the twins with her back to Ayemenem to live with her parents. There, she does the best she can to raise them, hampered by her own resentment toward them and with little help from her family—Pappachi, for example, doesn’t believe her story about Mr. Hollick, because he is such an Anglophile that he “didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife” (42).

At times The God of Small Things reads like the story of an ideal childhood—in which Rahel and Estha happily play in the pastoral surroundings of Ayemenem, buoyed by their unique connection to one another. However, even a cursory look at their family and its background reveals that they have had a troubled life from the very beginning and that it is only their special connection to each other that allows them to survive the network of dysfunctional adults that surrounds them. Even then, they (especially Estha) live difficult, damaged lives. The traumatic events that unfold in 1969 are not, therefore, a sudden disruption in a perfect world, but the culmination of a series of misfortunes that have plagued them since even before they were born (in difficult circumstances during the Sino-Indian War of 1962[3]).

Also crucial to the story is the Untouchable carpenter Velutha, who befriends young Rahel and Estha and becomes the lover of Ammu, an almost unthinkably transgressive act, given their relative statuses in Indian society. Velutha is clearly intended as Roy’s critique of Indian caste society; a gifted woodworker, he also has an amazing facility with machinery, and it is only his maintenance efforts that keep the pickle factory going at all. He is also gentle and supportive with the twins, unlike any of the other adults they have ever encountered. A sleekly handsome young man, he is also a tender lover to Ammu, who has not experienced much tenderness in her life. When Ammu dreams, she dreams of him as “the god of small things,” thus the title of the book. Velutha is, in short, a paragon, possibly the most admirable character in the novel—and thus a strong argument against treatment as individuals as inherently inferior simply because of their birth caste. However, one could argue that Roy goes too far and that his idealized depiction is a weakness in the realism of the novel, which might have addressed the problem of Untouchability more effectively in other ways, especially given the setting in Kerala, with its strong history of radical politics.

Kerala, a state located on the southwestern coast of India with a population of more than 33 million people, is a very special region within India that differs substantially from many regions that are better known in the West. Indeed, at least for Western readers, one of the most important accomplishments of The God of Small Things is to provide reminders of the diversity of Indian culture and society, reminders that are especially important given the frequent tendency in the West to think of India merely in terms of well-established Orientalist stereotypes. Approximately 80% of the population of India are Hindus, and Western ideas about India often focus on Hinduism and the culture that surrounds it. In Kerala, on the other hand, only slightly more than half the population is Hindu. As in the rest of India, there is a substantial Muslim minority (27%, nearly twice that of India as a whole); however, Kerala also features a much larger Christian minority than is found in India as a whole (18% vs. 2%). There are, in addition, a variety of Christian denominations, of which Roman Catholic and Syrian Christian (a variant of the Eastern Orthodox Church) are the largest. Kerala is culturally diverse, with numerous influences from a variety of cultures, both Eastern and Western. At the same time, despite this unusual religious and cultural diversity, Kerala is (by Indian standards) unusually homogeneous in terms of language and ethnicity. India has no national language, though the official language of the government (and the most widely spoken language) is Hindi, which is the first language of about one-third of the population (over 400,000,000 people). There are 22 different “scheduled” languages officially recognized in the Indian constitution, of which Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, and Urdu have the most native speakers. English is widely used for business, education, and other purposes all over India, partly because of the lack of a common national language. English is also widely used for such purposes in Kerala, but the official language of the state is Malayalam, the native language of approximately 97% of the state’s population; almost all of these belong to the Malayali ethnic group.

Malayalam, a language of Dravidian origin, is recognized as both one of the 22 scheduled languages of modern India and as one of India’s six “classical” languages—languages with a particularly long and rich cultural heritage and literary tradition. Kerala does have a number of rich cultural traditions. One of the most important of these is the kathakali dance, which also features prominently in The God of Small Things. One of many Hindu dance traditions in India, kathakali is a distinctive form that is practiced primarily in Kerala. It is a narrative form of dance, in which the dancers (generally all-male) perform well-known stories that are made distinctive because of variations in the performance itself, as well as in the colorful makeup, costumes, and masks that are typical of the form.

Image result for kerala kathakali
A kathakali dancer.

Finally, despite the crucial importance of the setting of the novel in Kerala, it should also be emphasized that Kerala is not depicted as some sort of exotic enclave, cut off from the rest of the world. For example, the novel mentions the recent transformation of Kerala due to new construction financed by the influx of funds sent back home by Keralan workers employed as “nurses, masons, wire-benders and bank clerks” in oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf region, where a large portion of labor is performed by workers imported from India and elsewhere (14). These Arab oil states, of course, are themselves an integral part of the global capitalist system. Meanwhile, the key events of the text are set in motion when Rahel and Estha are driven by their uncle Chacko from Ayemenem to Cochin, along with their mother Ammu and their great aunt Baby Kochamma. In Cochin, a thriving city, they are to meet Sophie Mol and her mother, Chacko’s former (English) wife Margaret, who are coming from England for a visit, which they hope will help them recover from the trauma of the recent death (by auto accident) of Margaret’s second husband. That Chacko has spent considerable time in England (where he received an Oxford education as a Rhodes Scholar, in addition to marrying an English woman), suggests the extensive connections of this family with the world at large, and particularly with England. For her part, Rahel eventually grows up and is educated at the University of Rochester in America, after which she marries and eventually divorces an American, before returning to Ayemenem.

The God of Small Things also reminds us that the Western Culture Industry was already becoming a global enterprise as early as 1969. The characters in the book are already well-acquainted with the products of this industry. Indeed, driving to Cochin (in Chacko’s American car) the day before the arrival of Margaret and Sophie Mol, most of the family goes that night to see The Sound of Music (for the third time) at the Abhilash Talkies, which “advertising itself as the first cinema in Kerala with a 70mm Cinemascope screen,” is clearly an elite Indian cinema, with all the state-of-the-art trappings that might be found in cinemas anywhere (90). It’s an exciting outing for the two children, who seem to find it magical. It’s also a last moment of family togetherness, when even the irascible Baby Kochamma seems to be getting along with the others. The outing, however, will be the beginning of family tragedy, the moment when the childhoods of Rahel and Estha will start to unravel in horrifying ways.

When Chacko (though himself something of an Anglophile) complains that going to see The Sound of Music is “an extended exercise in Anglophilia,” Ammu responds that “the whole world goes to see The Sound of Music. It’s a World Hit” (54). Chacko is a bit off the mark, of course, given that The Sound of Music is an American film, not a British one, even though its principal actors are British (playing Austrian characters). But the very fact that he mistakes the film for an example of British culture is itself a sign of the growing globalization of the film industry. And Ammu’s point is exactly on the mark. After its release in the United States in 1965, the film quickly spread around the globe, becoming (at the time time) the top grossing film in history overall as well as the top grossing film of all time in nearly 30 different countries. The film was thus a key moment in the globalization of film marketing.

The Sound of Music is a heartwarming tale of a family that rediscovers love, then sticks together to triumph over adversity (and Nazis). As such, it stands in sharp contrast to The God of Small Things, which is a heartbreaking tale about a family that falls apart and is essentially destroyed by tragedy. This overall contrast is also brought home locally, in the visit of the family to see the film in Cochin, during which Estha repairs to the lobby, only to be sexually molested by the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” who works behind the concession counter. One week later, on the night of “the Terror,” Estha and Rahel’s cousin Sophie Mol will be drowned and their good friend Velutha will be brutally beaten to death by police after Estha is coerced into false testimony against him.

The fact that the tragedies of the book begin in this Western-style theater as the family attends an American movie with British stars suggests that the impact of the West on India has been less than salubrious. The destruction of Mammachi’s small, family business when Chacko attempts to apply Western technologies and management styles makes a similar suggestion. No doubt these suggestions are intentional, and it is not without relevance that much of Roy’s political activism has been aimed at opposing the intrusion of globalization into India.

A similar suggestion is made in the portrayal of the kathakali dance in The God of Small Things, where this ancient and once revered form has been reduced largely to the status of a commodity, streamlined and stripped-down into a shadow of its former self, all for the entertainment of foreign tourists. Roy thus treats us to a vision of a tourist hotel that regales its guests with “truncated kathakali performance”—shortened versions that cater to the “small attention spans” of the guests: “So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos” (121). These mangled performances, meanwhile, are merely background; hotel guests play in the pool or lounge beside it, barely heeding the once-venerable stories that are being played out in this commodified form.

Roy clearly presents these truncated kathakali performances as instances of modernity robbing Kerala of once sacred traditions. Importantly, however, she recognizes that the culprit is neither the British nor the Americans, but capitalism itself. Indeed, if (by the 1990s) the hotel has appropriated this ancient cultural form as light poolside entertainment, it is also the case that Indians themselves had begun to commodify their own culture decades before. In particular, as Chacko attempts to expand the market for the products of Mammachi’s pickle factory, he designs new, colorful labels for their products that feature kathakali dancers, who are also featured on billboards advertising those products, on the theory that “regional flavor would stand them in good stead when they entered the Overseas Market.” Ammu, however, clearly speaks for Roy when she concludes that “the billboards made them look ridiculous. Like a traveling circus” (46).

At the same time, however, The God of Small Things is a complex novel, and Roy is far too sophisticated a writer to depict India as a once-idyllic paradise ruined by Western intervention. The impact of the West on India is not a mere one-way case of cultural imperialism. It is part of the complex network of transnational flows that define today’s global culture. Thus, if Roy’s novel constantly reminds us of the powerful influence of Western literature, film, and television in India, it also reminds us that this flow goes in both directions. As Mullaney notes, “the repackaging of kathakali” illustrates “the role of India in sending as well as receiving culture in these transactions” (53). And, of course, The God of Small Things itself, as an international bestseller, is perhaps its own best example of the export of Indian culture to the rest of the world.

Roy is also careful to note that India’s complex social problems cannot merely be attributed to the negative impact of colonization and other outside interventions. In one crucial passage, Roy notes that the tragedy she is about to relate could be seen as having its beginnings in Sophie Mol’s arrival in Kerala. It is true, she notes, “that a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes” (32). But, she notes, it would be equally correct to say that this tragedy began thousands of years earlier, long before the initial arrival of the British in India, that it has roots in India’s own thousands-of-years-old cultural traditions, that “it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (32).

These “Love Laws,” as they feature in this text, are closely related to the tradition of Hindu caste society in India. Caste systems of various sorts exist in societies around the world, but the Indian cast system is derived from specific texts dating back to approximately 1000 years before Christ. The main castes consist of Brahmins (highly respected teachers, scholars and priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles), Vaishyas (farmers, traders and skilled workers of various kinds) and Shudras (manual laborers and service workers). Unlike the capitalist class system, the caste system is rigidly fixed; one belongs to a particular caste by birth and cannot change castes. The system has evolved and become more complex over time and is encoded in Indian law, though actual practice is often based more on long-standing socio-cultural traditions than on legal requirements. In particular, the system has evolved to include a fifth category of “untouchables,” or “dalits” (though the preferred term is now “Scheduled Castes”) who rank below any of the formal castes and were traditionally considered unclean and unworthy of most normal activities, though Indian law now protects them from discrimination. In 1997 (the year The God of Small Things was published), India elected its first Scheduled Caste president, K. R. Narayanan. But prejudices persist, as the novel dramatizes in the figure of Velutha, a gifted and virtuous young man who is nevertheless denied respect (and most opportunities) because of his caste.[4]

The caste system is particularly controversial in Kerala, both because the state is less dominated by Hindu practices than is most of India and because the Communist Party (which generally rejects the notion of caste altogether and has fought against the caste system since the 1930s) has a particularly strong position in Kerala. For example, Keralan communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad (1909–1998) was popularly elected as Kerala’s first Chief Minister from 1957 to 1959, after the state had been formed by the States Reorganisation Act of November, 1956. Namboodiripad began as a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) but became a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—after the CPI split into two different parties in 1964. He again served as Chief Minister from 1967 to 1969, and his CPI(M) government would have been in power during the crucial 1969 events related in The God of Small Things. It is a marker of the power of caste prejudices in India that they remain strong in the novel, even in Communist Kerala and even among the Christian Ipe family. Communism experienced a low point in popularity in Kerala in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, but has since seen a resurgence in support. As of 2018, a CPI(M) government was again in power in Kerala, having been elected in 2016.

The Structure of The God of Small Things

Perhaps the aspect of The God of Small Things that critics have commented upon most widely is its complex, nonlinear narrative form. The crucial events of the narrative take place during one two-week period in 1969—and particularly on one crucial December night. However, much of the book takes place in the early 1990s, as key characters look back on and remember those earlier events. Indeed, while there is a certain regularity in the variation of these two time settings, the two different periods featured in the novel are in fact interwoven in highly complex ways. Critics have suggested a variety of analogies to try to describe the narrative structure of the book, the most common of which is architecture, inspired both by the fact that Roy had originally trained to be an architect and by her own encouragement of such architectural analogies. In one interview, she described her construction of the narrative as being very like the construction of a complex building:

“It really was like designing a building. …  It was really a search for coherence—design coherence—in the way that every last detail of a building—its doors and windows, its structural components—have, or at least ought to have, an aesthetic, stylistic integrity, a clear indication that they belong to each other, as must a book” (Abraham 90–91).

Another model for the book’s narrative is provided by Roy within the book itself, in her description of the kathakali dance.

“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. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. … In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again” (218).

The structure of these kathakali narratives thus clearly resembles that of The God of Small Things, which continually reveals the outcome of events before those events are actually narrated in detail and which is constructed in such a convoluted manner that one could virtually start reading at any point in the text and still enjoy the narrative. As Mullaney puts it, “This sense of being mesmerized by the performances of stories one already becomes the basis for the construction of The God of Small Things,” in which readers constantly have the sense that they are reading a story they already know (56).

Roopika Risam, while providing a useful survey of the suggestions of other critics including those who have adopted architectural metaphors), also provides her own suggestion, arguing that the complexly interwoven strands of Roy’s narrative operate very much like neural memory networks—a suggestion that is particularly interesting given the important role played by memory in the narrative itself. This metaphor nicely captures the complicated, web-like nature of the narrative structure, in which events are frequently mentioned before they have actually been introduced, creating an extensive network of anticipations and reflections that works quite effectively. At the same time, in addition to the interwoven time frames of the narrative and to the heavy use of both foreshadowing and flashbacks, Roy also holds her narrative together with a series of simple, paired oppositions that are themselves almost architectural in nature.

Apparent polar oppositions in the book include such pairings as India vs. England, Touchable vs. Untouchable, tradition vs. modernity, male vs. female, and so on. One of the key oppositions in the novel is particularly architectural, in that it includes actual buildings in the opposition between the houses of Kari Saipu (aka, the “History House”) and the Ayemenem House of the Ipes. One thinks here of the opposition between Thrushcross Grange (as the locus of polite, bourgeois values) and Wuthering Heights (as the locus of the subversive values represented by Heathcliff) in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). In Brontë this opposition is so stark that Gilbert and Gubar have associated it with a Miltonian opposition between heaven (the Grange) and hell (the Heights) (189). In the case of The God of Small Things, the Ipe house to an extent represents India and the present, while the History House represents Britain and the colonial past.

However, in this case the polar opposition between Britain and India, past and present, clearly breaks down, indicating the way in which simple dualistic structures are inadequate to the complexities of Indian culture (or of this novel). Kari Saipu is described as the “Black Sahib[5]. The Englishman who had ‘gone native.’ Who spoke Malayalam and wore mundus[6]. Ayemenem’s own Kurtz, Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness” (51). References to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in fact proliferate throughout the text, as do many other literary and cultural references. Meanwhile, if the film’s British house is saturated with Indian culture, the Indian house is inhabited by the Anglophile Ipes—and is eventually colonized by American television, as Baby Kochamma and her longtime servant, Kochu Maria, the last remaining residents of the house, are reduced to spending all of their time watching (mostly American) television programming, such as soap operas and professional wrestling, captured by their satellite dish. Kipling claimed that “East is East and West is West / And never the twain shall meet.” The God of Small Things proves him wrong.

Of course, the most important duality in The God of Small Things is composed of the twins Rahel and Estha, who ultimately complicate the whole structure of polar oppositions because of the way the opposition between them tends to collapse. As children, they think of themselves as a joined entity, as a “we” more than a “you and I,” memories and impressions seemingly floating freely between them without the need for verbal communication. They share everything and do everything together. Among other things, their identities as children challenge strict gender binaries, and they have very little sense that some things are appropriate for Estha because he is a boy and others are appropriate for Rahel because she is a girl. This deconstruction of gender oppositions is played out most obviously in the scene in which Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol all dress like “Hindu ladies” to pay a visit to Velutha, who plays along and hosts them graciously, allowing them to paint his fingernails (181). Meanwhile, when the children watch The Sound of Music, Estha identifies with the female lead (played by Julie Andrews), while Rahel identifies with the male lead (played by Christopher Plummer). And, of course, Estha is feminized in his traumatic encounter with the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” while at the theater.

The final deconstruction of the dual opposition between Rahel and Estha occurs late in the novel, when the twins, both feeling shattered by the experiences of the night of the Terror, turn to one another for solace. In one of the moments of the novel that caused it to be described by some in India as obscene, the two twins unite sexuality. The moment, though, is almost more spiritual than erotic, clearly more a gesture of healing than of lust. It is a merging of two halves of the same broken person, a rebuilding of the unique bond that had united the twins in childhood and that the events of their troubled lives had broken.

Politics and History in The God of Small Things

Though it concentrates on the private stories of the members of a single family, The God of Small Things is a highly political novel that addresses many of the concerns that Roy has since addressed as a political activist. I have already noted above some of the concerns that the novel expresses concerning the impact of capitalist globalization on Kerala. Another key, related, concern is environmentalism. For example, the local landscape in Ayemenem is dominated by the Meenachal River, bringer of life to the region—though this river also becomes the bringer of death to Sophie Mol. And this alternative, darker figuration of the river is closely related to Roy’s environmental concerns. For the river, like so many things in India, has been transformed by the impact of modern capitalism. By the 1990s, it “smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans. Most of the fish had died. The ones that survived suffered from fin-rot and had broken out in boils” (14). Indeed, the river is not what it once was: “But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon lawn that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying flowers” (119).

Again, however, the situation is not a simple one. The World Bank is a major force in the globalization of capitalism, and the pesticides are certainly a product of modernity. But the river is polluted both by modern industrialization and by traditional Indian practices. In addition to the pesticides and the plastic bags, we are told that “clean mothers washed clothes and pots in unadulterated factory effluents” (119). Yet the shit smell apparently comes from more traditional Indian sources:

“Children hung their bottoms over the edge and defecated directly onto the squelchy, sucking mud of the exposed riverbed. The smaller ones left their dribbling mustard streaks to find their own way down. Eventually, by evening, the river would rouse itself to accept the day’s offerings and sludge off to the sea, leaving wavy lines of thick white scum in its wake. (119).

While Roy is highly critical of the impact of capitalist modernization on Kerala, she clearly does not recommend a return to pre-modern ways as an alternative. If nothing else, the population of India is now so large that practices that might have been viable hundreds of years ago could now no longer work. The problem is that Roy doesn’t propose any other viable alternatives, either. The God of Small Things, like so many books before it, seems to want to suggest transgressive sexual behavior as the main mode of resistance both to capitalist appropriation and traditionalist mind-manacling. There are, however, two problems with this approach. First, as the prominent Indian Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad points out, Roy’s depiction of transgressive sexuality—despite charges of pornography that have been leveled against it—is not really all that shocking. We’ve seen it all before, in texts such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Second, it might also be pointed out that theorists such as Michel Foucault (especially in the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality) have argued, transgressive sexual conduct is not necessarily subversive in a political sense. In fact, it might well be that all it really does is divert energies from genuine pubic political action into private conduct that does nothing to alter systemic abuses. After all, it is hard to see how the transgressive pairings of Velutha and Ammu and of Rahel and Estha could really achieve anything politically.[7]

The most important alternative to capitalism that has been proposed, of course, is socialism, and it might well be that Roy’s anti-socialism/anticommunism is a key to her inability to envision an alternative to capitalism. Ahmad’s critique of the novel, in fact, is aimed specifically at Roy’s obvious antipathy toward communism (especially in the context of Kerala, where the Communist Party is a genuine alternative) as an important failure of her vision in The God of Small Things. Like most critics, Ahmad is extremely impressed by Roy’s technical achievement. Indeed, he begins his essay by noting that “in The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy may well have written the most accomplished, the most moving novel by an Indian author in English” (111).

For Ahmad, however, The God of Small Things is perhaps a bit overwritten, striving a bit too hard for literary modes of expression. Still, despite having drawn so extensively on modernist, magical realist, and cinematic modes of representation, the novel, for Ahmad, remains impressively realist in its orientation, especially in its representation of private family experience. However, when it comes to her representation of the rich tradition of communism in Kerala, Ahmad finds that this realism breaks down. Granting that Roy’s anticommunism was fashionable in India at the time the book was written[8], Ahmad concludes that “judging from the novel, she has neither a feel for Communist politics nor perhaps rudimentary knowledge of it” (112).

Ahmad takes particular exception to Roy’s portrayal of Namboodiripad, who is mentioned at several points in the novel, though he doesn’t figure directly in the action as a character. Namboodiripad is a much respected, even revered figure in Kerala, a man regarded as a true champion of the people. Yet, in The God of Small Things, Roy’s mentions of Namboodiripad are almost dripping with sarcasm and contempt, belonging, as Ahmad puts it, “in the realm of libel and defamation.” He is described by Roy as “Chacko’s hero, … the flamboyant Brahmin high priest of Marxism in Kerala” (64). Roy’s narrator tells us that Chacko, in fact, studied Namboodiripad’s writing on how to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism in Kerala with “an adolescent’s obsessive diligence and an ardent fan’s unquestioning approval,” thus repeating, without any sort of critical examination, key elements of Cold War anticommunist propaganda—that its followers are immature and slavishly devoted, its leaders buoyed by a cult of personality. Further, she immediately follows this mention of Nampoodiripad’s plan for a peaceful transition by stating, “Unfortunately, before the year was out, the Peaceful part of the Peaceful Transition came to an end” (65). Granted, the narrator admits that the discord was “fueled by the Congress Party and the Church,” rather than Namboodiripad (65); however, she then provides a brief history of Namboodiripad’s two terms in office in Kerala that clearly presents Namboodiripad as an ineffective leader, while ignoring his considerable accomplishments. Multiple times in the text his name is mentioned with the designation “Soviet Stooge, Running Dog,” indicating the derogatory names that were applied to Namboodiripad by his more radical Maoist critics, without context or explanation.

Perhaps Roy’s most unfair shot at Namboodiripad is in her portrayal of the 5-star tourist hotel (the “Heritage Hotel”) that springs up near the town of Kottayam just across the river from Ayemenem and the Ipe house—the same hotel that features truncated kathakali dances to entertain guests. In a spectacular display of colonial nostalgia, the hotel is constructed with a renovated version of Kari Saipu’s old house as its centerpiece, surrounded by a collection of smaller, wooden houses from the colonial era that the hotel company has purchased in various locations, then moved to Ayemenem to create an air of authenticity, providing “toy histories for rich tourists to play in” (120). It seems a bizarre project, especially when we learn that one of the transplanted houses had been the ancestral home of Namboodiripad (which functions as the hotel dining room, with actual communists serving as waiters), a fact that the “Hotel People” openly advertises, thus commodifying the communist leader, converting him into a sort of tourist attraction, and basically making him appear ridiculous: “So there it was then, History and Literature enlisted by commerce. Kurtz and Karl Marx joining palms to greet rich guests as they stepped off the boat” (120).

This hotel motif might make some important points about the ways in which Indian culture has been deployed by the tourism industry, and it is certainly true that capitalism tends to commodify everything in its path, converting everything it touches into a potential source of profit. However, Roy’s focus on Heart of Darkness and Namboodiripad is off the mark. Tourism has mostly focused on an exoticized Orientalist India, represented by gurus, holi[9], elephants, and the Taj Mahal. As Ahmad points out, no such hotel featuring Namboodiripad’s ancestral home (which was nowhere near the setting of the hotel) ever existed, and one doubts that very many rich, Western tourists would know (or care) who he was or would find his name much of a draw.

Within the world of The God of Small Things, the main representative of communism is K.N.M. Pillai, head of the local Communist Party in Ayemenem. Pillai is a corrupt, self-serving caricature who seems to have little real devotion to communist ideals but merely sees the party as a potential tool for the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. He is also a man so completely lacking in integrity that, according to Ahmad, his depiction “borders on the burlesque.” On the crucial night when Sophie Mol is drowned, Pillai refuses to protect Velutha from being murdered by the police, then afterward attempts to make political capital out of Velutha’s death. Granted, unscrupulous politicians can be found everywhere, but Roy’s use of Pillai to suggest the degeneration of communism in Kerala into empty sloganeering (“Progress of the Revolution. Annihilation of the Class Enemy. Comprador capitalist[10]) (272) is part of an extended diatribe against Marxism that runs throughout the novel and that bears little relation to the realities of life in Kerala.

The closest Roy comes to capturing the actual texture of communist political activism occurs in her depiction of a communist march that delays the progress of the Ipe family as they travel to Cochin to pick up Margaret and Sophie Mol. As Ahmad notes, Roy does a good job of representing the reaction of the family (especially Baby Kochamma) to this communist rally. Both appalled and terrified, Baby Kochamma reacts with to the marchers with absolute horror and disgust, making clear the very real gulf that exists between classes in this society, in which the usual class inequalities brought about by capitalism are exacerbated by the legacies of both colonialism and the Hindu caste system. Ahmad notes, though, that the marchers themselves are portrayed as “an indistinct mass, except for the figure of Velutha,” who is apparently among them, though his identification is a bit unclear. Thus, Roy is able to portray with convincing detail the feelings of only one side of this class divide. In addition, she suggests that the march is driven by “Naxalite” energies, exaggerating the extent to which the 1967 peasant rebellion in the village of Naxalbari, influenced subsequent communist activity in Kerala. The Naxalites took their main ideological inspiration from China’s Mao Zedong, then still serving as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China. Given that Maoist China and India had recently been at war, many in India viewed this alignment with Mao with disdain, and the Naxalites had a reputation for having a particularly radical and militant Marxist vision. Associating Kerala’s communists with the Naxalites is thus a subtle (and unfair) way of undermining them.

All in all, The God of Small Things is an important book and an impressive work of literary art, even if it falls short as a political statement or representation of the real political situation in Kerala, partly because Roy’s antipathy to communism makes it impossible for her to paint a fair picture of Keralan politics. It does, however, effectively and powerfully present Roy’s view of the world depicted in the book, which is perhaps all a work of fiction can be expected to do. It is our responsibility as readers to try to appreciate the book on its own aesthetic terms but to challenge and interrogate its characterization of political realities about which we, as Western readers, might have dangerously little knowledge and thus might be seriously misled if we take the book’s portrayals at face value.


[1] They are referred to as “Pappachi” and “Mammachi” throughout the text. These terms simply mean “grandfather” and “grandmother,” though neither is the prototypical kind grandparent.

[2] “Kochamma” is a Malayalam word indicating a respected lady. It can have connotations roughly equivalent to “aunt.” However, among Syrian Christians, the title “Kochamma” is often applied to the wife of a priest, which is particularly ironic in the case of Baby Kochamma.

[3] In this conflict, border disputes and other issues (including the fact that India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama after the failed 1959 Tibetan Uprising) led to all-out war between India and China, the world’s two most populous nations. The Chinese launched major offensives on October 20, 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which ensured that neither the U.S. nor the Soviets would intervene to provide aid to India). The Chinese declared a ceasefire on November 20, 1962, having achieved most of their military objectives, but tensions along the Chinese-Indian border remained high.

[4] For a powerful fictional representation of the hardships suffered by Dalits in the days when they were even more overtly despised and mistreated, see Mulk Raj Anand’s 1935 novel Untouchable, which, among other things, suggests that the sufferings of India’s untouchables were actual worsened by British colonization, even though certain other parts of Indian society were modernized in positive ways.

[5] “Sahib” is a polite form of address, typical used by Indian colonial subjects to address British men in India.

[6] A mundu, similar to a sarong or lungi, is a garment worn wrapped around the waist in Kerala. It is typically associated with informal lounging wear and can be worn by either men or women.

[7] On the other hand, for an attempt to argue that the transgressive sexuality depicted in The God of Small Things actually does have political possibilities, see Bose.

[8] For comparison, see my discussion of the ways in which Rushdie’s achievement in Midnight’s Children is sometimes undermined by his own inability to move beyond certain anticommunist prejudices (“Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity”).

[9] Holi is a Hindu religious festival that celebrates, among other things, the coming of spring. It is a joyous celebration marked by the spraying of participants (and on-lookers) with a variety of bright colors. It has become popular around the world and is often celebrated by non-Hindus without specific religious connotations.

[10] The term “comprador,” or “comprador capitalist,” deriving from the Portuguese word for “buyer,” has been widely used in Marxist critiques of the postcolonial world. A comprador is a native agent who operates in the postcolonial world in the interest of Western corporations. The notion suggests the ongoing domination of much of the formerly colonized world by Western powers, even in the postcolonial era, with the complicity of an indigenous bourgeoisie.