Thursday, 11 November 1999

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997)

Edition: Flamingo, 1997
Review number: 385

Roy's first novel is wonderfully evocative, both of what it is to live in modern India and also of the world of a small child. It revolves around the return to the town of Ayumenem of Rahel after years away, and a longer period without seeing her fraternal twin brother Estha. The experience of the small child is explored through their memories of the events that led up to Estha being sent away to join the twins' distant father.

This childhood world is evoked through unusual ways of looking at things, the interest in silly word games (such as reading backwards), the reuse of half understood phrases that adults have been heard using. It is very well done, never descending to the level of cuteness that is such an obvious trap here: Roy takes her child characters very seriously.

The India that she portrays is one of rapidly changing culture. Like the European characters in Kipling and Forster novels set in the country, Roy's children are to a large extent outsiders, coming from an upper class family of Syrian Christians educated in Western style schools. They are far more able to associate with the Hindus around them than an English child would have been in the days of the Raj, of course. Another way in which they are different is that they come from a "broken home"; their mother, Ammu, having returned with them to her family after her husband descended into alcoholism and wife beating.

There is a lot of tension built into the novel, and this is done through the two timelines: the adult reliving her childhood memories knows that something terrible is going to happen. The terrible events are directly driven by the contrast between old and new driven by the relentless drive to modernise: the inequalities a Marxist government can do nothing about the caste system and the despised status of the Untouchables, legally abolished but still at the root of the culture.

The symbol used to represent traditional India is the kathakali dancer, also the logo of the company owned by the family. They perform drastically cut down, popularised versions of their traditional dances telling stories from Hindu legend in the tourist hotels, working off the guilt they feel for the prostitution of their sacred art at the temples, while their children look for other careers more in tune with the times. This sad story encapsulates the message Roy has about the whole of traditional India: it is doomed, unable to survive in a country which wants to Westernise, become "modern".

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