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Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things: Broken lives, Illicit love and Incest

By: Ramlal Agarwal

Like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy is not deterred by the constraints of using English as Indo-English writers did before Rushdie. Rushdie and Roy adapt English to suit the expression of the chaotic emotional turmoil of the Indian psyche Roy does so on a larger scale than Rushdie.

Roy’s God of Small Things is about a middle-class matriarchal Syrian Christian family hard-hit by misfortune and loss, suffocating under repressed desires and their explosion.

The matriarch and dominating woman in the novel is Baby Kochamma. When Baby Kochamma was eighteen, she fell in love with a handsome Irish monk, Father Mulligan who was in Kerala to study Hindu scriptures in order to be able to denounce them intelligently. He regularly visited Reverend E. John Ipe, the father of Baby Kochamma. Reverend E.John Ipe. was known to be personally blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch, the sovereign of the Syrian Christian Church, and was highly regarded by his community. Reverend Ipe seemed to have a liking for Father Mulligan and on many occasions asked him to stay for lunch. Baby Kochamma, his daughter, was drawn towards him and was excited in his presence and hovered around him. She ingeniously plotted to engage his attention by raising innocent queries from the Bible. Father Mulligan was thrilled by the eager attentions of the vivacious young girl and would answer her queries quaking with unchristian passion.  Both were held back by religious restraints. After a year, Father Mulligan went back to Madras. Baby Kochamma became distraught and much against her father’s wishes, she became a Roman Catholic and joined a convent in Madras hoping to get in touch with Father Mulligan. But she could not meet him as he was always busy with religious heads and senior sisters. Baby Kochamma felt frustrated and came back to Ayemenem. Her father realised that the wayward girl would end up brooding all her life and sent her to a university for a course in gardening. After her return, Baby kochamma busied herself gardening a piece of land and growing beautiful flowers. After some time, she lost her interest in gardening and turned an avid T. V. viewer and embraced material world.

She took the family jewellery. Her brother Bennan John Ipe was in Delhi as an entomologist in government service and his wife Mamachi made pickles. Baby Kochamma decked herself with family jewellery from head to toe, and spent her evenings creaming her feet and tending her toes.

Ammu, daughter of Bennan Ipe started feeling sad after her mother’s death and wanted to get away from Ayemenem. She took a course in architecture in Calcutta where she met her future husband.  He was an assistant manager at a tea estate and a charming young Bengali from East Bengal.  His father was the Chairman of the Railway Board.  Ammu accepted his overtures though unwillingly and married him. Her father-in-law presented a fiat car in marriage and the couple moved to Assam.  In Assam, she lived in style but her husband hit the bottle. She gave birth to twins while she was on her way to the hospital. Her husband began neglecting his duties and remained absent from work for days and was called by his boss and was told to go away to a clinic for treatment and leave his beautiful wife with him to be looked after. Ammu became furious when she heard the proposal. Her husband started beating her indiscriminately and hence she decided to leave him and returned to Ayemenem with the twins Esthappan and Rahel much to the chagrin of Baby Kochamma.

Baby Kochamma believed in the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home, a divorced daughter had no position anywhere at all. She had no words to describe the position of a divorced woman from a love marriage and she choked to think of a position for a divorced daughter from an inter-community love marriage.

Naturally Ammu did not have a congenial place to live in, and started spending her time tending her twins, listening to radio and going to the river with her raging passions.

Ammu’s brother, Chacko, a Rhodes scholar, had married an English woman called Margaret and had a daughter called SophieMol. Afterhis divorce from Margaret, Chacko returned to Ayemenem and started modernizing his pickle- factory. He bought new machines, gave a new name to the products and thought of operating internationally. Though very caste-conscious, he hired an untouchable as his assistant because Velutha, the untouchable, could repair machines, remove blockages with great skill. He had a glistening dark skill and a supple body. Though he was not welcome in the household, he was treated with favour by the Ipe family.  He was especially attached to Estha and Rahel and made a fishing – rod for them and taught them fishing.

He lived across the river, where the twins repaired every day. One day Ammu, while sitting on the bank of the river at a secluded spot, saw Velutha emerging from the water with his glistening dark skin and supple body. She stirred with the quickening of her heart and fixed her eyes on him. Velutha came close and both fell for each other and made love. Since then, Ammu started visiting him in the dark cover of night.

The crisis builds up when Chacko invites his divorced wife Margaret and his daughter Sophie Mol for Christmas because Margaret’s second husband had died in an accident and he thought she might be feeling lonely. When the siblings and their cousin were on their way to Velutha’s hut their boat overturns and Sophie Mol is drowned.  The accident spreads a pall of gloom over the entire family and quickens its disintegration.  Ammu’s night soirees are revealed and Baby Kochamma vents her anger on the untouchable Velutha by alleging that Velutha killed Sophie Mol.Amma visits the police-station, is crudely molested by the police officer and the pickle factory was raided by communists.

Ammu died when she was thirty-one.  “A viable die-able death “says the novelist.  Rahel goes to Delhi to do a course in architecture and comes in contact with Larry McCaslin who was in India in connection with his thesis McCaslin is fascinated by Ammu and makes a marriage proposal.

Rahel readily accepts the proposal and they get married and leave for Boston.  However, McCaslin soon realized that during love-making Rahel looked elsewhere as if she had missed something and they got divorced.

After divorce, Rahel returns to Ayemenem and gives in to an incestuous relationship with Estha. The writer gives a lot of hints of their incestuous leanings early in the novel.   In the end the writer provides details of the love-making of Ammu and Velutha and Estha and Rahel. The novelist declares “Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she (Rahel) were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into the forbidden territory. They all tempered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and howand how much. Obviously, the novel celebrates breaking all laws of who should be loved and how. And how much.” She believes that “Nothing would separate sex from love, or Needs from Feelings.”  

The God of Small Things is a novel about dreams and death and the need to cash in dreams before death swallows them. This message is better expressed by a song Ammu listened to.

There is no time to lose
I heard her say
Cash your dreams before
They slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you
Will well lose your mind.

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