Who is to bear the burden of history? On who shall fall the onus
of recording it? Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things is
vexed by some of these questions. This novel situates itself in
a global discourse community and shows how colonization both occidental
and national has changed and complicated the idea of India as a
monolithic nation. National history is implied through the narration
of the fate of a single family, that of the Reverend E. John Ipe
and his successors, who struggle to maintain an essential identity.
For Roy both the Ipe family and India provides an epistemic space
that reveals the multiple markers of simultaneous affirmation and
contestation. The characters in the novel inhabit a world where
traditional boundaries are challenged and violently ruptured. National,
familial, and sexual identities get blurred and hence, become socially
suspect. A spiraling sense is imparted with the constant mobility
of the central characters within the disparate states of India and
between different nations of the world—India, Britain, Canada, America
and Australia. This is juxtaposed against the stultifying town of
Ayemenem, a backwater of Kerela, a Southern Indian state. Ayemenem
becomes the primary locale for the novel. As history pushes for
clarity, order and neat separation of categories the novel reveals
the ludicrousness of such an enterprise. It abounds in the notions
of hybridity and the bleeding of categories into each other. It
is no wonder then, that the communist, equal opportunity state of
Kerala is also a repository of traditional cast-ism. The mobility
of the characters and the relationship that they establish outside
the social normative structures then challenge the limits of a traditional
culture. This results in the unleashing of cultural fear, wrath
and violence. However, the question that haunts the pages of the
novel relates to the issue of recording history. If the natural
impulse of history is to neatly organize, classify and separate,
then why does Roy herself participate in such an enterprise? For
what is a novel if not at some level a documenting of history?
When we question the reason behind Roy's writing of the novel (which
simultaneously is a recording of social history), we are in fact
questioning Arundhati Roy's assumption of authorial space. In this
paper then we inquire into the space that Roy as a postcolonial
female writer assumes. As a postcolonial writer "floating in the
amniotic fluid of the past" (Rushdie 120), Roy at one level is responding
to the historical British-Indian empire, while at another level
as a female writer she is also responding to the established Rushdian
tradition of Indo-Anglian fiction. With the publication of his 1981
novel Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie was said to have redrawn
"the literary map of India" by the New York Times (Kadzis 2). Roy's
The God of Small Things, published nearly two decades (1997) later,
regenders this much-celebrated literary history previously drawn
by Rushdie. Roy's is not an easy job. We might come to a better
understanding of Roy's idea (both as a female and as a Post-Rushdian
Indo-Anglian writer) of space when we mark that in the novel she
constantly shows us failed attempts at reversing history. Yet, she
seems to be showing that history can never be reversed; it can only
be reworked. In this context, we propose that Roy brings in the
necessity of inhabiting a hybrid third space for a postcolonial
female writer. From this third space she negotiates her relationship
between both the personal and national—in her preference for small
over large. The God of Small Things then is a novel about space.
Space, however, is perpetually redefined with the acceptance of
"other," the "external" into the "self" or the "internal." This
does not indicate the victory of one principle over another but
merely that a third, new and often quite powerful space is being
forged. The novel in the end shows us how impossible it is to make
the separation between the "other" and the "self." The characters
in the novel often inhabit a betwixt and between threshold that
if anything at all, brings to light the fluid nature of the markers
that are traditionally employed to compartmentalize.
Merely an identification and mention of Roy's forging of the third
space for a female postcolonial writer seems inadequate. Roy's intellectual
acuity demands that we closely appraise the third space. The delineated
third space is closely affiliated to the idea of a performative
artist. In The God of Small Things, this space gets created as where
the body serves as a libratory text, providing its own form of syntax
through gestural and performative codes. A good example of this
is Roy's admiration for the Kathakali man (219). The Kathakali man
is presented as the model for subjective space that a marginalized
artist/author (Roy being perhaps dually marginal as both a female
and a postcolonial writer) may successfully access. At this stage
we would like to defer a detailed discussion on the Kathakali man
until later, but suffice it to say that Roy's construction of the
Kathakali man shows her privileging somatic values over written
text. The God of Small Things as a postcolonial female novel is
then Roy's own gender performance where "the body is always an embodying
of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical
conventions" (Butler 272).
We realize that it is impossible to fully address this topic, without
unraveling the multiple layers of this text but such an investigation
is beyond the scope of this paper. In this collaborative project,
then, we shall concentrate on the characters' and the novels' relationship
to language and history, both of which are directly related to the
idea of gendered space.
The Rule of Law
This novel symbolizes the notion that no one is independent from
history and that cultures that have intertwined cannot be easily
separated. All of the personal events have been historiographized.
For example, the twins Rahel and Estha were born during the India-China
war of 1962, and the mother Ammu divorces her husband and returns
home from Assam to Ayamenem during the India-Pakistan war. This
signifies that the individual events are tied to historical and
national events. Individual actions affect social and national reactions.
It is prudent as this stage to give a brief summary of the novel,
for those of you who have not read it before. This will at the same
time allow us to examine social customs as well as gender politics.
The primary characters are the mother Ammu and her twins Rahel and
Estha who attempt to defy multiple social boundaries and who are
punished in their attempts by members of their community who feel
the need to prevent the chaos that these transgressions would lead
to. Ammu and her twins repeatedly break "the love laws" which control
whom one should love and how much.
The first transgression against the love laws occurs with Ammu's
marriage to Baba. They belong to different castes--Baba is Bengali
and Ammu is Malayali. Also, they belong to different religions--Baba
is Hindu and Ammu is Syrian Christian. Because of this, their marriage
is considered to be an intercommunity love marriage, also known
as an inter-caste marriage, something to be despised and discouraged,
and thus their children Rahel and Estha are considered illegitimate.
Ammu transgresses further by obtaining a divorce, and her social
position in the community is adversely affected when she and the
twins return to Ayamenem. Even Baby Kochamma dislikes both the twins
and Ammu because the twins "were Half-Hindu Hybrids whom no self-respecting
Syrian Christian would ever marry" (44). Baby Kochama also 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. [. . .] As
for a divorced daughter from a intercommunity love marriage—Baby
Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject. (45)
Baby Kochama's silence represents the unspeakable nature of Ammu's
The second transgression against the love laws occurs when Ammu
has a sexual affair with Velutha, a member of the Paravan caste,
also known as the Untouchables, thereby defying the traditional
Indian separation of the castes. Even before this affair, Velutha
has managed to transgress his position in Indian society by acquiring
technical training and a better education. While society can overlook
his attempt to better himself through education, it cannot allow
him to ally sexually with a member of another class/caste, and thus
begin attempts to contain him.
Velutha is contained at multiple levels: (1) for his sexual union
with Ammu, and (2) for his relationship with the children that cannot
be sanctioned. For these supposed crimes, he is beaten to death.
In order to justify their actions and maintain a pretense of law
and order, the police need to find him guilty. Estha is forced,
through the use of emotional blackmail, to make an accusation of
kidnapping cousin Sophie Mol against Velutha in front of Velutha's
broken body. This betrayal of their friend haunts Ammu, Rahel and
Estha for the rest of their lives. Estha stops speaking after he
is returned to his father; Ammu is banished from her home, and dies
alone at age 31; Rahel is expelled from school, drifts, marries
an American, whom she later divorces. All the characters float around
as if rootless. The narrative begins and ends as Rahel returns to
her family home in India and to Estha, wherein ensues their union,
the third transgression against the love laws. An union that is
incestuous and hence, socially transgressive. However, Estha and
Rahel perceive this relationship differently. As the narrator points
out, Estha and Rahel are two-egg twins with a Siamese soul (4-5).
They have always referred to themselves as we or us, never as I.
Although they are physically different, they are one spiritually.
Sex allows them to become one physically as well as spiritually.
In some respects, Rahel and Estha's relationship reflects the relationship
between India and England. Each nation has its own cultures, its
own history, but England's colonialization of India allowed a negotiation
between cultures and histories, and after colonization is over,
the negotiation continues. In Estha and Rahel's cases, each is an
individual tied together by a shared period of history, and even
after they are forcefully and physically separated for many years
and by many miles, their souls still transact and/or connect, so
much so that they cannot form lasting, meaningful relationships
with other people. Like postcolonial India, Rahel and Estha refuse
to be categorized. They fit everywhere and nowhere.
We Speak of Language
Rahel and Estha's relationship to language mirrors the postcolonial
tendency to rebel against all things English, yet their identity
is intrinsically constructed by their sensitivity to the discourse
of the Empire. As their uncle Chacko encourages them to look up
the term Anglophile, Estha and Rahel learn that this term means
"Person well disposed to the English" (51). After looking up the
term "dispose," the twins discover three definitions: "(1) Place
suitably in particular order. (2) Bring mind into certain state.
(3) Do what one will with, get off one's hands, stow away, demolish,
finish, settle, consume (food), kill, sell." (51). Chacko says that
in their grandfather Pappachi's case, Anglophile means that his
mind "had been brought into a state which made him like the English"
(51). However, there is a subtle hint that being an Anglophile is
more complex than this. The English have placed the Indians in a
particular order and have consumed and demolished Indian culture
in an attempt to replace it with British culture (the common presumption
being that there is one Indian culture). The English have the ability
to do whatever they will to the Indians, and subtly they have made
most Indians accept these changes. As Chacko claims, "They were
a family of Anglophiles" (51). This situation is further complicated
because the Indians have actively participated in their own cultural
Rahel and Estha, even as children, rebel against the colonizing
forces of English. Although their aunt Baby Kochamma relentlessly
enforces a rule that the twins must always speak English, the twins
rebel and speak their native language Malayalam in private. If their
aunt catches them, she makes them write, "I will always speak in
English" one hundred times each to penalize them for their transgression
(36). Thwarted by their aunt, Rahel and Estha find another way to
revolt. They begin reading English lines backward, as if in an attempt
to reverse time. They are punished for this too, and their teacher
Miss Mitten tells their aunt Baby Kochamma that she had "seen Satan
in their eyes. NataS ni rieht seye" (58). They have to write one
hundred times each "In future we will not read backwards" (58).
When their teacher Miss Mitten is killed by a milk van several months
later, the twins believe that "there was hidden justice in the fact
that the milk van had been reversing (58).
Although Rahel and Estha's new language, that of reading English
backward, is funny at the best of times and absurd at the worst,
it does make an important postcolonial argument. They refuse to
accept formalized English as their language because it has been
forced upon them, both by the colonizing forces and by the colonized—their
family members. The twins and their unique use of English language
represent the postcolonial space. This redefining of their relationship
to the language of empire can be better understood in conjunction
with Baktin's theory of heteroglossia. As Bakhtin argues,
at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot
from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of socio-ideological
contradictions between the present and the past, between differing
epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in
the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth,
all given a bodily form. These "languages" of heteroglossia intersect
each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying
Bakhtin's theory finds its place within Roy's novel if we focus
on the socio-ideological contradictions between the present and
the past existing within the twins. Although they are of the middle
class, they befriend Velutha, a member of the Untouchable class.
In this sense they rebel against "Indian" culture(s). Yet they rebel
against the use of English in the attempt to self- identify as Indian.
There is a sense in this novel that time and change cannot be completely
reversed. Rahel and Estha, despite their rebellion, embrace a redefined
notion of empire. They have a versatile relationship with English
language and customs. While they cannot entirely dispense with speaking
English, and they enjoy American/English films such as The Sound
of Music, Rahel and Estha are able to use the master's tools to
dismantle the master's house. They take the authority previously
denied to a colonized subject to create a new language out of the
old, and to some extent, they merge "Indian" culture with English.
They seem to be creating a third space, not traditionally English
and not traditionally Indian. The novel is extremely complex in
its relation to language, an issue that is most exigent in modern
India, an India that still struggles with its essential national
identity. Attention to "language" provides an ontological space
for the numerous issues of postcoloniality to confront each other
in the novel.
The Haunted House of Her/His-tory
At a point in the novel Mammachi, the grandmother to Rahel and Estha,
informs them that she recalled a time when Paravans were expected
to walk backwards, sweeping and erasing all marks of their presence
so as not to defile the Brahmins and the Syrian Christians (70).
This same sense of being denied viable existence in the social,
historical and national narrative is replicated when Chacko nationalistically
bemoans that as Anglophiles they were "trapped outside their own
history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints
had been swept away" (51). He explained to the children "that history
was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors
whispering inside. Chacko asserted that to understand history, 'we
have to go inside and listen to what they're saying. And look at
the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells'" (51).
Chacko's notion of History here is quite fixed. He talks of history
as spatially fixed and encompassed—within a room. Chacko fails where
the twins succeed, that is, in perceiving history as what Dipesh
Chakrabarty calls "affective histories" (18). As Chakrabarty asserts,
it is "affective histories" that provide "a loving grasp of detail
in search of an understanding of the diversity of the human life-worlds"
A reader first encounters the perception of history as the meta-narrative
(same as Chacko's perception) that disregards all other small, personal
narratives in the beginning of the novel. The narrator informs the
reader of Rahel's husband's exasperation when he was unable to decipher
the empty look in her eyes. But as s/he (the narrator) goes on to
He [Rahel's husband] didn't know that in some places, like the country
that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy.
And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That
something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside
shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane,
unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. The Big God howled like
a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. The small God (cozy and contained,
private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his
own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence,
he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much…It
was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In
the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror
of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening. (20)
The big/small God distinction in the novel allegorizes the distinctions
between the national and personal. In the beginning of the novel
it appears that Roy seems to endorse this concept of history as
a meta-narrative. Rahel's emptiness and Estha's silence might indicate
a sense of indifference that although transgressive is not powerful
enough to disrupt it. Fortunately there are no easy answers in the
novel. Even while meta-history continues its classifications, cracks
appear and the all-governing love laws are tampered with, forbidden
territories are crossed and "the unthinkable" becomes "thinkable
and the impossible really" possible (31). The union of Velutha and
Ammu is one such instance when the meta-history is ruptured as "Centuries
telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed,
caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks,
its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days
all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering
that was plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the
sky" (168). It is in such moments that the principles of history
are revamped to include narratives about gods of small things. Such
moments draw their power through their aberrant or "mad" status
(204). They do not form the part of the social lexicon as they defy
the act of classification. They can only be lived and performed.
Yet meta-history collects its dues when it uses Estha, the official
"Keeper of [small] Records," (156) against the god of small things,
Velutha. Estha is forced to falsely implicate Velutha in charges
of abduction, hence, he stops speaking—a refusal to participate
in history. The brutalization of Velutha by the police is another
example of meta-history systematically settling the score: "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" (293). Yet, Roy uses the device of history
brilliantly. It is in the house of history (an abandoned ruin) where
violence is wrecked on Velutha; it is the house of history that
was later bought by a five star hotel chain and converted into a
space for "Toy Histories for rich tourists to play in," it is the
same house of history which Roy makes the site for one of the novel's
most powerful unions, that of Ammu and Velutha's. It is not a mere
coincidence that the novel ends with depiction of Ammu and Velutha's
union and narration of their nocturnal ritual of finding each other
in the house of history. The house of history is reappropriated
by the enactment of small events, like Ammu and Velutha's struggle
to protect a spider that lived in cracks of the walls in the House.
The novel then can be thought of as a story about this act of reappropriation.
This act is also a form establishing a claim over the creation and
narration of one's own story. As Edward Said informs us "stories,
are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange
regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people
use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own
history" (xii). The house of history provided Velutha and Ammu a
space in which the socially separated categories of "love," "madness,"
"hope," and "infinite joy" could be powerfully brought together
(320). Roy, at the end of the novel, seems to be endorsing this
notion of history in negation to Chacko's notion of history as meta-narrative.
While Chacko believed that their mundane lives would never form
the material of historical narratives ( "'Our dreams have been doctored.
We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never
be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys
never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never
important enough. To matter.'" 52), Roy's presentation of Velutha
and Ammu's personal story does form the material of which history
The liminal space that Ammu and Velutha create is also a space that
Roy, the author, impressively forges. It is a space that dismantles
the separation of the national from the personal, the sacred from
the secular. This notion of there being a space, which can simultaneously
encompass apparently disparate ideological economies, is the third
space that Roy establishes. Roy's creation of this third space is
a new contribution in the traditionally binary critical structures
of the postcolonial discourse community. Roy replaces with this
binary with the idea of simultaneity, or a continuum. Roy's third
space is the space that an artist or an author assumes when performing
or storytelling. This space is one in which the stipulations of
meta- history can be subverted. An artist is one who realizes that
great stories are made of simple tales that shimmer in a space between
the sacred and the profane. Roy's eulogy to the androgynous body
of the Kathakali Man (the dancer of the traditional Indian Kathakali)
delineates this notion of the power of the artist or the performer.
Of the Kathakali Man she writes:
So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his
own. He teases it. He punishes it. He sends it up like a bubble.
He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again…He can turn effortlessly
from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her
hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa
with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread.
From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into
the seductive mischief of Krishna's smile. He can reveal the nugget
of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a
sea of glory. He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun
from the ungodly, human heart. The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful
of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument. From
the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed
wholly to the task of storytelling. (219)
The socially low and economically impoverished Kathakali man embodies
the power of assuming liminal undefined performative spaces. The
Kathakali man's physical performance challenges the linguistic and
cultural order as it allows the body to participate in the construction
of meaning. His performance encompasses almost an androgynous element
(i.e. "From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast").
To invoke Irigaray's phrase, the Kathakali man uses all the "gestural
code of women's bodies," that enables a limited escape from the
restrictions of masculine languages and histories (Irigaray 136).
Further, as Hélène Cixous argues, theatricality represents a contestation
of linguistic order, allowing new meanings to emerge (Shiach 109).
Through his performative dance, then, the Kathakali man successfully
transcends the restrictions of meta-history and meta-language. The
Kathakali man provides the ontological plane on which the personal
can be placed alongside the national. In his person, we find the
fracturing of the whole hierarchical structure that privileges the
large (and all that is associated with this term, such as: man,
meta-history, national, colonial, formal structured language, etc)
over the small. This physically ambiguous figure of the Kathakali
dancer presents Roy with an alternate positionality that allows
restrictive conventions to work against themselves by opening up
meanings that masculinist discourse seeks to foreclose. The space
of the Kathakali man symbolizes the space that Roy assumes as a
postcolonial storyteller. The history that she writes is not of
kings and national wars. Hers is the realm of small; she writes
of the god of small things—the Paravan Velutha.
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Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns
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Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought
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Irigaray, Luce. The Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Oxford:
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Her Feet, is a Work of Epic Ambition that Fuses Myth with Rock-and-Roll
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