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Writing the Postcolonial
2002 MMLA Meeting
Minneapolis, MN
10 November


Purna Banerjee and Sarah Liles
Texas Christian University

Empire Writes Back: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

Do not cite without permission of the author.


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 transgression.

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 demise.

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 "languages." (347).

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" (18).

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 clarify,

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 is made.

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.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. "From The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays." Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 321- 53.

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Irigaray, Luce. The Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Kadzis, Peter. "Salman Speaks: Rushdie's New Novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is a Work of Epic Ambition that Fuses Myth with Rock-and-Roll Reality." The Boston Phoenix 6-13 May 1999. 8 Sept. 2002 .

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. New York: Penguin, 1980.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Shiach, Mirag. Hélène Cixous: A Politics of Writing. London: Routledge, 1991.


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