Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things reveals a complex relationship between individuals and the historical and cultural forces that shape them and their society. In Roy’s novel, a “Big God” has control over the big happenings of the world, the “vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation (20).” In contrast, a “Small God” has control over the individual lives caught up in events too powerful and significant for these individuals to understand and change.
This Small God is “cozy and contained, private and limited (20),” watching over people for whom “Worse Things” are always happening. Individuals ruled by the symbolic Small God withdraw away from mass movements, while at the same time, their abuse makes them “resilient and truly indifferent (20).” The novel takes place in modern India, in Kerala, during a time of social change and as television is just beginning to broadcast, television-enforced democracy into a closed world. The characters in Roy’s novel exist in a culture of strict rules. There is a caste system and a class system that put much force upon the characters. Conflict is created for individuals who can’t adjust to these systems of social control.
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The most significant conflict in the story, a love affair between Ammu and Velutha, results from individuals rebelling against the historical and cultural structures of caste and class. This is an affair between a Touchable and an Untouchable. At the beginning of the novel, the tragedy is hinted and explained when Roy states, “They all broke the rules. . . . They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how (31).” As an entire culture rebel against ancient laws and customs, Roy’s novel brings this struggle down to the level of individuals. People have begun to question and act against the laws that had remained for so long.
Roy gives excellent detail of everyday life in India and contains colors, textures, and many characters. Roy depicts many details throughout the lives of some of the characters, including Rahel, Ammu, Chacko, Margaret, and others. The novel also gives details about some of the political movements of the days, as it describes the workings of Communism within the state of Kerala. The connection between these events and the characters is complex, and Roy states that “things can change in a day (32)” for any character.
Roy shows how decisions can have severe consequences in several occurrences, showing individuals’ power of choice within their social lives. For instance, when Ammu angrily scolds Rahel by telling her, “When you hurt people they begin to love you less, (107)” this moment has potent effects in the characteon’ lives. This remark is involved in making Rahel run away from the family, an event that also leads to the death of Sophie Mol and then Velutha. In another example, when Margaret Kochamma decides to return to India after the death of her husband, this decision leads to the death of her daughter Sophie and will haunt her for as long as she lives.
Roy uses changes in time to illustrate how the world for the characters has changed. The present moment of the novel occurs as Rahel returns to Ayemenem at the age of thirty-one. Roy uses flashbacks to show the world that Rahel remembers as a young child, when the tragedy occurred that changed her life forever. When Rahel meets Comrade Pillai as an adult, there is tension in the meeting, because Pillai had played a role in the death of Velutha. This is recognized when the narrative states, “she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot (122).”
One of the historical forces that shaped modern India is its colonial past under British rule. For the characters in the novel, this past is still alive. Chacko, who received his education in England, educates the twins Estha and Rahel on the ways of the world. He tells them that their family is “all Anglophiles. . . . Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away (51).” This statement to their footprints relates to the caste system in India. Roy mentions a time, within memory, when Untouchables, or the lowest caste of people, were required to sweep away their footprints in public for higher caste members. When the British ruled, another form of the class structure was imposed upon society.
This structure, according to Chacko, “locked out” Indians from their world, because of “a war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves (52).” From Chacko, the twins “learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws (54).” For Chacko, Indians in relation to the English will always be “Prisoners of War (52).” Colonialism affects other characters in the novel as well. Baby Kochamma, in her youth, had defied her family’s wishes and converted to a Roman Catholic, mainly due to her infatuation with a priest named Father Mulligan.
Throughout the story, Baby Kochamma’s treachery plays a role in the tragedy, as though she is making other people suffer for her own heartache. There is also tension between Mammachi and Margaret Kochamma. Margaret is a British woman who married and then divorced Chacko. Mammachi “despised” her and refers to Margaret as the “shopkeeper’s daughter,” an insult containing the ring of class snobbery. Another mix of the two cultures occurs when Estha is molested when the family had gone to see the film The Sound of Music.
Roy states that the story being told, including the tragedy, began “thousands of years ago. . . . Before the British . . . the Dutch . . . [and] Christianity (33).” The story actually “began in the days when the Love Laws were made (33).” The story and the tragedy show that it is a human passion that cannot be controlled and contained by cultural rules. In their love affair, Ammu and Velutha are well aware of the dangers and non-acceptance of their relationship, and yet they are powerless to stop their desire. One day, as Ammu is watching Velutha play with Rahel, she begins to feel her desire for him.
When Velutha notices that Rahel’s mother was a woman, he thinks of things that are out of bounds. In the end, cultural forces would have their say over the individual’s breaking the rules. The relationship between Velutha and Ammu represents the conflicts in the culture. Velutha is from the Untouchable caste but has many positive qualities cause Ammu to fall in love with him, while the twins Rahel and Estha adore him and play with him often. Velutha’s personality depicts the unfairness of the caste laws. When Velutha is seen marching in a Communist parade, it illustrates the changing structure of political power in the culture.
Velutha’s grandfather had converted to Christianity, but even the new religion could not overcome the caste laws of the society, and the churches became segregated for the Untouchables. The individual freedom represented by the love between Velutha and Ammu is short, and other characters in the story continue the cultural pressure of such displays of rule-breaking. Baby Kochamma lies and betrays Velutha, as does the Communist Pillai, which leads to the murder, by official forces, of Velutha. It is because of betrayal by individuals that Velutha is murdered unjustly for breaking the Love Laws. Estha gets caught up in the situation as well when he is manipulated by Baby Kochamma into lying against Velutha. For Estha, this event has deep effects on his life, as he loses his voice and lives numbly thereafter.
In the end, the novel shifts and the cultural forces begin to work their power over the individuals. When the cultural powers decide that Velutha must be held responsible for breaking the rules, the story provides a glimpse of the men in power, Comrade Pillai and Inspector Mathew. When the police beat Velutha to death, it is an unfriendly event, as the caste laws had severed any connection between themselves and him. Later, many years after the incident, the culture protects the men who uphold its prejudices and injustices. When Rahel meets Comrade Pillai, she notices that he didn’t hold himself in any way personally responsible for what had happened. He dismissed the whole business as the “Inevitable Consequence of Necessary Politics.”