Friday, June 22, 2007

Novel - The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

There is a good novel in every man, or to be gender-specific in this case, woman. The author has put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and brought out the novel lurking inside her, and brought out a cathartic and thought-provoking book out of the placid exterior of a sleepy-looking village set in the backwaters of Kerala. And, in the process, the author has also made a social comment on the minuscule Syrian Christian community, whose ancestors are believed to have converted to Christianity as early as the first century, thereby becoming among the oldest Christians in the world. But, for long, this conservative community had its own inner rumblings of rebellion against its rigid laws that the book deals with in the persona of Ammu and her two children.

When Christianity came to Kerala like 'tea from a tea bag', Kottayam was the town chosen by Christians as their spiritual centre. Later, Anglican missionaries started work there, established colleges, schools, presses, and in course of time, the district became highly literate. Missionary schools spread literacy in remote villages and Syrian Christians became highly literate.

But despite their high literacy, Syrian Christians failed to come out of their self-imposed cocoon and remained bound by tradition and led an orthodox existence. Because of this, and due to a lack of opportunities in an industrially backward Kerala, Syrian Christians migrated to countries and states outside their own. It is not uncommon to find that in a single family all the children may be working different countries and the only occasion they meet each other is when they come on holiday to Kerala. A wide and diffused Diaspora of Syrian Christians exists throughout the world even in the remotest countries. They chose profession like teaching, nursing and technical jobs that are relatively easy to find and not hard to make a living with. Being hardworking and abstemious, worldly possessions and money is what is cherished, and what people are measured by in the community.

In the in-bred and tight-knit Syrian Christian community, where one is someday destined to marry one's own cousin, Mary Roy, the author's mother created waves when she won a landmark case claiming equal share in her parents' legacy. Appropriately the author dedicates the book to her 'For Mary Roy who grew me up'. In the Syrian Christian community, Mary Roy's victory came as a mild shock. Syrian Christian men had taken for granted that they are the sole inheritors of their parent's legacy, while women are given away in marriage with a dowry. In such a family, enquiring, sensitive twin siblings (Rahel and Estha) of a divorced mother (Ammu) would have been less than welcome, if not downright neglected. It is in such a family in Ayemenem, a small village in Kottayam district of Kerala that Rahel and Estha came to live. This forms the background of Roy's fictional work which according to her is autobiographical in 'emotional texture'.

The story is about the happenings in the Ayemenem house, of forbidden love, Estha's slow descent into depression, Ammu's death, Rahel's wandering aimlessly from convent to convent, to Delhi, to America and back to Ayemenem. Estha is returned to his Bengali father in Calcutta and is re-returned when the latter emigrates to Australia. The whole book is about a single episode, preparation for Rahel's cousin Sophie Mol's (uncle Chacko's daughter through marriage with an Englishwoman, Margaret Kochamma) visit to Ayemenem, and her eventual death by drowning. But the way the book is interwoven with Rahel's account after her return to Ayemenem and her recollection of the episode as an adult, the book takes on a different dimension and seems to span a whole lifetime.

In a community, closed, cloistered and xenophobic like that of the Syrian Christians, Rahel, born out of a love marriage, that too from an inter-community love marriage, sensitively feels the resentment that exists in Baby Kochamma. 'She (Baby Kochamma) subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents' home. As for a divorced daughter… as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma's outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an inter-community love marriage -- Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject'.

Roy's book begins at the end with the funeral of Sophie Mol. Sophie Mol is doted upon by the family because she is half white. Margaret Kochamma's (Sophie Mol's mother's) second spouse Joe dies in an accident and she comes to visit her first husband Chacko, the Oxford educated uncle of Rahel and Estha. Chacko comes out from the book as obese, unkempt, but quite erudite and scholarly. Baby Kochamma, the grand aunt is an ex-nun disappointed in her love or an Irish Jesuit priest, Fr Mulligan, and writes 'I love you' notes to him in her diary every night. The Ayemenem house becomes a spouseless house with grand mother Mammachi, Baby Kochamma, Ammu and Chacko either man-less or woman-less. The tension in this milieu in which the story is set is palpable.

The author employs two different story lines to tell the story. One story line threads through the family's trip to Cochin to meet Sophie Mol (Mol meaning 'little girl' is a term of endearment for Syrian Chrisitians) at the airport, leading to Ammu feeling neglected and consummating her love for the 'untouchable' employee Velutha. The other story line follows Rahel's return from the US, a divorcee, reminiscing through adult eyes, on the happenings in Ayemenem house. When Ammu is found out, she is locked in a room and the children run away to their hideout in the history house on the other side of the river Meenachal. Velutha is falsely implicated for kidnapping the children, and dies in an encounter.

It was conservatism, deeply ingrained in the Syrian Christian psyche, that was responsible for Ammu's desperate act. She decides to get married not out of love, but the fear of not marrying at all. The claustrophobic confines of Syrian Christians society leaves no elbow room for those who break its rules. Much worse awaits those who break its love laws. So Ammu was looked down upon, ostracised and ridiculed. Nobody, not even her own mother and brother commiserated with her. No wonder, she found an outlet in rebellion, nothing unknown to Syrian Christian youth, who either meekly submit or rebel outrageously. Ammu rebelled and when she did, nobody could stop her, even the thought of her two children could not stop her. The book is also a severe indictment of the Syrian Christian orthodox way of life which forces its young members to rebel, where unwritten laws are ubiquitous and those who break them are damned.

Roy has a magical facility with the language, sharp observations, an incredible vocabulary and sensitive use of language. Her description of the happening at the Cochin airport, at Abilash Talkies where Estha is led into onanising a soft-drink seller leave distinct images in the mind. What she excels in is her description of the pristine beauty of Kerala's landscape, its rivers, houses, customs and prejudices. She uses colours interestingly to describe a feeling or mood, 'green heat', and the eventful climatic afternoon as 'blue cross-stitched afternoon' are some.

The keen observant eyes of the author is evident in the way she describes the Syrian Christian kiss (the way Kochu Maria the servant does it) which is a smelling or inhaling of the other person unlike the western peck or smooch, to which Margaret Kochamma asks, 'Do you do this to each other?' The author is also at home with Hindu traditional arts like Kathakali and weaves it into the story as she does Baby Kochamm's trenchant orthodox Christianity. Her caricature of the Marxist wannabe N K M Pillai is hilarious.

But critical praise apart, the book suffers in one respect, that is poor editing. There are many short verb-less sentences which could have been combined into one with commas or semi-colons. This may have been done for style and effect, but, is nonetheless, distracting. Sometimes she gets carried away 'Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush', and 'closed her face like a cupboard', are just a few. A good editor would have chopped off these lines as kitsch in an otherwise enjoyable book. Such passages make on sit up and notice, draws attention to the writer, not the story. This is what pulp Malayalam literature of two-rupee worth would contain, but does a talented writer have to resort to these forms of expression to draw attention to herself? Indiscriminate capitalising is also resorted to for worlds like 'Unsafe Edge' and 'Let Her Be'. Several Malayalam words are not italicised (mittom) which confuses a reader not familiar with the language. However, there are several innovative usage's like 'Ammu told her to stoppit and she stoppited'. There are several phrasal leit motifs running throughout the text that gives its continuity and a sense of irony. 'Spoiled Puff', and 'Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo' to describe Estha and Rahel are some of them. No doubt, the author has created a new idiom with her style which will surely have many imitators, but these idioms should be used in a controlled way, so as not to swamp the reader with distractions.

'That a few hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes' says a passage from the book on the blurb. The few hours from the arrival of Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma, and Baby Kochamma and the others' infatuation with their fair grand daughter acts as a trigger and frustrates Ammu into behaving irrationally for her own and her children's sake. Velutha is described with ardour, the children worship him and he is the 'God of Small Things' because he is good with his hands and can fix and craft anything. The book is about forbidden love where 'love laws are broken', like that between Ammu and Velutha and Estha and Rahel.

The author is brilliant in her depiction of children, hearkening to the Booker prize-winner Roddy Doyle's 'Paddy Clark Ha! Ha! Ha!'. She has special sensitivity to their language, uses it as they do (Bar Nowl for barn owl) and the children reading backwards (eht for the). Their candidness, fears, frankness and outspokenness all come out in the chapters 'Abhilash Talkies' and 'Cochin Kangaroos'. The astounding originality of the work is evident to those who have grown up in such a milieu for whom Baby Kochamma, Pappachi, Mammachi, Chacko , Ammu, Rahel and Estha seem life-like and only too real. The author should be commended for maintaining her distance, and for being alternatively unsparing and indulgent to her characters.

Indian writers writing for western audiences have an intransigent urge to impress their readers with local exotica. In the process the narrative suffers, so does continuity. But Roy somehow manages to come out through all the maze of words with a credible story, movingly told. There is pathos, passion and genuine entertainment in the book. Throughout the book the author looks through the eyes of Rahel, her alter-ego, with wide-eyed wonderment and appreciative of the small things of life. It is full exotic smells, sights and experiences. Surely, there is not one but many more novels in her, though she says she is off writing for now.

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