World Literatures in English; course 2000
Arundhati Roy
Pin-chia Feng and Kate Liu
photo taken from The Arundhati Roy Web

Her life & Social Background
About The Novel
Time Line & Major Themes
Chapter II
Relevant Links

Her life
  • born as Suzanna Arundhati Roy on 11/24/1961
  • mother--Mary Roy (Christian)--a well-known social activist, ran an informal school (Corpus Chrisiti )
  • father (a Bengali Hindu tea planter)
  • uncle--George Issac (owned the Palat Pickles--the slogan: ''Emperor in the realm of taste'')

  • ( example from the novel: Chacko as Pickle Baron)
  • feeling of insecurity because of the broken marriage-- ''on the edge of the community''

  •   ( example from the novel: the children's view about happy moments ''beads on a (somewhat scanty) necklace'' p. 60)
  • left home at 16 and lived in a squatter's colony in Delhi
  • The Delhi School of Architecture
  • marriage (Gerard Da Cunha)--divorced after 4 years
  • a role in Massey Saab
  • The Banyan Tree--TV series
  • screenplay--In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones /Electric Moon
  • a critique of Bandit Queen, after which she retreated from the TV industry and focused on writing The God of Small Things.

Social Background
  • Syrian Christian Community

  • -- less than 5% of Indian's population
    -- more than 1/3 in Kerala are Christians
    -- the Syrian Church is one of the oldest branches of Christianity--came to India with St. Thomas in  52 CE.
  • Marxism in Kerala

  • ''The first Communist government in the world was elected in Kerala in 1957, and from then on it became a big power to contend with. I think in '67 the government returned to power after having been dismissed by Nehru, and so in '69 it was at its peak. And it was as if revolution was really just around the corner.''-- Arundhati Roy
  • Women in Kerala

  • -- Relative freedom for women in Kerala
    -- assertive, energetic, courageous women
    -- instances of patriarchal oppression

    ( example from the novel: 
    Mamachi-- her talent music and making pickles, 
    Ammu -- her activeness in arranging her own marriage and later in divorce, 
    Baby Kochama -- a caricature of a woman who is enslaved by both patriarchy and colonialism)

About The God of Small Things
  • Completed in May 1996
  • published in 4/4/1997 by Random House
  • the Booker Price--Oct. 1997 (India's 50th anniversary of independence)--the first non-expatriate Indian author and the first Indian woman to win the price
  • England--"derivative"¨--about India
  • India--communist critique from E M S Namboodiripad--  "Anybody who attacks Communists anywhere in the world will be welcomed by the captains of the industry of bourgeois literature in the world."
  • sexual anarchy + obscenity case--Sabu Thomas-- affront Indian tradition, culture, and morality; "excites sexual desires and lascivious thoughts"
  • hurts the Syrian Christian community
Roy on writing the novel  (excerpted from Roy on Writing)
  • inspiration 1: image -- 
    • ''the image of this sky blue Plymouth stuck at the railroad crossing with the twins inside and this Marxist procession raging around it''
  • inspiration 2: background -- 

  • "A lot of the atmosphere of A God of Small Things is based on my experience of what it was like to grown up in Kerala.  Most interestingly, it was the only place in the world where religions coincide, there is Christianity, Hinduism, Marxism and Islam and they all live together and rub each other down.  When I grew up it was the Marxism that was very strong, it was like the revolution was coming the next week¡K.  To me, I couldn¡¦t think of a better location for a book about human beings."
  • the novel and the author: ''so much of fiction is a way of seeing, of making sense of the world¡Kand you need a key of how to begin to do that.  This was just a key.  For me (the novel) was five years of almost unchanging and mutating, and growing a new skin.  It's almost like a part of me."
  • Themes: "I have to say that my book is not about history but biology and transgression.  And, in fact is that YOU CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF BRUTALITY UNTIL YOU SEE WHAT HAS BEEN LOVED BEING SMASHED.  And the book deals with both things--it deals with our ability to be brutal as well as our ability to be so deeply intimate and so deeply loving."
  • The title: ''To me the god of small things is the inversion of God.  God's a big thing and God's in control.  The god of small things¡Kwhether it's the way the children see things or whether it's the insect life in the book, or the fish or the stars--there is a not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries.  This small activity that goes on is the under life of the book,  All sorts of boundaries are transgressed upon¡K.''



    ( example from the novel: p. 20; p. 320)

  • Repetition: "Repetition I love, and used because it made me feel safe.  Repeated words and phrases have rocking feeling, like a lullaby.  They help take away the shock of the plot.¡¨
  • Structure:  ...for me the book is not about what happened but about how what happened affected people."

  • "in some way the structure of the book ambushes the story¡K.  In the first chapter I more or less tell you the story, but the novel ends in the middle of the story¡K."
    ( example--p.32 "Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.")

Time Line, Characters & Major Themes
  • Time Line

  • 1969--communist march; Sophie Mol's (8) visit, death, and funeral; Ammu and Velutha; Velutha's death
    1973--Ammu's death (31, p.5  ''a viable die-able age'')
    1992--the narrative present--Estha ('the quietness,'' ''re-Returned''); Rahel (divorced, back for the States); Baby Kochamma (satellite TV and diary)
  • Characters

  • The two kids: twin, from we and us to they

      p.4-5 ''In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, as We or Us.  As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.''--''¡Know she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them, because, separately, the two of them are no longer what They were or thought They'd be.''
    • their missing the father p. 80; 81

  • Small Things (The title; see the author's explanation above)
    • how memory works: , keeping fragments of the past and reconstructing them, e.g. p. 32; 69 
    • a way to survive: when larger things cannot be changed, one turns one's attention to smaller things.  e.g. p. 320
    • a kind of artist: Velutha
    • a way of challenging the powful (Gig God) with small transgressions
      • e.g. Mamachi's pickle (between jelly and jam); the children's reversing English, checking the dictionary meanings of English words (cuff-link, Anglophile, dispose pp. 50-51)
  • Biology and Transgression; Dual Perspectives
  • "It's a story that examines things very closely but also from a very, very distant point, almost from geological time and you look at it and see a pattern there.  A pattern¡Kof how in these small events and in these small lives the world intrudes.  And because of this, because of people being unprotected¡Kthe world and the social machine intrudes into the smallest, deepest core of their being and changes their life.'' (from Roy on Writing)



    -- Here as well as in the novel we see an interactions and interpenetration of Big God (the World and Social Machine) and Small God (small lives). 

  • The Love Laws/ Caste System: the divisiveness within; the "darkness'' within?

  • p.33 "That it [the story] really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.  The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.  And How much.''

    caste is ''the defining consideration in all Indian politics, (and) in all Indian marriages, (but) the lines are blurring. India exists in several centuries simultaneously.''

    caste and gender: e.g. Baby Kochamma's understanding of the status of an Indian woman pp.44-5

Chapter II

time: 12/1969 (the day before Sophie Mol's arrival)
place: Ayemenem-----Cochin

I. the influence of (neo)colonial cultures [British and American]: 

  • pop culture: The Sound of Music (1965) Elvis puff, Love-in-Tokyo (pop culture) p.37
  • language education:  p.37 Malayalam vs English (''Pre NUN sea ayshun'')/ 
  • the kids's understanding: ''cuff-link'' p.50; 
  • English reading p. pp. 57- 
  • The Anglophilic characters: p.50-51

  • 1. Pappachi's moth (p.48): 
    • his need for re-inventing the category; and possessing its name
    • This obsession and failure becomes something that haunts the whole family.
    2. Chacko's ambivalent position: naming the factory "Paradise pickles and preserves''; critical of colonial culture (saying that the Indians are locked out of their history), but marrying a white woman.
    3. Baby Kochaman's complete absorption of colonial cultures. 
II. History House -- another example of colonial influence
    • ''The History House'' (p.51-54) 
    • Chacko's--''an old house at night.'' (p.51) 
    • children's--Kari-Saipu''s house 
    • --in 1990s: 'Toy Histories for rich tourists to play in.  Like the sheaves of rice in Joseph's dream, like a press of eager natives petitioning an English magistrate, the old houses had been arranged around the History House in attitudes of deference.  'Heritage,' the hotel was called.'' (p.120)
    • intertext: Kurtz and The Heart of Darkness
III. the Social inequalities: Women and Caste system
-- Mammachi's pickles and talents in playing the violin: the former is taken over by Chacko and the latter, stopped by her husband; 
-- wife-beating of both Papachi and Baba
-- Ammu--''life had been lived'' p.38-44''Unsafe Edge'' (p.44) ''The fate of the wretched man-less woman.'' (p. 44-5)
-- Caste system:  p. 71; Vella Paapen and his sonpp. 72-75
IV. The Symbolic "Small Things": 
  • Rahel's watch (p.37) 
  • frogs (p.42)
  • Chacko--airplanes and pickle baron (p.55-56) 
  • reading backwards--''Satan in their eyes'' (p.58)
  • ambulance (Sacred Heart Hospital) and wedding party (p.58)
  • Murlidharan's keys and ''cupboards, cluttered with secret pleasure''(p.61)

Related Links
I. General 
  • The Arundhati Roy Web: very informative; includes info. about her childhood, her life so far, The God of Small Things, Kelara, the controversies it aroused, etc.
    • important quotes: 

    • -- "When I think back on all the things I have done I think from a
           very early age, I was determined to negotiate with the world on my
           own. There were no parents, no uncles, no aunts; I was completely
           responsible for myself." 
      -- ""My mother says that some of the incidents in the book are based
           on things that happened when I was two years old. I have no
           recollection of them. But obviously, they were trapped in some part
           of my brain." 
  • ARUNDHATI ROY: A LIFE FULL OF BEGINNINGS AND NO ENDS: a collection of photos helful for us to visualize the novel's setting.  Also, a collection of websites.
II. Study Guides:  III. Kelera & Malayalam
  • Seby's picture tour of Kerala
  • Kelara at Postcolonial Studies site at Amory
  • A Gateway to Kerala Cyber Resources 
  • A Very Extensive Kerala Site 
  • An Overview of Malayalam 

  • Left: the Meenachil  river; click here to view larger image; from A PICTURE TOUR OF KERALA

    IV.  Social Issues: 

    • Divorce in The God of Small Things 
    • Caste &The God of Small Things 
    V. Interviews VI. Reviews
    • Review  by  EMS : EMS Namboodiripad, the late Marxist leader of Kerala and whose name

    •           figures in the novel reviews the novel
        One critic's response to EMS: EMS shouldn't mind the small things in GOST
    • A Silver Thimble in Her Fist (New York Times) :A review by Alice Truax.You have to register

    •           (free) with NY times to read this review. 
    VII. Others