Peripheral Beings and Loss in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
Ng Shing Yi investigates Roy's invisible narratives
By Ng Shing Yi
The God of Small Things is couched in the consciousness of small things, the intimacy of language, and the minute undercurrents of a situation. It involves small, inchoate, personal emotions that burgeon into insurmountable, impersonal forces. From attention paid to the smallest detail in the pulsing, object-laden landscapes of Ayemenem, the novel ebbs into barely discernible emotions, which in turn grow into cogent observations about history, time and the postcolonial world. Like the postcolonial world that exists on the periphery of the Western colonial one, the postcolonial condition of the characters in the novel is one of marginality and liminality, a condition that renders them unclassifiable, alien to any easy categorization, just as their history is one of invisibility and amnesia. In a novel that carries shades of incipient socialism and feminism, the postcolonial condition is reinforced by the added drawback of being an Untouchable or a woman, as Velutha, Ammu, Rahel and Estha are: their marginality is so acute that leitmotifs of absence and loss accompany them in the novel. Like the small things upon which the novel dwells, the main protagonists of the story essentially occupy peripheral positions in their family or society. The God of Small Things attempts to overturn their marginality, their absent histories, by recording the careful detail of their lives, each minute fantasy and idea, the small creeping emotions that culminate in passion or despair. The novel exposes the corruption and inhumanity of socialist party politics (or more specifically, politicking) and capitalism, both of which are domains of power and of subtle colonial imperialism. As if to underline that their marginalized narratives constitute a hole in chronological history, time in the novel is synchronized: the traumatic events of loss and expulsion are told in brief, crystallized flashbacks. While “small things” may ironically connote triviality, the novel is ultimately concerned with marginality, absence and loss: in other words, the invisible narratives that are consumed by power, politics, or imperialism.
A subtle indictment of capitalism and politics takes place in the novel, as evinced by the capitalist takeover of the History House, an old mansion in Ayemenem, and its conversion into a sterile hotel for foreign tourists. Roy writes:
The History House is situated in an area that Roy has termed the Heart of Darkness; the reference to Kurtz functions as an ironic, postcolonial inversion of Joseph Conrad’s remarkably, unconsciously racist text. When capitalism or commerce invades non-Western ex-colonies in strains of economic and cultural imperialism, they effect the reduction of postcolonial cultures into exotica or palatable, marketable products. Roy offers a perspective from the postcolonial end, in the guise of the dancer whose kathakali performances constitute an ancient and sacred art:
The postcolonial individual, trapped in his liminality and ‘unviability,’ cannot withstand the forces of capitalism, trivializing commerce and sterile marketing. Roy’s indictment of capitalism and politics is often sardonic, carrying a kernel of bitterness at the inevitability of betraying one’s original culture or individuality. For instance, Velutha’s being sacrificed by his own Communist Party, represented by the power-hungry Comrade Pillai, to the police officer Thomas Mathew, is a clear polemical indictment of self-interested politicking and the betrayal of the people it is intended to serve. Indeed, the novel sets itself up as a testimony to the fragility of the small, marginalized things (such as the kathakali dancer and his art) which become consumed by the forces of history and power.
Other than capitalistic and cultural imperialism, the postcolonial mentality may contain within itself a kind of residual enslavement which manifests in the psychic perception that white, ex-colonial powers possess an inherent superiority over black, ex-colonized subjects. While this may be understandably enforced by the ex-colonizers, it becomes particularly tragic and ironic in postcolonial subjects. Vellya Paapen and Baby Kochamma, upon discovering Ammu’s affair with Paapen’s son Velutha, who is from the despised Paravan caste or the Untouchables, exhibit their own indebtedness to colonial prejudices:
The colonial hierarchy of who is superior and who is practically subhuman is echoed in the caste system of India, wherein Touchables are not allowed to interact (other than on a master-servant basis) with Untouchables. In the complex social differentiation that pervades Indian society, discriminatory hierarchies continue to be deeply embedded in the psyches of its members, whether they are Touchable or Untouchable, colonial or postcolonial. These are prejudices that extend to within the family, wherein the daughter is usually less favoured than the son, and the unmarried or divorced woman is despised:
Within the family whose matriarch is Mammachi but whose head is necessarily the male heir, Chacko, Ammu, the divorced daughter, occupies a marginal position that is economically dependent on Chacko and culturally bound to conventions of decorum and subservience dictated by her society and reinforced by the older women in her family. As she is conscious of, her life is often described as being “over,” having been married once before. She is one of the small things, creatures of marginality and near-invisibility, that constitute the subject of the novel. Together with her children, Rahel and Estha, as well as the mostly-absent but pivotally significant Velutha, they form the novel’s heart: socially marginalized, their personal histories constitute what Roy would call “a hole in the Universe.” That is, their narratives are largely absent from the larger narratives of history and politics, since they are mostly victims rather than enactors of the rules comporting their society. Roy writes movingly, and bitterly, of the amoral social-historical phenomena that leaves in its wake oft-unrecorded trauma and victimhood. For instance, Estha and Rahel watch police brutality during the arrest of Velutha, who is passively sleeping in the verandah of the History House:
The depersonalization of historical or social forces results in unacknowledged consequences, such as the stripping away of humanity and the inconsequentiality of small, eradicable human beings. As emphasized, Velutha was “not... a man” to the police officers who were needlessly brutalizing him. Perhaps, to them, he was not considered legitimately human by virtue of his Untouchability and his crime of aspiration towards acceptance in a splintered society, and they felt it was their historical or social prerogative to put him in his proper place of inferiority, invisibility, or marginality.
Such a place of invisibility, or “a hole in the Universe,” as Roy would put it, essentializes the postcolonial condition of abandonment, liminality, and consequentially, vulnerability. Velutha, who tries to be a Communist, is abandoned by his Party; he loves the twins and their Touchable mother, and is persecuted for this love:
“Blood barely shows on a Black Man,” in its clarity, is an unswerving indictment of the persecution and oppression that postcolonial subjects continue to undergo despite colonialism’s alleged end. This is due to the residual mentality that imposes laws of social inequality upon those who are perceived as dangerous enough to rebel against the rules that make up society and tradition. The marginal beings, or small things, that fall through the cracks of recorded history, are rendered silent, ineffectual, either through force or through their own sense of despair and the inevitability of losing small things:
Caught in the liminality of abandonment, of belonging nowhere, small things appear trivial, and their loss remains unrecorded, forgotten. In comparison to the large forces of history and society, personal effects become ludicrous, disposable. Roy’s novel rails against the victimhood and loss that characterizethe narratives of small things, and powerless beings, emphasizing that from small things grow unbridled significance and large, humanistic meaning:
That is perhaps the technique of the novel, in a nutshell. It proceeds from small material things, and inchoate notions, that bloom or explode into large uncontrollable passions, or transcendental ideas on humanity and society. A small baby, smelling of milk and urine, as Sophie Mol does, holds such power over Chacko’s heart that upon her life and death pivots the sanity and meaning of a man’s life, as well as the lives of his dependents, Rahel, Estha and Ammu.
Roy’s method of storytelling echoes that of the kathakali dance, an art that narrates the Great Stories, or ancient myths, of Keralese folk history. They demonstrate the seemingly paradoxical concern with both attention to detail and the transcendental humanism that mounts from those same, significant details. Perhaps, they subscribe to the belief that, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put it, “God is in the details.” The kathakali dance and its mythic storytelling switches smoothly between the minuteness of detail to humanist tragedy of the highest order:
Roy’s novel functions on the same technique, swooping into the intricacy of intimate situations, and drawing back to paint an enlarged landscape of humanity and the world that it constructs for itself. There is a God in small things, the novel insists, embodied in the marginal Black Man of Velutha, in the hidden narratives of women, children and untouchables:
Velutha’s nakedness, or vulnerability, is embellished with nail varnish, which of course, was painted on by Rahel and Estha while they were playing with him. It is a testimony of their love, a small detail that is mocked by the policemen who brutalize him and then ridicule him for wearing nail varnish. Abandoned, unprotected save for the love of small children, betrayed by those same children, and annihilated, Velutha’s tragedy of being the victim of senseless inhumanity and amoral history is the axis around which the novel and the rest of the narratives, pivot.
Synchronicity of time characterizes the novel’s narrative, as the stories of Velutha and Ammu are told in brief, concentrated flashbacks and the present is narrated as a kind of aftermath or debris, in which Rahel and Estha float about like survivors of trauma. The novel proceeds without providing the reader any illusions of a happy ending, by employing poignant, stinging flashbacks that focus on the small, significant details within a large tragedy, such as Ammu’s fleeting encounter with a bus conductor, mumbling quietly, “I’ve killed him”. By drawing the reader into the microcosm of the lives of Ammu, Velutha, and the twins, one undergoes the realization that these small lives, ruined by large impersonal forces and the petty tyranny of men, are not trivial at all, but contain a portrait of humanity in exquisite miniature:
In light of what happens (which the reader already knows, since the narrative is told backwards), the hope and naivete of the passage resist the potential of irony to become, instead, great, insupportable pathos. With foreknowledge of mortality and loss, the love between these small creatures of marginality appears foredoomed, and yet, such a passage illuminates the importance of detail so small that it is usually missed, usually invisible.
The novel never escapes despair, and yet it does not discount hope. A tightrope is walked between the bitterness with which Roy watches the encroachment of capitalism into the postcolonial world and the corruption power brings into the hearts of men, rendering them cruel and inhuman, and the strangely transcendental hope offered in the glimpses of small, tender moments that are threaded like little beads on a necklace. The God of Small Things ends not with the inevitability of Velutha’s death, or Ammu’s. In an inversion of time that holds events in stasis like the painted time on Rahel’s toy watch, Roy’s novel concludes with the consummation of hope that the lovers effect, rebelling against their circumstances of being peripheral beings living in the absences of history. Despite appearances of being concerned with details of triviality, The God of Small Things proves, consequentially, that the small things lurking in the human heart are what, in their simplicity and unshakeability, give rise to the complicated cataclysms or terrible inertia that constitute history and society.