In looking at the myriad of different elements and themes within Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, it is clear to see that she has created a well-developed novel that addresses the multiple religions, political beliefs, and the caste system in contemporary India. She presents a narrative that is rife with external and internal conflict, from differences in fundamental beliefs to traumatic experiences that plague the lives of her characters. These experiences ultimately dictate the trajectory of the novel and its final resolution, providing the reader with a deeper understanding of love, loss, fear, and suffering.
The novel follows the lives of fraternal twins, Rahel and Estha in Ayemenem, a town in Kerala, India. The story opens immediately with references to past events that played a key role in determining the future lives of Roy’s characters. The tale is not told in chronological order, but discloses to the reader in an out of order system the major events that impacted the understanding of the two young twins as they navigate their way through their loss of innocence. There is reference to the death of the twin’s young cousin, Sophie Mol, and to a traumatic event involving Estha and a movie theatre concession worker. These two events ultimately determine where the twins find themselves as adults when they finally reunite after many years of separation.
From a young age, the twins are exposed to a melding of religion and political beliefs. Their own great aunt, Baby Kochamma converted at a young age to Roman Catholicism; love and lust were the cause behind this conversion as she found herself pining after an Irish Catholic priest. This conversion was not well received by Baby Kochamma’s father, the twins’ grandfather, and after learning that her conversion was fruitless in the effort to secure the love of Father Mulligan, Baby Kochamma returned home and remained a bitterly unfulfilled woman. Her role throughout the novel is an influential one as she is the cause of much heartache in the lives of the twins and their mother. To further the example of the conflict between religions and beliefs, Baby Kochamma makes disparaging comments about Hindus and is vocal about her opinion of the twins’ being half-Hindu. She seems to hold it against them, and there are multiple instances where she openly discriminates against the Hindu people that she and the twins encounter throughout the novel.
Besides the discrimination and conflict between Hinduism and Syrian-Christianity, there is also the great movement of Communism occurring through India at the time, which plays a role in the experiences and understanding of young Rahel. One such instance where Communism impacts Rahel’s personal experience is seen on the car ride to the airport where the family is headed to receive Sophie Mol. There is a communist gathering and march occurring on the streets around them, and at one point the communists open the car door and force Baby Kochamma to wave their communist flag, ultimately humiliating her. Amongst the crowd, Rahel sees Velutha, the twin’s friend and their mother’s secret lover. Here, the reader is exposed to one of the first depictions of the disparity within the social caste in India. Velutha is known as a Paravan, one of the Untouchables, and beneath the lowest level of the caste system. He works for Rahel and Estha’s family and is later wrongly accused of bringing about the death of Sophie Mol. This accusation is led and perpetuated by Baby Kochamma, who openly discriminates against Velutha for his low social status and his role as a communist. Through Baby Kochamma’s actions, Roy is successful in highlighting the regimented beliefs and feelings that the higher castes demonstrated towards India’s Untouchables and other active political parties.
Another example of inequality that impacts the characters’ lives is seen in the treatment of women, who are directly discriminated against and oppressed by the society in which they exist. It is referenced at several points throughout the book that women are sexually victimized by the men in their lives, even by men in authoritative roles such as police officers and doctors. Roy educates the reader on the experiences of women in India and the unjust circumstances of abuse to which far too many females are subjected. There are also additional elements of discrimination against women that Roy highlights in her writing, such as the embarrassment communicated by Estha’s father and stepmother as they watch their son express an enjoyment for housekeeping, a role seen as acceptable only for a woman. As well, Roy deals with deeper issues of contradiction surrounding the female body as it is seen that men will sexualize and objectify the feminine form, yet women are simultaneously taught to reject the development or curiosity of their own body. This is most notable in the depiction of Rahel’s time in school where she learnt that “Breasts were not acknowledged. They weren’t supposed to exist” (Roy, 18). Through these examples, Roy effectively creates a powerful depiction of the confusing and unjust role that women are forced to conform to throughout the novel.
Roy also makes reference to other cultural influences, such as the continual mention of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s novel deals with multiple layers of imperialism and racism, a connection that can be drawn to India’s own experience of colonization by Britain. This reference to Conrad’s work provides another level to understanding the experiences of the novel’s characters, and the extent to which Britain continuously influenced India and its people, regardless of any differences in religion or social backgrounds.
Through these various portrayals of religion, politics, gender, and India’s caste system, Roy manages to contribute to a deeper understanding of the history and evolution of India’s multiple beliefs and perspectives. Her novel deals head-on with difficult and complicated social issues, and is a touching and educational work that is successful in bringing its characters to life through these traumatic hardships that showcase how the small things in life ultimately lead to colossal consequences and life-altering experiences.
Roy, Arundhati (1997) God of Small Things. Canada: Random House of Canada Ltd.
Wilkins, W.J (1975 reprinted) Modern Hinduism. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation
Smith, David (2003) Hinduism and Modernity. New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Conrad, Joseph (1999) Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin Books