The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a fictional novel that focuses on the different aspects of love in Hindu culture. “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (Roy 33, 168, 311). This line is present in the book in multiple places, in slightly different words, and is the most prevalent and recurring motif: that love is not something to be given freely, but is a highly monitored and structural system with rules of engagement that must be followed. Marriage, love, and sex are tied closely with the caste system in Indian culture, an article in The Economist quoting 90-95% of marriages are within the same caste (The Economist, 2015). Reena Kukreja also writes that “inter-caste marriages are taboo” as marriages are a way to maintain the social order of the caste system, which would be degraded if people were allowed to marry outside their caste (Kukreja, 2018). Ammu, the mother of the main characters Rahel and Estha, is a higher caste than her lover Velutha who is born into the untouchable class, a ‘paravan’. “The term “Untouchable” was eventually used to designate these people, who were “outside” the varṇa [caste] system” (Rodrigues 87). Their secret love affair ultimately ends in Velutha’s brutal murder at the hands of the police, as he is accused of the rape of Ammu and kidnapping of her children, by Ammu’s family. Her family does this to protect themselves from the shame of Ammu having a relationship with someone from a lower caste. “She had defiled generations of breeding…For generations to come, forever now, people would point at them…They’d nudge and whisper” (Roy 244). Though the children, Rahel and Estha, also care for Velutha deeply, it is culturally forbidden to engage with a member of the untouchable caste in this way. This caste system is so important, and rigid, that Vellya Paapen offers to kill his own son, Velutha: “He asked God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own bare hands” (Roy 75).
Ammu and Velutha are forbidden to be together due to the Laws of Manu. “The Laws of Manu firmly promotes marriage within one’s own varna, suggestive of efforts to prevent racial mixture” (Rodrigues 79). This is a part of the Dharma Sastra literature that explains the duties and behaviours that are appropriate for each caste. There is no acceptance of class mobility, “for it is better to follow one’s own dharma (svadharma) inadequately, than to do the dharma of another varna thoroughly” (Rodrigues 79). Should one want to change their caste, there is no way to do so, and acting in a way that would signify or imply you were born into a higher caste is worse than not following your birth caste, even poorly. One issue that is not overly explored in the novel is the idea that the caste system is also inherently sexist. Shruti Chaudhry writes of “The gendered character of caste membership” and the implications “that endogamy could be breached by dominant/upper caste men but not by Jat women” (Chaudhry 2018: 5). The research here suggests that if men are without a wife, they may go find one from far away, so that her caste is not known and essentially adopt her into their own caste. For women this would be unthinkable, as there is evidence to suggest women were killed by their fathers for breaching the caste marriage tradition (Chaudhry 2018: 4). Kukreja agrees: “Dalit women suffer more due to the intersection of caste with gender and patriarchy” (Kukreja 2018: 511).
What is interesting in the book is that, though the family of Ammu is Christian, they still adhere to the Dharmic principles of the caste system. Even though there is no caste system in Christianity, and Christ’s message is largely supportive of the poor, downtrodden, and despised. “…such activities as having sexual relations, eating the same foods together, or participating in particular religious rites with persons outside of one’s jati are not just undesirable, but actually go against the natural order” (Rodrigues 84). Despite the Christian influence the importance of marrying and associating only with those of your own caste persists. Ammu and Velutha’s love is against the natural order and is therefore unacceptable. “The ritual pollution associated with these groups [lower castes, untouchables] is believed to transfer temporarily to the higher castes through contact” (Rodrigues 87). Through the importance placed on the higher castes of maintaining their “purity,” one can understand the reaction of Ammu’s family. Not only was their daughter touched by a paravan, but she had a sexual relationship with a paravan. This sort of pollution and shame would extend not simply to Ammu, but to her entire family, where maintenance of cleanliness, and purity was of utmost importance. The shame that would be extended to include the family by way of Ammu’s relationship with an untouchable was seen as something to cover up and deny at all costs. “…the stigmatization of the Dalit [paravan] is deeply rooted in Hindu culture, supported by scriptural injunctions and religious practices that have endured for millennia” (Rodrigues 88).
A second theme that the book explores is the controversial state of a divorced woman. “She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma (Ammu’s aunt), she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage.” (Roy 45). A long quote, but one that does well to highlight the negative opinions that are held about women of divorce. Rodrigues (Rodrigues 106) explains that a love marriage is seen as something inferior to the traditional arranged marriage. Ammu violated not only the arranged marriage customs, but, in the eyes of her family, added to her shame (and theirs) by marrying for “love”. The children also suffer from this stereotype, they hold less, or maybe no value at all, due to the unfortunate circumstances of being children of divorce. “Mammachi said that what her grandchildren suffered from was far worse than inbreeding. She meant having parents who were divorced” (Roy 59). “In crucial ways, marriage forms the cornerstone of Hindu religious life” (Rodrigues 104). Especially for women, who have no earlier rite of passage into Hindu society, marriage is the rite of passage. This is obviously the case with Ammu and her family as she is stigmatized for being a divorced woman, even in the household of Christians.
The caste system is divided into small and smaller units called jatis. “Jati refers to the group into which a Hindu is born, and from which he or she should traditionally choose a marriage partner” (Rodrigues 83). As we can see here, the stigmatization of divorcees is tied closely to the caste system, which defines who may marry whom, and discourages divorce. Ammu originally married outside of the caste system entirely, then divorced, and finally engaged in a relationship with a paravan. Each step pushed the boundaries of socially accepted practises further and further until the inevitable ending of Velutha’s death. According to Rodrigues most Hindu marriages, to this day, are arranged marriages with caste, and skin color being important factors when choosing a partner (Rodrigues 104). Each of the important features of marriage that Rodrigues touches on here were violated by Ammu, and Velutha, during their relationship. The denial by the family in order to salvage some of their reputation led to the misguided beating, and death, of Velutha by the police.
Finally, shame seems to be an integral part of the book as well. Velutha, a paravan, was born into a shameful caste, and Ammu was also shamed for divorcing her first husband, and even the children are not shielded from shame. At one point Rahel talks back to her mother, Ammu, who responds by telling her young daughter: “…do you realize what you have just done?… When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less” (Roy 107). “The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A little less her mother loved her” (Roy 131). There is also inherent racism that is felt by the children, for being treated so differently from their white cousin: “Littleangels were beach-colored…Littledemons were mudbrown…” (Roy 170). The racism is also mirrored in the Laws of Manu that seperation of the classes, or castes, is also implying a seperation of races (Rodrigues 79). Ever present throughout the book is this comparison of the children of Ammu, Indian children, to that of Sophie, their white cousin. The repetition of the laws of love which are directed at Velutha and Ammu’s secret affair are echoed in the love Sophie receives, that Rahel and Estha do not.
The God of Small Things creates an understanding of the issues of divorce, marriage, the caste system, untouchables, and the disparity between people in a way that is easily understood on an emotional level. It is leans towards highlighting the damages of the caste system, but it does get its message across in a unique and poetic way that allows one to feel as though they are experiencing the segregation of classes for themselves. Although it highlights the negative aspects of the caste system, it is enlightening to become attached to the characters and understand the struggle that they face in their culture. The stereotyping and degrading of unwanted peoples untouchables, divorcees, those of different religions, and races, the story allows one to connect on a deeper level to the issues that face those born into a lower caste with no chance of improving their life in a way that scholarly factual writing cannot.
Chaudhry, Shruti (2018) “‘Flexible’ Caste Boundaries: Cross-regional Marriage as Mixed Marriage in Rural North India.” Contemporary South Asia 1-15. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2018.1536694.
Kukreja, Reena (2018) “Caste and Cross-region Marriages in Haryana, India: Experience of Dalit Cross-Region Brides in Jat Households.” Modern Asian Studies 52(2), 492-531. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI:10.1017/S0026749X000391.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.
Roy, Arundhati (1997) The God of Small Things. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
“Love (and Money) Conquer Caste; Marriage in India.” The Economist September 5, 2015, p. 44. Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. Accessed November 27, 2018.
This article was written by: Skye Helgeson (Fall, 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.