It’s hard to think about the writing of Indian author Arundhati Roy without conjuring an image of the political activist she has become. Confident, articulate, brave. Decrying injustice wherever she finds it. The hard truths she speaks seem to echo around the world making her appear large instead of small, fearsome instead of vulnerable. So sure of the validity of the causes she fights for. But what strikes me most forcefully about her 1997 Booker Prize winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, is how much Roy grappled in order to understand her world. As her haunted protagonist, Rahel, asks – ‘What had it all meant?’
The God of Small Things reveals such an intricate world of childhood trauma, of powerlessness and loss, that instead of dealing with certainties the reader is left to muddle their way through the mire of a place so complicated by ancient and modern history, political chaos, and long-standing familial discord that it is hard – at least initially – to have a clue what is going on.
At the heart of the novel lie Rahel and Estha, seven year old twins who haven’t yet learned how to control their Hope, but somehow know that this isn’t a Good Sign. The book unfolds slowly. It is non-linear and tangential. We know from early on that things will go badly, we just don’t know quite how or why. The process of reading the novel is that of piecing together a puzzle; frustrating and illuminating in turn. Revelations accumulate and by the end everything is clear. Even though I can’t possibly know, I suspect the process of writing the novel mirrored this journey. That Arundhati Roy wrote it in attempt to bring clarity to what had been, for her, a mess of confusion.
The end result is masterful, yes. But the power of the novel lies in its capacity to take a familial tragedy – three young children crossing a swollen river in a boat, one of them drowning – and show us how complex and far-reaching the consequences can be. In The God of Small Things it isn’t just the family and community who are both affected, and implicated, by the events of the novel, but everyone. Roy delves so deeply into her country’s systemic problems – the touchables and untouchables – that the whole book becomes a gigantic treatise on injustice without ever seeming preachy or didactic.
Even though I’ve read it many times, my mind still boggles.
When The God of Small Things was first released I was two years out of high school. My adolescence had been marked by two inexplicable losses within my immediate family. Nothing about the world around me made any sense. I was deep in the fog of grief and desperately in need of meaning. I read books to escape, but mostly I wanted to find new ways to understand my world; new ways to understand myself and what I’d been through. Disorientated by life, in fiction I sought a sense of the familiar. I steered clear of Indian fiction, staying within recognisable parameters.
But Arundhati Roy broke the stalemate between me and all-things-foreign in a way that I least expected. Even though the book is set in ‘Ayemenem,’ Kerala –a bamboozlingly unfamiliar place – the experience of Rahel and Estha, children lost in the drama of unravelling adult lives, echoed my experience so wholly that reading it I could hardly breathe. Despite all its lush Indian imagery, quirky similes, extravagant metaphors, and obscure socio-political detail the book captured so entirely how I felt as a child it could have been my life.
My mother gave me The God of Small Things as a present sometime in my early 20s. I probably accepted it with an internal roll of the eyes, thinking – ‘Thanks Mum, I’ll add it to the pile.’ But reading it cracked something open inside me. It made me wonder how the childhood trauma I’d been through related to the world at large. It widened my vision and opened my world … and it made me curious about writing. About whether or not I could do it. But mostly, it gave me the impetus to try.
And now when I see Arundhati Roy and the activist she has become, I think of who she once was: a young woman grappling with injustice so deep and wounding it barely made sense. But it did. Once she turned it into words and made it a story.
First published in Newswrite, Issue 208 April-May 2013, as part of their Writer on Writer series.