On The God of Small Things

god of small things 2

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.

4 responses

  1. I still don’t quite understand what it was about this book that left me cold. I read it in my late 20’s, about to head into the fog of chronic illness in which I still find myself today, 14 years later, with a memory so crappy that reading your account of what makes up the frame of the story, I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of anything in it.

    I gave the book away to a fellow writer who was delighted with the gift. These days I’ve been delving in a little more into the “freeze” aspects of trauma, and into understanding how and what happens in traumatic moments in our limbic system to make them feel surreal, fragmented, untraceable in some ways. I’ve been doing these exercises which help your body to shake, the theory being that us human mammals are meant to do this as a way of releasing trauma but we’ve conditioned ourselves out of it. After reading your thoughts and feelings about this book, I’m wanting to revisit it, to see whether what “left me cold” might find a more receptive audience the second time around. Time is everything, on occasion, when it’s not the right one 🙂

    • Hi Suzieq777,

      I am so glad you picked up on the trauma aspect of what I was talking about! I don’t know that I did the best job of explaining it in that particular post. I think The God of Small Things resonated so strongly with me because it is about very young kids embroiled in a bunch of family related trauma, who have no real idea what is happening around them because they can only understand the events with their unique (and limited) child’s perspective, and when they become adults they are: a. utterly damaged by the events over which they had no control or understanding, and b. still grappling with piecing together exactly what actually happened with their slivers of child knowledge. Which was pretty much exactly how I felt about my childhood. And I spose what I especially like about it now (all these years on) is that the way it is written – fragmented, tangential – sort of illuminates what this kind of trauma feels like, whilst simultaneously revealing a very complex story. I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that Roy herself wondered if the book would make any sense at all to anyone other than her, so obviously that was something she grappled with too. And yes – timing is everything when it comes to reading, I agree.

      With these exercises, do you mean – helping your body to actually shake, as in tremble etc? I haven’t heard anything about that. It sounds interesting.

      • I wonder if maybe it wasn’t that fragmented, slivered delivery that didn’t just scare the hell out of me at the time. That trauma space is terrifying, especially when you’re not even sure it exists. Paradoxical space, that. Piecing together the bits is something I have too good an understanding of, unfortunately, even while spending years thinking that I didn’t have any kind of PTSD because I wasn’t having flashbacks in the way I thought they would happen – with some sort of narrative attached. I’m learning differently now.

        The exercises are quite fascinating. You can read more about them at http://www.traumaprevention.com. They’re quite simple – a bunch of easy exercises designed to tire the psoas and surrounding muscles so that you can shake and relieve tension. It feels quite nice and comforting once you get used to the strangeness of it. The psoas has been called the “fight or flight” muscle. It runs up from our lower backs, up through our hip girdle and down through the inside of our thighs. Allowing the body to tremor helps release the mass amounts of tension that get stored in this muscle. I am quietly hopeful – I’ve only been doing them for a month – that they will assist me in dealing physically with trauma in a way that talk therapy has been unable to turn around on its own. It feels nice to have this portable destressor at my fingertips. And I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but I had a pain-free period most recently, with no need for Panadol in sight.

        Geez, sorry for the ramble. Trauma releasing exercises are my new favourite thing 😉 And just for future reference in case you’re interested in pursuing it further, the easiest way to get the DVD is as a digital download for 20 bucks at http://www.namastepublishing.com/products/digital-download/revolutionary-trauma-release-process-real-time/DB01-TRTRE

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