The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a chronological jumble of images from the lives of a family in Kerala that languorously focuses to a story about India itself and its age-old problem with caste—with its inherent and deeply seated racism. The focus is on two time periods: the 50s and the 80s. In the 50s, a pair of odd twins (Rahel and Estha) are young and precocious. They eagerly await the arrival of another young girl (Sophie Mol) from England, with her mother. Her mother (Margaret) had divorced their uncle many years before.
Their uncle Chacko is a frustrated anglophile and faux-Communist. There are real communists (Comrade K. N. M. Pillai) in this story, there are untouchables. There are older generations whose story is told as well—of their upbringing in an even-more unforgiving world than the already-awful late 60s/early 70s in India. This is long after Partition, but still enemies are everywhere and anti-Communism rides high.
In the late 60s, the twins befriend and untouchable (Velutha) who is older than they. He is more their mother’s (Ammu) age—and those two become lovers. The family, deep-set in their racist ways, cannot abide this and punishes her. They send her away; she dies young. The children are scattered to the winds, only to return years later to the poisoned home, still run by the same inbred-thinking people who’d chased everyone away to protect themselves and their pitiful reputations (Baby Kochama and her erstwhile compatriot. Estha hasn’t spoken in years; Rahel drags around a lifetime of bad decisions, including a divorced husband in the States.
They all mostly live short, brutish lives of quiet desperation in a country that has no plan or pity for most of the people who live in it. Roy’s prose is beautiful at times, describing an India whose heart is decayed—and whose outward appearance becomes increasingly so.
“Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds. The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent.”
“Past the new, freshly baked, iced, Gulf-money houses built by nurses, masons, wire-benders and bank clerks, who worked hard and unhappily in faraway places. Past the resentful older houses tinged green with envy, cowering in their private driveways among their private rubber trees. Each a tottering fiefdom with an epic of its own.”
““But we can’t go in,” Chacko explained, “because we’ve been locked out. And when we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we cannot understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.””
“Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravano footprint. In Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed.”
“Apart from his carpentry skills, Velutha had a way with machines. Mammachi (with impenetrable Touchable logic) often said that if only he hadn’t been a Paravan, he might have become an engineer.”
“You must demand what is rightfully yours. Yearly bonus. Provident fund. Accident insurance.””
Rightfully? Odd for a communist. Should be demanding shares rather than crumbs.
“Comrade K. N. M. Pillai never came out openly against Chacko. Whenever he referred to him in his speeches he was careful to strip him of any human attributes and present him as an abstract functionary in some larger scheme. A theoretical construct. A pawn in the monstrous bourgeois plot to subvert the revolution. He never referred to him by name, but always as “the Management.” As though Chacko was many people. Apart from it being tactically the right thing to do, this disjunction between the man and his job helped Comrade Pillai to keep his conscience clear about his own private business dealings with Chacko. His contract for printing the Paradise Pickles labels gave him an income that he badly needed. He told himself that Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-Management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade.”
The devious communist who, above all, looks out for number one.
“They dreamed of their river. Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood. It was warm, the water. Graygreen. Like rippled silk. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.”
“Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater. Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it. Splay-footed, cautious. Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon lawn that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.”
“Upstream, clean mothers washed clothes and pots in unadulterated factory effluents. People bathed. Severed torsos soaping themselves, arranged like dark busts on a thin, rocking, ribbon lawn.”
“So they went ahead and plugged their smelly paradise— God’s Own Country they called it in their brochures—because they knew, those clever Hotel People, that smelliness, like other peoples’ poverty, was merely a matter of getting used to. A question of discipline. Of Rigor and Air-conditioning. Nothing more.”
“The old colonial bungalow with its deep verandah and Doric columns, was surrounded by smaller, older, wooden houses—ancestral homes—that the hotel chain had bought from old families and transplanted in the Heart of Darkness. Toy Histories for rich tourists to play in. Like the sheaves of rice in Joseph’s dream, like a press of eager natives petitioning an English magistrate, the old houses had been arranged around the History House in attitudes of deference. “Heritage,” the hotel was called.”
“In the evenings (for that Regional Flavor) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances (“Small attention spans,” the Hotel People explained to the dancers). So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos. The performances were staged by the swimming pool. While the drummers drummed and the dancers danced, hotel guests frolicked with their children in the water. While Kunti revealed her secret to Kama on the riverbank, courting couples rubbed suntan oil on each other. While fathers played sublimated sexual games with their nubile teenaged daughters, Poothana suckled young Krishna at her poisoned breast. Bhima disemboweled Dushasana and bathed Draupadi’s hair in his blood.”
“The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato.”
““Mostly sweeper class,” Baby Kochamma said grimly, and looked away while a mother, not wanting to give up her Good Place near the railing, aimed her distracted baby’s penis into an empty bottle while he smiled and waved at the people around him. “Sssss…” his mother hissed. First persuasively, then savagely. But her baby thought he was the pope. He smiled and waved and smiled and waved. With his penis in a bottle.”
“Then the Bombay-Cochin people came out. From the cool air into the hot air. Crumpled people uncrumpled on their way to the Arrivals Lounge. And there they were, the Foreign Returnees, in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow sunglasses. With an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for their parents’ bathrooms. With sewage systems and septic tanks. Maxis and high heels. Puff sleeves and lipstick. Mixy-grinders and automatic flashes for their cameras.”
“And the Air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”
“It was a grand old house, the Ayemenem House, but aloof-looking. As though it had little to do with the people who lived in it. Like an old man with rheumy eyes watching children play, seeing only transience in their shrill elation and their wholehearted commitment to life.”
“She had short, thick forearms, fingers like cocktail sausages, and a broad fleshy nose with flared nostrils. Deep folds of skin connected her nose to either side of her chin, and separated that section of her face from the rest of it, like a snout. Her head was too large for her body. She looked like a bottled fetus that had escaped from its jar of formaldehyde in a Biology lab and unshriveled and thickened with age.”
Just brutal. A nearly perfectly ungenerous description of an odious woman.
“when Rahel told her that an American astronaut called Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon, she laughed sarcastically and said that a Malayali acrobat called O. Muthachen had done handsprings on the sun. With pencils up his nose. She was prepared to concede that Americans existed, though she’d never seen one. She was even prepared to believe that Neil Armstrong might conceivably even be some absurd kind of name. But the walking on the moon bit? No sir.”
“The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days, all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the tug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed.”
““Let’s leave one alive so that it can be lonely,” Sophie Mol suggested.”
“Margaret Kochamma’s tiny, ordered life relinquished itself to this truly baroque bedlam with the quiet gasp of a warm body entering a chilly sea.”
“She had never before met a man who spoke of the world—of what it was, and how it came to be, or what he thought would become of it—in the way in which other men she knew discussed their jobs, their friends or their weekends at the beach.”
“She saw it as God’s Way of punishing Ammu for her sins and simultaneously avenging her (Baby Kochamma’s) humiliation at the hands of Velutha and the men in the march—the Modalali Mariakutty taunts, the forced flagwaving. She set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin.”
“Inspector Thomas Mathew, receding behind his bustling Air India mustache, understood perfectly. He had a Touchable wife, two Touchable daughters—whole Touchable generations waiting in their Touchable wombs”
““You people,” Inspector Thomas Mathew said, “first you spoil these people, carry them about on your head like trophies, then when they misbehave you come running to us for help.””
“Both in their own way truly, terrifyingly adult. They looked out at the world and never wondered how it worked, because they knew They worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine.”
“It is unreasonable to expect a person to remember what she didn’t know had happened.”
““Nothing specifically as such,” Comrade K. N. M. Pillai said. “But see, comrade, any benefits that you give him, naturally others are resenting it. They see it as a partiality. After all, whatever job he does, carpenter or electrician or whateveritis, for them he is just a Paravan. It is a conditioning they have from birth. This I myself have told them is wrong. But frankly speaking, comrade, Change is one thing. Acceptance is another. You should be cautious. Better for him you send him off.” “My dear fellow,” Chacko said, “that’s impossible. He’s invaluable. He practically runs the factory—and we can’t solve the problem by sending all the Paravans away. Surely we have to learn to deal with this nonsense.” Comrade Pillai disliked being addressed as My Dear Fellow. It sounded to him like an insult couched in good English, which, of course, made it a double-insult—the insult itself, and the fact that Chacko thought he wouldn’t understand it. It spoiled his mood completely. “That may be,” he said caustically. “But Rome was not built in a day. Keep it in mind, comrade, that this is not your Oxford college. For you what is a nonsense for Masses it is something different.””
Here, the man of the people argues for patience while the capitalist is already past it.
“Chacko said. “I am going to formally organize them into a union. They will elect their own representatives.” “But comrade, you cannot stage their revolution for them. You can only create awareness. Educate them. They must launch their own struggle. They must overcome their fears.” “Of whom?” Chacko smiled. “Me?” “No, not you, my dear comrade. Of centuries of oppression.” Then Comrade Pillai, in a hectoring voice, quoted Chairman Mao. In Malayalam. His expression curiously like his niece’s. “Revolution is not a dinner party. Revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence in which one class overthrows another.””
“The policemen stopped and fanned out. They didn’t really need to, but they liked these Touchable games. They positioned themselves strategically. Crouching by the broken, low stone boundary wall. Quick Piss. Hotfoam on warmstone. Police-piss. Drowned ants in yellow bubbly. Deep breaths. Then together, on their knees and elbows, they crept towards the house. Like Film-policemen. Softly, softly through the grass. Batons in their hands. Machine guns in their minds. Responsibility for the Touchable Future on their thin but able shoulders.”
“They heard the thud of wood on flesh. Boot on bone. On teeth. The muffled grunt when a stomach is kicked in. The muted crunch of skull on cement. The gurgle of blood on a man’s breath when his lung is torn by the jagged end of a broken rib. Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all. They were opening a bottle. Or shutting a tap. Cracking an egg to make an omelette. The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear—civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness. Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify.”
“If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him.”
“His skull was fractured in three places. His nose and both his cheekbones were smashed, leaving his face pulpy, undefined. The blow to his mouth had split open his upper lip and broken six teeth, three of which were embedded in his lower lip, hideously inverting his beautiful smile. Four of his ribs were splintered, one had pierced his left lung, which was what made him bleed from his mouth. The blood on his breath bright red. Fresh. Frothy. His lower intestine was ruptured and hemorrhaged, the blood collected in his abdominal cavity. His spine was damaged in two places, the concussion had paralyzed his right arm and resulted in a loss of control over his bladder and rectum. Both his kneecaps were shattered. Still they brought out the handcuffs.”
“On the roof of the abandoned factory, the lonely drummer drummed. A gauze door slammed. A mouse rushed across the factory floor. Cobwebs sealed old pickle vats. Empty, all but one—in which a small heap of congealed white dust lay. Bone dust from a Bar Nowl. Long dead. Pickledowl.”
“As she watched him she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labor had shaped him. How the wood he fashioned had fashioned him. Each plank he planed, each nail he drove, each thing he made had molded him. Had left its stamp on him. Had given him his strength, his supple grace.”