October 1, 2012 by markstani
Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things (pub. Fourth Estate), won the Booker Prize in 1997 and became a best-seller in more than two dozen countries, yet it remains her only foray into fiction.
While Roy has evolved the public life that came with its success into becoming a tireless and outspoken campaigner for civil rights, both in her home state of Kerala and abroad, her book endures as one of the finest examples of modern Indian fiction: clever, thought-provoking and undeniably unique.
It is May in Ayemenem: the days are long and humid, the nights clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation. Two decades on from the tragic events that abruptly ended their childhood and tore apart their laid-back family life, a pair of twins are reunited in a world unrecognisable from their youth: their mother dead, their pickle factory ruined, the once swollen river – a conniver in their tragic fate – now reduced to a polluted trickle, as if in penance for the truths it once contrived to hide.
In Roy’s multi-layered, many-levelled novel, past and present blend seamlessly to present a darkly comic and ultimately desperately bleak picture of a community teetering on the brink of a Maoist insurgency; bedevilled by political hypocrisy, and still shackled, for all its increasing international opportunities, by the remnants of its obscene caste discrimination.
There is a pervading unease about this book: about both its characters and its broader subjects. Roy’s writing style is thrillingly unorthodox, defiantly unfettered by convention, almost wilfully clumsy: the grass looks ‘wetgreen’. The old trains rattle along making ‘fallingoff noises’. As the pickles slowly cool, ‘the dying froth [makes] dying frothly shapes’.
The twins, Estha and Rahel, are suffused with a wide-eyed childhood innocence, yet a delicate halo of otherworldliness, crafted by Roy’s restrained use of language, is allowed to hover above them, barely discernable but for the context of the strange, unsettling world the author has conjured.
There is unease, even, in their impish humour:
.. when Baby Kochamma’s Australian missionary friend, Miss Mitten, gave Estha and Rahel a baby book – The Adventures of Susie Squirrel – as a present when she visited Ayemenem, they were deeply offended. First they read it forwards. Miss Mitten, who belonged to a sect of born-again Christians, said that she was a Little Disappointed in them when they read it aloud to her, backwards.
‘ehT serutnevdA fo eisuS lerriuqS. enO gnirps gninrom essuS lerriuqS ekow pu.’
They showed Miss Mitten how it was possible to read both Malayalam and Madam I’m Adam backwards as well as forwards. She wasn’t amused and it turned out that she didn’t even know what Malayalam was. They told her it was the language everyone spoke in Kerala. She said she had been under the impression that it was called Keralese. Estha, who had by then taken an active dislike to Miss Mitten, told her that as far as he was concerned it was a Highly Stupid Impression.
Miss Mitten complained to Baby Kochamma about Estha’s rudeness, and about their reading backwards. She told Baby Kochamma that she had seen Satan in their eyes. nataS in their seye.
They were made to write In future we will not read backwards. In future we will not read backwards. A hundred times. Forwards.
A few months later Miss Mitten was killed by a milk van in Hobart, across the road from a cricket oval. To the twins there was hidden justice in the fact that the milk van had been reversing.
This is a challenging novel, flitting back and forth through time, slowly slotting together the complicated life stories of a disparate group of characters who hum like fat bluebottles in its fruity air, each awaiting its turn to flit into focus.
There is, it soon becomes abundantly clear, going to be no happy ending; no joyous reunion; no throwing out of old prejudices along with the vats of long-rotted fruit; no answer to the myriad social ills gripping both this village and, by inference, wider Keralan society, and India itself.
But for all that the ending is bleak and terrible and terribly, terribly vivid, it is also rendered strangely beautiful and curiously life-affirming by its confirmation that true love casts no such judgements: that it endures no matter the amount of blood that is spilled or the number of years that have passed.
If ‘The God of Small Things’ is to remain Arundhati Roy’s first and last novel, then perhaps it is fitting, serving to enhance the legacy of a book that remains unapologetically one of a kind: by turn bewitching, baffling, tragic and triumphant: nothing less than brilliant.