|Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
‘[T]he god of small things is the inversion of God… whether it’s the way the children see things or whether it’s the insect life in the book, or the fish or the stars – there is a not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries. This small activity that goes on is the underlife of the book. All sorts of boundaries are transgressed upon…It’s a story that examines things very closely but also from a very, very distant point, almost from geological time and you look at it and see a pattern there. A pattern… of how in these small events and in these small lives the world intrudes. And because of this, because of people being unprotected… the world and the social machine intrudes into the smallest, deepest core of their being and changes their life’ (Roy, interview, 1997).
Rich Like Us (Nayantara Sahgal). Sonali speaking: ‘Papa, I am going abroad after my B.A. I don’t care if you didn’t send Kiran. I’m not Kiran. I love coconut and garlic, Marathi, Gujerati, and Malayali food. And Konkani fish curry. This country is three-quarters surrounded by water so there have to be hundreds of ways to cook fish and Tamil is the world’s oldest language. And why would you have given me a Bengali name if there wasn’t a rest of India?’
The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front returned to power in Kerala getting a comfortable majority dealing a huge blow to the ruling Congress-led UDF while the BJP, which contested elections in Kerala for the first time, won only one seat.
Elated over the victory, V.S. Achuthanandan, the veteran leftist who spearheaded the LDF campaign, and who had served as Chief Minister of Kerala from 2006-11, said it was an LDF wave and the victory was a reflection on the anger of the people towards the ‘corrupt and anti-people policies of the UDF government’. The LDP won 91 seats in the election, the outgoing United Democratic Front 47.
In the run up to the election, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comparison of Kerala with Somalia had hurt the Malayalee pride and Congress President Sonia Gandhi made an emotional reply to Modi’s remarks on her Italian roots.
‘Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one’ (John Berger)
It had been in the papers. The news of Sophie Mol’s death, of the police “Encounter” with a Paravan charged with kidnapping and murder. Of the subsequent Communist Party siege of Paradise Pickles & Preserves, led by Ayemenem’s own Crusader for Justice and Spokesman of the Oppressed. Comrade K.N.M. Pillai claimed that the Management had implicated the Paravan in a false police case because he was an active member of the Communist Party. That they wanted to eliminate him for indulging in “Lawful Union Activities”.
All that had been in the papers. The Official Version.
Of course the thicklipped man with rings had no idea about the other version.
The one in which a posse of Touchable Policemen crossed the Meenachal River, sluggish and swollen with recent rain, and picked their way through the web undergrowth, clumping into the Heart of Darkness’ (pp. 286-7).
‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun’ (p. 3).
‘I have…read some…writers from the American South…and I think that perhaps there’s an infusion or intrusion of landscape in their literature that might be similar to mine. This comparison is not that lazy, because it’s natural that writers from outside urban areas share an environment that is not man-made and is changed by winds and rivers and rain. I think that human relationships and the divisions between human beings are more brutal and straightforward than those in cities, where everything is hidden behind walls and a veneer or urban sophistication’ (Roy, Salon interview)
‘Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans. Most of the fish had died. The ones that survived suffered from fin-rot and had broken out in boils.
Other days he walked down the road. 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.
He walked past the village school that his great-grandfather built for Untouchable children.
Past Sophie Mol’s yellow church. Past the Ayemenem Youth Kung Fu Club. Past the Tender Buds Nursery School (for Touchables), past the ration shop that sold rice, sugar and bananas that hung in yellow branches from the roof. Cheap soft-porn magazines about fictitious South Indian sex-fiends were clipped with clothes pegs to ropes that hung from the ceiling. They spun lazily in the warm breeze, tempting honest ration-buyers with glimpses of ripe, naked women lying in pools of fake blood’ (pp. 14-15).
‘Downriver, a saltwater barrage had been built, in exchange for votes from the influential paddy-farmer lobby. The barrage regulated the inflow of salt water from the backwaters that opened into the Arabian Sea. So now they had two harvests a year, instead of one. More rice, for the price of a river.
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 rooted waves like think 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’ (pp. 118-9).
‘On the other side of the river, the steep mud banks changed abruptly into low mud walls of shanty hutments. Children hung their bottoms over the edge and defecated directly onto the squelchy, sucking mud of the exposed riverbed. The smaller ones left their dribbling mustard streaks to find their own way down. Eventually, by evening, the river would rouse itself to accept the day’s offerings and sluge off to the sea, leaving wavy lines of thick white scum in its wake. 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.
On warm days the smell of shit lifted off the river and hovered over Ayemenem like a hat’ (p. 119).
Foreboding, anticipation narrative time
‘To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Amma watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf’ (p. 42).
‘A skyblue Plymouth, with the sun in its tailfins, sped past young rice fields and old rubber trees on its way to Cochin. Further east, in a small country with similar landscape (jungles, rivers, rice fields, Communists), enough bombs were being dropped to cover all of it in six inches of steel. Here however it was peacetime and the family in the Plymouth traveled without fear or foreboding’ (p. 35).
‘There’s no safety in families, not even in privileged middle-class homes. Whenever you go to a small town, if you’re open to hearing what happens to people, it’s frightening. I’d say most of the stuff in my book’s normal. It’s very standard. It isn’t to do with geography; it happens everywhere’ (Roy, interview, The Guardian).
‘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…
There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it.
History in live performance.
If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only cause 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.
Unlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot, that morning in the Heart of Darkness the posse of Touchable Policemen acted with economy, not frenzy. Efficiency, not anarchy. Responsibility, not hysteria. They didn’t tear out his hair or burn him alive. They didn’t hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth. They didn’t rape him. Or behead him.
After all they were not battling an epidemic. They were merely inoculating a community against an outbreak’ (pp. 292-3).
The unsafe edge, the unmixable mix
‘She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret’ (p. 8).
‘Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him that Rahel saw in the march. She hoped it had been him that had raised his flag and knotted arm in anger. She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against.
She hoped it had been him…
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.
In that brief moment, Velutha looked up and saw things that he hadn’t seen before. Things that had been out of bounds so far, obscured by history’s blinkers.
For instance, he saw that Rahel’s mother was a woman (pp. 167-8).
‘the infinite tenderness of motherhood, the reckless rage of a suicide bomber’
… vs. Fascism’s Firm Footprint in India
‘One hundred and thirty million Muslims live in India. Hindu fascists regard them as legitimate prey. The lynch mob continues to be the arbiter of the routine affairs of daily life: who can live where, who can say what, who can meet whom and where and when. Its mandate is expanding quickly. From religious affairs, it now extends to property disputes, family altercations, the planning and allocation of water resources. Muslim businesses have been shut down. Muslim people are not served in restaurants. Muslim children are not welcome in schools. Muslim parents live in dread that their infants might forget what they've been told and give themselves away by saying "Ammi!" or "Abba!" in public and invite sudden and violent death’ (Roy, ‘Fascism’s Firm Footprint in India’, 2001)
‘Historically, fascist movements have been fueled by feelings of national disillusion- ment. Fascism has come to India after the dreams that fueled the freedom struggle have been frittered away like so much loose change. Independence itself came to us as what Gandhi famously called a wooden loaf’ – a notional freedom tainted by the blood of the hundreds of thousands who died during Partition. For more than half a century now, that heritage of hatred and mutual distrust has been exacerbated, toyed with and never allowed to heal by politicians. Over the past fifty years ordinary citizens' modest hopes for lives of dignity, security and relief from abject poverty have been systematically snuffed out. Every ‘democratic’ institution in this country has shown itself to be unaccountable, inaccessible to the ordinary citizen and either unwilling or incapable of acting in the interests of genuine social justice. And now corporate globalization is being relentlessly and arbitrarily imposed on India, ripping it apart culturally and economically. There is very real grievance here. The fascists didn't create it. But they have seized upon it, upturned it and forged from it a hideous, bogus sense of pride. They have mobilized human beings using the lowest common denominator – religion. People who have lost control over their lives, people who have been uprooted from their homes and communities, who have lost their culture and their language, are being made to feel proud of something. Not something they have striven for and achieved, but something they just happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen not to be’.
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Arundhati Roy’s non-fiction:
The End of Imagination (1998)
The Cost of Living (1999)
The Greater Common Good (1999)
The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002)
War Talk (2003)
An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004)
Public Power in the Age of Empire (2004)
The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy (2004)
The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy (2008)
Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy (2010)
Broken Republic: Three Essays (2011)
Walking with the Comrades (2011)
Kashmir: The Case for Freedom (2011)
The Hanging of Afzal Guru and the Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament (2013)
Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014)