The caste system is an ancient social classification system that still affects Indian society today. In

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Cequeria 1

Alexandra Cequeria




Essay Two

The caste system is an ancient social classification system that still affects Indian society today. In The God of Small Things, the caste system is no longer a legal policy, but still affects the state of Kerala in the year 1969. Arundhati Roy comments on the unjustness of the caste system through the use of both discriminatory and discriminated characters’ perspectives of class, the character of Velutha, and the theme of love.

The history of the caste system in Kerala, India is extremely complex and ever-changing. In pre-colonial Kerala, the varna caste system was prevalent, with certain occupational and social differentiations. This caste system separates all people into four different varnas: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (government officials or warriors), Vaisya (merchants and businessmen), and Sudra (servants). Kerala’s stance on Untouchability was extreme compared to the rest of India: “the notion of pollution by contact was taken a step further to include ‘atmospheric pollution’- pollution from a distance, and, in the case of the lowest castes, even by sight” (Kurien 393). Through colonization of the Portuguese and eventually the British, however, there was a large conversion to Christianity among the lower castes in an attempt to escape the caste. Under British political rule from the eighteenth century until 1947, the caste system did not diminish, but evolve and strengthen. After independence from Britain, converted Christians were not entitled to government benefits since they were technically not part of the caste. Velutha’s family, who are Paravans, do not receive government benefits even though they are Untouchables.

The basis in which most characters discriminate against Untouchables in the novel is simply societal history. Pappachi and Mammachi, the eldest characters in the family, hold the most knowledge of the caste system. Mammachi tells Rahel and Estha of a time in her childhood when Paravans had to follow extreme societal rules: “Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints… Paravans…were not allowed to walk on public roads... They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed” (Roy 71). These discriminations continue into Ammu’s generation: “Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would” (71). These perceptions of Untouchables by an older generation demonstrate the extreme class distinctions during post-independence. Not even joining the Anglican Church, an opportunity to “escape the scourge of Untouchability” (71), diminished the discriminations against the Untouchables. By recounting this history through the perspectives of older generations, the novel reiterates the near impossibility of escaping the caste system.

The fear of breaking caste is demonstrated in another elder character: Vellya. In reference to his son, Velutha, “[he] feared for his younger son…It was nothing he had said. Or done. It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it” (73). This addresses Vellya’s concerns with Velutha and his lack of consideration towards societal boundaries. While Vellya cannot make specific connections with his son’s words or actions towards impudence, he notices several abstract mannerisms: “Perhaps it was just a lack of hesitation. An unwarranted assurance…The quiet way he offered suggestions without being asked…in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel” (73). Even though Velutha does not have a societal right to talk and act as he pleases, he manages to weave through caste without severe consequence and

interacts with those of a higher caste as an equal. At this point in the novel, however, Velutha has yet to suffer the most severe consequence for his disregard of caste.

Once Vellya discovers that his son has been having an affair with Ammu, a woman of higher caste, he is uncertain: “Half of him wept. Tears welled up in his real eye and shone on his black cheek. With his other eye he stared stonily ahead. An old Paravan, who had seen the Walking Backwards days, torn between Loyalty and Love” (242). His dedication to the Ipe family is tested, as he would have to condemn his son in order to remain loyal. It doesn’t take long for “the Terror” to overcome him and cause him to expose the affair to Mammachi. Although others had seen Velutha and Ammu, Vellya feels that it is his responsibility, “as a Paravan and a man with mortgaged body parts” (242), to tell Mammachi about the two. His own opinion of the affair also reveals discriminatory thought: “The lovers. Sprung from his loins and [Mammachi’s]. His son and her daughter. They had made the unthinkable thinkable and the impossible really happen” (242). Vellya’s fear of breaking caste reflects the novel’s perspective of the caste system by showing that even people in lower castes are afraid of overstepping historical boundaries, even in the defense of their own family.

The children’s friendship towards Velutha is an example in the novel of a disregard of caste from a higher caste level. When Rahel notices Velutha in the crowd of communists, she calls to him without fear or hesitation. She regards him as “her most beloved friend” (68). Rahel’s jealousy towards Sophie Mol and her fear that her family will love her more even extends to Velutha. When Velutha asks where Sophie Mol is upon her arrival, Rahel “clapped her hands over Velutha’s eyes” (169). This fear of Velutha preferring Sophie Mol demonstrates how important Velutha is to Rahel. Shortly after, Baby Kochamma yells at Rahel for being overly familiar with Velutha. While Rahel sees no problem with their interactions, the more discriminatory characters such as Baby

Kochamma understands the strict social boundaries and when they are crossed. When Rahel recalls her family’s preservative company and how their banana jam was difficult to classify as one consistency, she relates it back to the deeper issues of her family: “Perhaps Ammu, Estha, and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them…They all tampered with the laws of who should be loved and how. And how much” (31). While these three broke more social boundaries than the rest of the family, they are not the only ones to be blamed for the events that occur in the novel. The recognition that no one is blameless acts as a defense to those who ignore the caste system and love who they wish to love.

One of the most important examples of love that transcends the social boundaries of the caste is the relationship between Velutha and Ammu. When Velutha was a young boy, he would craft toys and give them to Ammu: “holding them out on his palm (as he had been taught) so she wouldn’t have to touch him to take them” (72). This display of wariness towards societal norms is an aspect of their relationship that they eventually overcome throughout their personal history. It is shortly after the arrival of Sophie Mol when the two realize their feelings for each other. Ammu secretly hopes that it actually was Velutha that Rahel saw during the communist demonstration: “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” (167). She wants the anger that she feels toward the caste system to affect Velutha as well. When Velutha meets her eyes, “centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard” (167). This exchange shows that the restrictions of the caste are temporarily forgotten in the yearning for one another. When they realize what has happened, they both look away: “History’s fiends returned to claim them” (168). The consequences of this relationship are remembered, holding them off from one another. However, the two eventually break the boundaries that set them apart. Their relationship

demonstrates Roy’s anger towards the caste and the movement to surpass social boundaries that society has established through love and compassion.

While most characters who went against the caste system met tragic fates, the overall message of The God of Small Things is not one of hopelessness. Arundhati Roy uses the character of Velutha to demonstrate a capable, kind man who also happens to be an Untouchable. By humanizing Velutha, those who discriminate based on caste can begin to understand and even sympathize with those of a lower caste. The novel pits not only higher caste against lower caste, but those in the same caste against each other. While there are more obvious conflicts between Velutha and the members of the Ipe family, Vellya must also make the decision to betray his own son in order to maintain his loyalty. Moments in the novel similar to this reveal that appealing to the higher castes is a priority to those in the lower castes. The point this novel makes is that the caste system is an unfair and outdated social system. In the case of Velutha, his actions represent the social progress that could have been made if not for the rigid caste system. However, the last word of the novel is “Tomorrow”, which creates hope for the progress of India and its social systems.

Works Cited

Kurien, Prema. "Colonialism and Ethnogenesis: A Study of Kerala, India." Theory and Society Theor Soc 23.3 (1994): 391-92. EBSCOhost. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Pomohaci, Maria-Daniela. The Influence of the Political, Social and Religious Measures upon Caste during British India (n.d.): 105. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.
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