Remember when in Harry Potter, Snape mocks Harry for saying muggle shit like reading minds and then further explains that there is no such thing as reading minds plain and easy like they’re books because a person’s mind is layers of thoughts and memories with no sequence, without a defined before or after. Reading the god of small things was just that except for it was one mind, two people.
*BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT*
The story is in the details. It is in the haunting images that Roy creates in her debut novel which appear as scattered memories and events from past and presents to create and shape the characters. It would be wrong to say that the story belongs alone to Estha and Rahel, egg twins born 18 minutes apart. Living in a house full of people who cannot tolerate the joy they find in their ignorance, their childish wonder and what they mean to each other. The story belongs to their entire family, what it always was and what it became after the death of their cousin Sophie Mol. A death that (the writer puts so eloquently) ‘lived on’.
This is the event that is used as a focal point, along with the death of Velutha and the returning of Estha (return with a capital R) that a large part of everything leads up to and that an even larger part is completely altered by.
The book is set in a humid, obscure town of Ayemenem, Kerala. A town of small people with their small lives enfolding in their quiet mumble of insignificance. A god of small things is about a family that is seemingly high up the socio-economic stature. There’s the grandfather Pappachi, a devious man full of envy, always at the brink of violence, forever living under the debris of his failures. After his retirement as an entomologist his wife Mammachi, a gifted violinist starts her own business of pickles and jams that blooms and even though she hadn’t prepared for a success she is very happy about it. Pappachi beats her on regular basis because he doesn’t approve of her business or better yet her achievements. One day Chacko, their son returns after getting a divorce from his English wife Margaret, finds out about the beatings which end not long after he tells his father that he will not have it. Roy explains with brutal description how Mammachi grieves the loss of Pappachi, showcasing the troubling attachments that develop and persist between people and their abusers.
Then there is Ammu, the mother of the twins, and sister of Chacko. Explained as a somewhat strong woman who’s strong only for her experiences. She gets her one real taste of life when she is 18 and gets to spend a year away from her parents at an aunt’s place in Calcutta. She meets Baba, the father of the twins and marries him for a simplified reason that nothing could be worse than going back to her dreaded, dead end life with her parents. She soon realizes that she has married an alcoholic who is also a pathological liar. She explains marriage as ‘ghoulish’ with powerful imagery reverberating jeweled brides to polished fire wood. She leaves her husband and returns to Ayemenem because her husband gets into trouble with his employer who then suggests a deal that he can make his problems go away if he gets to sleep with his wife. Ammu refuses furiously when Baba brings this up and he responds with violence, a seemingly commonplace characteristic of the marriages that are explained in this book. She then returns to Ayemenem brittle and with a broken spirit to a family that wants nothing to do with her. She becomes defensive about her twins and makes herself into a strict parent foreboding that their loving nature would break them in the end.
Yet another important part Ammu plays is due to her recklessness, a tendency she develops after having to face the disgrace of coming back to a family she ran away from for a man that she divorced. To her, disgrace means freedom to do what she had already been sentenced to live under the weight of. This is something we can see from her relations with the Untouchable Velutha. An affair that later cost him his life.
Chacko is a man hiding under books and communist manifestos, looking in all the wrong places for the meaning of it all. He explains to the twins with great detail what exactly an anglophile is and then tells them how their entire family is made up of anglophiles. People who worship their conquerors and have been so far down a certain road of ethnocentrism, there can be no return. He tells them about the The History House where all the ancestors would whisper the truth about what they are and what they’ve become. For some reason the twins understand him. To him it’s clearly a second chance when Margaret and Sophie Mol, his wife and daughter decide to come to Ayemenem. It’s an interesting construction Roy has done here. She creates in both cases, the twins and Sophie Mol as half breeds. The twins are born to Hindu/ Christian parents. Sophie Mol has English/ Indian parents. Yet Sophie Mol is welcomed into their home and scrupulously cherished unlike the twins who have to face the fact that even Ammu might like Sophie Mol better. Unlike all the other characters in the god of small things, Chacko doesn’t appear to be a pit of negativity. He isn’t a saint, but he treats the twins better than other members of the family, deals with failure in a reasonable way and for the most part we don’t see skeletons taking up all the room in his psychological closet.
The visit of Sophie Mol is an important event for many reasons including Estha being abused by the Orangedrink Lemondrink man. An incident that contributed greatly to both the deaths of Sophie Mol and Velutha.
Unlike Chacko, the god of small things is quite recount of all that’s wrong with Baby Kochamma. A character that Roy undoubtedly put more work into than most of the characters. A woman so thick in the skin, and with a spirit that would unlikely bend, much less break. She owes all of her life to a stubborn infatuation she had for a priest that came to Ayemenem looking to study the Hindu scripture in detail as that would allow him to refuse it on more constructive grounds. He enjoys the attention and keeps her on leash but never so much as acknowledges her evident feelings for him. She chases him for a year straight and then even after that by converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a nun. Something that she grew tired of soon enough. But she never gets tired of the priest. She drags this obsession with him her entire life. She is sent abroad to study because her conversion and then abandonment of the faith made it impossible for her to find a husband. She returns with a degree in gardening and makes a mad wonderland of plants and herbs that defy the very rules of climate and growth. When Rahel returns to Ayemenem this era has enfolded and archived. As Rahel thinks to herself, Baby Kochamma is living her life backwards. In this late part of her life she acts like a young woman only she has shut the world out more than ever confining it to satellite television, cream roles and all that furniture and jewellery she has inherited as a prize for having outlived everyone.
Rahel returns to Ayemenem after receiving a letter from Baby Kochamma, the sister of her grandfather, letting her know that her brother Estha has been returned, or as the writer differentiates, ‘re-returned’. Rahel does not return for anything after her mother dies. She grows up in a series of turbulence. She gets expelled from schools a number of times, studies architecture not for the talent but for the sake of it. She gets married in a similar way, because why not. Her aloof, complacence with her insignificance also gets her divorced. When she returns Estha figures out without anyone telling him such is the bond between the two. Estha has grown up into a strange man. He wasn’t troublesome like Rahel. He was an average student and didn’t go as far as college simply because he didn’t want to. He got quieter after he was separated from her, something no one noticed in its early manifestations because Estha was always a quiet one. But not speaking at all unless and sometimes even when his life depended on it was a condition that took over him after the incident when Baby Kochamma told him to answer ‘Yes’ to that one question the Inspector would ask him. Rahel grows up into a side effect of the big god small god complex. A belief that worse things were always happening, that their lives were tiny cracks in what was a larger fall out. Estha grows up believing that any form of survival is a miracle because everything is too fragile and breakable. When the twins are re-united they end up sleeping together, an act they believe is an inheritance of sorts. The most important theme in the god small things, is the defiance of the laws of love that every member of the family has exhibited in their own right.
The god of small things is the freakin’ mother of 10.
~ Momina Arif