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The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997)  isone of the most widely known postcolonial novels. It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than forty languages. Roy says in an interview that the emotional texture of the book is autobiographical, for she was born in Kerala, and was trained as an architect. And the writing process took her more than four years. The historical context of The God of Small Things corresponds to the rise of communism in Kerala and the Naxalite movement. The dehumanisation of Dalits is one of the main concerns of the novel. The marginalised groups reflected in the novel have gained more visibility but the discrimination continues to this day.

The God of Small Things begins with a detailed description of the atmosphere of the place; it’s set in Ayemenem, a village in the southern India. Throughout this anti-caste novel, the spatial descriptions, particularly those of the river and the house, do not only allow the reader to get an imaginary map for the surroundings, but they also mirror the main characters’ emotions or foreshadow what is about to happen. The narrator even conveys to the reader what a particular scene could smell like. Also, the use of italized words or the capitalisation of some objects animate the narrative.

I think, this novel is unique particularly for its fragmented narration, which resembles the way memory works through the use of free associations between events, places, people, sensations and objects. Through the lens of an omniscient narrator that moves back and forth, roughly in the years between 1962 and 1993, we get snapshots of each generation that once lived and still lives in the Ayemenem house. Traumatic events take place during a two-week visit of a half-English cousin, Sophie Mol, in 1969, but these events are told twenty years later. The main conflict is about caste and desire, reflected in the secret affair between Ammu, a woman from a Brahmin family and Velutha, a man from the Paravan family living across the river. When the secret affair is revealed to the Brahmin family, the elders explode in anger and the children escape to the other side of the river. On the way, Sophie Mol accidentally drowns. Velutha is falsely accused of her death, and for this reason is beaten to death by the police. After their deaths, the upper caste family falls apart.

Compared to the short story form, novels offer more space for creativity. The arrangement of this space adds up nuances to the metaphors. Crossing the river, for example, becomes a symbolic act; the doors in the house represent freedom, or the History House represents the colonial history. Pappachi’s position as an ‘imperial’ entomologist and his clothes, or Baby Kochamma’s obsession with ‘correct’ English pronunciation could be read as traces of colonial elements. All in all, the exceptional structure as well as the unique narrative voice make it worth the effort to decipher the fragments in this modernist novel.

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