Here, with the cloud of a six-figure advance trailing behind her, comes Arundhati Roy:
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. Jack-fruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
There’s heat but no dust in this opening paragraph, and though it’s an odd word to use, what’s immediately refreshing about this steamy world is its difference from the familiar settings of most Indian novels, from the baked and friable land of the North or the crackle and pop of Bombay. The India of Roy’s first novel is one that most visitors literally don’t see: almost nobody goes to the southern state of Kerala, or shows any interest in its religious anomaly, the Syrian Christians who claim descent from the Brahmins converted by Thomas, the doubting Apostle. Our chief literary image of the South has come from the pastoral fables of R.K. Narayan, and it’s refreshing, too, that The God of Small Things makes no attempt to repeat them. Ayemenem’s caste rivalries are fierce and nearly indistinguishable from its politics; and while the stooped and shrivelled aunt who seems to figure in every Indian novel remains a comic figure here, she is this time vicious and cruel as well.
Too much new Indian fiction has carried the birthmark of Midnight’s Children; Salman Rushdie himself, in the Preface to his recent Vintage Book of Indian Writing,admits that his successors can seem marked by an ‘excessive Rushdie-itis’. How could they not, when even an older writer like Anita Desai has found herself affected by his raspily raucous voice? Roy, too, has had her style pawed by Rushdie’s. His fingerprints show in the way she makes a cinema usher into ‘The Man with the steel Eveready Torch’, a man who tells his customers that the movie ‘started longago’; in the rhyme with which a character expires at a ‘viable, dieable age’. She is too fond of symbols, similes, alliteration, capital letters and the pathetic fallacy. She even sets her characters up in the pickle business. But The God of Small Things is a much better and more original novel than a random sampling of its prose might suggest. Its surface blemishes are slight and in a way irrelevant to Roy’s purpose, as if her style were a borrowed suit that she’d already begun to outgrow.
For at bottom Arundhati Roy’s questions are not Rushdie’s, aren’t those with which contemporary Indian fiction has been most often concerned. She’s not especially interested in national identity, or colonialism, or an Anglicised hybridity. On a crucial day in 1969 her characters go for the third time to see Julie Andrews pretend to be a nun in The Sound of Music, yet nothing much is made of this; it isn’t analysed as part of the comprador structure of feeling, but simply shown as an ordinary childhood treat in a prosperous family. The writer whom Roy most reminds me of is Faulkner, and with its story of sex and sudden death, transgression and familial decay, The God of Small Things could be seen as the first Indian attempt at Southern Gothic. Not just because its landscape is hot and humid, with mango and pepper vine taking the place of live-oak and Spanish moss: the similarity goes deeper than that, to Roy’s concentration on a past that can’t be smoothed over, a history with which one has to go on living, knowing ‘that a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes’, hours that ‘like the salvaged remains of a burned house – the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture – must be resurrected from the ruins and examined’.
Sartre once tried to summarise the plot of The Sound and the Fury, attempting to ‘reestablish the chronology for himself’, but quickly realised that any such summary told ‘a different story’. Faulkner did not first conceive an ‘orderly plot so as to shuffle it afterwards like a pack of cards; he could not tell it any other way.’ That seems true of The God of Small Things as well. Its third-person narration doesn’t present the same sentence-by-sentence difficulties as Faulkner’s interior monologues, but the book nevertheless displays some of the same structural complexities, the same split between the order of the narrative and the order of the events it describes. At the start of the novel a woman called Rahel returns to the village of Ayemenem, where her Syrian Christian family have long been the local notables: landowners, civil servants, clergymen. And she comes back, after an American marriage and divorce, after ‘several years as a night clerk in a bullet-proof cabin at a gas station outside Washington’, because she’s learned that her twin brother Estha has been ‘re-Returned’. They have not seen each other for 23 years.
The scenes in the ‘present’ are, however, brief: the bulk of the novel defines a memory. Not Rahel’s precisely, for it’s part of the novel’s conceit that, as a twin, she shares in Estha’s memories as well. And what they remember are a few weeks in 1969, when they were seven, weeks that turn on the death of little Sophie Kochamma – ‘Sophie Mol’, to use the Malayalam word for ‘girl’ – the daughter of the twins’ Uncle Chacko and his English ex-wife Margaret. (Marriage across cultures runs in this family, and so – unusualy for India – does divorce.) Sophie’s death is an accident, but it contributes to another death, that of the title character, the children’s friend Velutha, a ‘Paravan’ or untouchable who works as a carpenter in Chacko’s pickle factory. Velutha also dies, however, because he violates ‘the Love Laws ... The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’; dies because he and the twins’ ‘Ammu’ – their mother, herself divorced from an alcoholic Bengali – suddenly come to see each other as potently attractive sexual beings. These disasters in turn lead to Ammu’s exile from the family, to her having to return Estha to his father because without her family’s help she can’t support both her children, and to her own early death, ‘in a grimy room ... alone. With a ceiling fan for company.’
That seems rather a lot to explain – but I suppose it should be explained all at once even if, as Sartre suggested about Faulkner, it doesn’t convey one’s experience of the novel. Reading The God of Small Things is like watching a photograph’s blurry image gain resolution with each second it spends in its chemical bath; each page allows you to see just a little bit more of a narrative whose outlines you somehow already know. A long first chapter describes Rahel’s return to Ayemenem and recounts this story in miniature, but it only hints at the details, telling us, for instance, that Sophie Mol will die, has already died, but not how. After that the even-numbered chapters present the events of 1969, while the briefer, odd-numbered ones concentrate on the ‘present’. This structure seems so regular that when Roy finally violates it, keeping her narration firmly in the past, the dissonance compels an extra degree of attention.
It’s an element of this formal structure – of Roy’s gamble with chronology – that the book includes many long scenes that at first appear to have little to do with what we already know. In one, the twins sit in a ‘skyblue Plymouth’ with Ammu and Chacko and their evil great-aunt Baby Kochamma, stalled at a railway crossing, watching in fear (the adults) and bewilderment (the children) as a protest march led by Kerala’s powerful Communist Party surges around them. The family is on its way to Cochin, where they’ll see The Sound of Music before picking up Sophie Mol at the airport. Roy uses this moment of stasis to cut back and forth in time, filling in her characters’ history. This, she writes, is the moment when things began, ‘the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place’. In the crowd of marchers the children see their beloved Velutha, and wonder what he’s doing there; the next day he and their mother will look at each other, and fall in love. When the family finally reaches the cinema, Estha can’t stop himself from singing along with the opening number, and is sent out to the lobby, where the concessionaire offers him a cold drink:
‘Now if you’ll just hold this for me,’ the Orange-drink Lemondrink Man said, handing Estha his penis through his soft white two-by-two dhoti. ‘If you could just hold this, I’ll get you your drink. Orange? Lemon?’
Estha held it because he had to.
And eventually the little boy’s hand is stickily full of what looks to him like ‘egg white. Quarter-boiled.’
This is Roy’s style at its most successfully playful, and yet even here it seems a dangerous game: how much experience, after all, could a small boy have had of boiled egg white? Roy tries for much of the novel to stay within the children’s limited understanding of the events around them. But she doesn’t maintain a consistent point of view, and adopts a faux-naif style even when she’s not looking through their eyes. In the novel’s present, for example, Rahel visits a luxury hotel built on the site of a childhood trauma, a resort whose owners ‘knew, those clever Hotel People, that smelliness, like other people’s poverty, was merely a matter of getting used to. A question of discipline. Of Rigour and Air-Conditioning.’ This would seem shrill in any case, but the capital letters make it unbearable. I have an easier time with capitals when we are actually within the children’s minds, for there they help to capture the child’s powerless awareness of an incomprehensible adult world: ‘The Audience was a Big Man. Estha was a Little Man.’
Later Roy writes, describing Ammu’s strong-willed, proto-feminist ‘effrontery’, that she ‘had not had the kind of education, nor read the sorts of books, nor met the sorts of people, that might have influenced her to think the way she did. She was just that sort of animal.’ But who says this, and to whom? The social analysis jars with the childlike tone, and makes the passage seem precious. Roy tends to over-interpret her characters. Rushdie, too, keeps his stick-figures firmly under the control of his style, but he gets away with it because he’s fundamentally a comic writer. Roy is not, despite the bitter laughter of the scene with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. She explains her characters away as if she’s afraid we won’t otherwise understand their experience, and doesn’t recognise that such cartoonish gestures have the opposite effect: they make those inner lives irrelevant.
And the similes: ‘Filth had laid siege to the Ayemenem house like a medieval army advancing on an enemy castle.’ Doesn’t such filth grow at least in part from within? Then, too often, there is the way that the novel looks on the page. Here’s what lies beneath an old boat the children find along the river bank:
White termites on their way to work.
White ladybirds on their way home.
White beetles burrowing away from the light.
White grasshoppers with whitewood violins.
Sad white music.
A white wasp. Dead.
White noise, that’s what this reads like; turn that sentimental typography into a passage of connected prose and ask yourself how much remains.
This isn’t to say that Roy can’t write wonderful lines: Baby Kochamma ‘viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture’. But she tries too hard for brilliance; the book wears so much make-up that it threatens to obscure the excellent bones beneath. In the end the smudged and garish colours don’t much matter. The operatic intensity of the novel’s emotions requires, if not Roy’s linguistic excess, then at least her willingness to risk it. But more important is the fact that as the memory of individual lines recedes, one’s sense of the solidity and intricacy of the novel’s structure continues to grow. That structure allows Roy to show what it’s like to go on after disaster, after a family has been smashed. The chapters in the present, in which the adult Rahel moves around Ayemenem, have a sombre ripeness, a unity of tone, that seems far more individual than the sprightly chat of the passages set in the past. Tragedy is one thing, but having to go on afterwards remains the interesting human problem, and the only Indian novel that comes close to conveying this sense of living in an aftermath is Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day.
The novel’s non-chronological approach also allows Roy, after she describes the deaths of Velutha and Sophie Mol, to step back to a moment just before, when the catastrophe hasn’t yet happened, when it need not happen. The God of Small Things concludes with a chapter called ‘The Cost of Living’, an account of Ammu and Velutha’s first erotic encounter, in which Ammu sips ‘the last of the river from the hollow of his navel’ and feels his ‘calloused’ hand, ‘velvet gloved in sandpaper’, on her breast. And even though you know that the price of their ecstasy is death, the novel doesn’t end with the sense that its characters are encountering an inescapable destiny. Instead, Roy’s violation of chronology suggests how easily it could have been otherwise. Each moment in these characters’ lives may have been a necessary one in shaping their fates, but none of them was, in itself, sufficient.
Among those necessary causes are the questions of religion and politics which determine Baby Kochamma’s role in breaking her family asunder. This aspect of the novel – Roy’s attempt to give it a public dimension – feels rather mechanical yet even that is in a way encouraging: it makes this novel a rarity in post-colonial fiction, a largely-conceived and ambitious book about private life.