Words by Temi Otedola
Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt
The JTO Book Club is back for its June edition! If it’s your first time reading a Book Club post you can catch up here:
February 2019 Edition: Homegoing by Yaa Gyaasi (here)
March 2019 Edition: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (here)
April 2019 Edition: Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (here)
Welcome to the June edition of the JTO Book Club! If this is your first time reading a JTO Book Club post let me quickly introduce to you what this series is about, as I am aware that we may have some new readers joining us this time around. The JTO Book Club is a monthly post on jtofashion.com where I review a book we have read together during the month. So yes, be warned, these posts will contain spoilers!
This is always my favourite blog post to write up because as many of you know, reading is one of my greatest enjoyments and I’m so happy to now have a space to share my thoughts and ideas on the many incredible books I read. So please, after you’ve read this edition of the JTO Book Club, leave a comment at the end of the post letting us know what you think about this month’s pick or any other books you would love to share with our novel-loving community.
Judging a Book By Its Cover
(This section documents my conjectures of the book or author prior to reading, I will also include any background information I think you should have before my personal analysis)
This month’s choice of book is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which was kindly sent to me and highly recommended by the inspiring journalist Stephanie Busari. I know that Stephanie personally has a talent for storytelling so I had very high hopes for his book. Skimming the book’s blurb revealed that the story was set in India, had children protagonists and because it was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, had been well received by critics. The book cover appears to be the surface of a river or pond, the dark, murky waters revealing a feeling of mystery. However, it was the book’s title that left me with the most questions. The God of Small Things: it doesn’t reveal much about what this phrase could mean in the context of the book, but it was certainly a phrase I continued to contemplate and consider. If there is a “God of Small Things”, then who is the God of Big Things? What are Small Things and what are Big Things? I was soon to find out…
The God of Small Things…
The God of Small Things was published in 1997 and was Arundhati Roy’s debut novel. It is set in Ayemenem, a small village in Kerala which is a southern state of India. The book takes a non-sequential format, stretching between a 1969 summer in Kerala where its main characters, twins Rahel and Estha are seven years old, and in 1991, when the twins reunite for the first time in 31 years. This drawn-out out time frame allows the book’s narrative to be woven through a series of flashbacks and initially puzzling narrative details. This is what makes The God of Small Things a novel that should be read multiple times. During a second or even third attempt, the reader will be able to digest these flashbacks with deliberate eyes, knowing the tragic course that the story will take.
The God of Small Things follows many generations of characters making up the Ipe family, although it is loosely centred on Rahel’s perspective. Through Roy’s indulgently descriptive writing we meet the figures of the Ipe family in all of their complexity and variance. Pappachi is the now deceased, family patriarch. He is described as an abusive, obsessive, anglophile. His wife referred to as Mammachi is nearly blind by the summer of 1969. Mammachi appears reserved and nobly traditional when we first meet her, however as the curves of the story are revealed the reader begins to see what is hidden under Mammachi’s cool exterior. Pappachi’s sister, Baby Kochamma is a uniquely consequential character. Baby Kochamma is embittered and revels in the misfortunes of others, she highlights how disappointment in younger life can leave to a hateful heart in your older years.
Mammachi and Pappachi have two children, Chacko and Ammu. Ammu is the dark horse of the two siblings. Her divorce from an abusive husband left her shunned by her family and feeling as if her life as a respectably deemed woman had come to an end. Ammu really only had her twins, Rahel and Estha, and they only really had her. Chacko was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, and during his time in England he met his ex-wife Margaret, and they had a child, Sophie. The tragedy of the Ipe family erupts when Margaret and Sophie travel to Karela in mourning of Margaret’s recent love, Joe. They escape England for India in hopes of healing and managing their grief, yet another devastation was already forming.
Because most of the narrative is formed in those 1969 moments when the twins are seven years old, we see the events of the book unfold through the eyes of innocent children. Roy is masterful at infusing the twin’s infancy through her writing. She uses the capitalization of certain words, repetition of certain phrases, and a lack of punctuation to surround the reader within the vivid mentality of a child. It was fascinating to ruminate on the mental processes of a child, how the Small Things are Big Things and vice versa. As Rahel and Estha are children they are not as constrained by the constructs of Big Things, i.e. social cues. For example how as Touchable Children they should not be playing with the Untouchable factory carpenter, Velutha.
We feel the push and pull of love versus animosity in the mother/child relationship. In a rage, Ammu tells Rahel, ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” This feeling of being loved “a little less” by her mother stays with a seven-year-old Rahel in such a soul-crushing and irreparable way, further showcasing how much of adulthood trauma is formed within us as a child. The most harrowing example of this being when Estha is sexually molested in a cinema as his family joyously watch the ‘Sound of Music’ only a couple of feet away. In bottling up this secret Estha feels a huge amount of shame, fear and embarrassment which highlights the awful way in which children who are exploited by adults have their innocence preyed upon – Estha was enticed simply by a cold soda drink…
I loved how Roy examined the relationship that is ingrained between twins. We get the idea that twins are born from Siamese minds and Rahel and Estha are often able to communicate without words. Their feelings appear to be interchanged and hurt transferred between glances or just their physical closeness. This is what makes their 1991 reunion so melancholy. They can both feel each other’s emptiness.
However, I often saw the twins as being a triad before the untimely death of Ammu. Her deep love and lament for her twins was heart-wrenching to read. Ammu was often shunned by her parents, brother, and aunt so the twins were often the only characters in the book who saw her for herself, not for her mistakes, her failed marriage or her disdain for conventional behaviour. I saw Ammu as a fighter when she refused to allow her husband to force her to sleep with his boss. I saw Ammu as a fighter when she rejected the indoctrinated idea that Velutha was Untouchable and thus Unlovable. I saw Ammu as a fighter when she rejected the lie that their relationship was nonconsensual.
Like all human beings Ammu is a flawed character, but her courage was more than any other person in her family. Yet, Ammu, Rahel and Estha become the family’s shame and cause the family to lose their outward respectability. However, I felt like the tragic happenings around Sophie Mol and Velutha simply unbottled the scandals of the Ipe family (which is particularly ironic as the family business is bottling up preserved fruit). This triad forming of mother and twins aired the dirty laundry of a family that was terrified of having their skids and stains open for the world to see.
The God of Small Things is not just an extraordinarily-told story it also reveals and educates on the climate of post-colonial India. In 1969, India had been Independent of Britain for over two decades, yet Roy highlights the lasting effects of a colonial footprint and how it can cause political and societal strife in a nation even today. At this time, India’s higher classes made a point of speaking English, wearing English styles and sending their children to Britain to be educated as Chacko and Baby Kochamma were. However, Roy counteracts these anglophile leaning characters with characters like Ammu who have a shifted perspective on their former British rulers. Ammu is irked when Margaret and Sophie come to visit the family and everyone fawns over their Englishness and proximity to whiteness. She resents Chacko’s overt pride in having a white wife and partially white daughter. The reader also becomes aware of the dichotomy formed between Sophie, the white, angelic child, and Rahel and Estha, the brown, devilish children, a chasm most championed by Baby Kochamma and the family’s surly cook, Kochu Maria. Similar dichotomies are also formed contrasting Communism versus Traditionalist politics, Hinduism versus Christianity, and The Untouchables versus the Dominating Class.
I found the themes surrounding class, social standing and caste most poignant. Roy put’s India’s prior caste system in play, which is particularly strife in a 1969 milieu. India’s caste system was upheld as a way of organizing society. There were the four hierarchal Hindu castes: Bhramins (priests/academics), Kshatriyas (rulers/kings), Vaishyas (merchants/landowners), Sudras (manual labourers), and then the Dalits (the Untouchables or Out of Castes) who did menial tasks such as street cleaning.
The Untouchables were considered polluted beings who have to be separated from those in Castes. The God of Small Things thus has an internal class struggle between the Ipe family who are of an upper, landowning class, versus the Untouchable characters of Velutha and his father Vellya Paapen. It was even more intriguing how Roy demonstrated the tensions growing within the Untouchable class shown between father and son. Vellya Paapen has worked for the Ipe family for decades, and because Mammachi paid for his glass eye and educated his son he feels eternally indebted to their generosity. Vellya Paapen is so beholden to the Touchable class that he is willing to expose Velutha’s torrid affair with Ammu and kill his own son to account for bringing shame to their family. On the other hand, Velutha is aware of his own intelligence and although he works as a carpenter for the Ipe family’s pickling business he knows he is invaluable to their enterprise. He also considers himself someone worthy of love, and even love with someone of the Touchable caste. Although Velutha’s affair with Ammu costs him his life, it also uncovers the true sentiment of the upper classes towards the Untouchables; one of disdain and contempt. Even more tragically it shows that human desire can emerge from the underbelly of caste society and how much conventional society can seek to destroy true love, leaving its populations left with death, sadness, and profound loss.
The God of Small Things doesn’t sugarcoat the lives of its characters. It doesn’t even add a drop of honey. We get to see the messiness of life, the impressionability of adolescence, and the depths of human grief through Roy’s writing. From the beginnings of the book, we know that Sophie, travelling to India with her mother, never makes the trip back, yet the details of this tragedy are carried by Roy’s fluid and sumptuous prose. The Big Thing may be Sophie’s death, but the reader gets to learn how the Small Things can contribute to making the Big Things. How Estha’s molestation and Rahel and Sophie’s wish to run away with him led to Sophie’s death, and how this then led to Velutha’s killing by the police, and finally how all of these events led to how Rahel and Estha are formed as adults. One filled with emptiness, and the other a Mute. Sophie’s death acts as a powerful representation of the demise of the twin’s innocence.
After researching critical writing on The God of Small Things, the part of the book which most people struggle with is the incest that takes place between the twins when they are reunited as adults. I was truly shocked when reading this. Yet it shows how the Big Things that have happened in their lives culminate into a single moment of hideous grief. Ultimately, that is how the human psyche works: because Small Things are shunned, hidden under carpets, they must find refuge in dark places and this is exactly where Roy directs us, whether we wish to see it or not.
Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.
Temi’s Takeaway Quote:
“In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.”
― Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
For all JTO Book Club updates check out the designated “highlight” on my Instagram page (here).
G I V E A W A Y
Follow the below steps to win a copy of The God of Small Things:
– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).
– Like my latest Instagram photo.
– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on The God of Small Things or what your favourite book is and why…
– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.
– I will post an Instagram Photo tagging the 3 winners so keep an eye out!
For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.