Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What are the small things?

July's meeting had an awesome turnout to discuss The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. In contrast to the posting on Lolita, this month's book led itself to a wonderful discussion of not only the novel itself but the religious and caste influence at work during the period in which the novel is set. As was pointed out in the discussion, if one has some background into both the social and religious dynamics at work in India, then the interpretation of events in the text bear examination in another light. A great example of this that Bob pointed out is the dizygotic nature of the twin's relationship. Dizygotic twins are the result of two individual eggs being fertilized and carried to term as opposed to monozygotic twins which occur when one fertilized egg divides. Dizygotic twins are not identical nor do they (supposedly) possess the famous twin bond. In fact, the twin expert in the novel addresses this concept when the topic of separating the twins is brought up, and the expert testifies that the result would be no greater than if any two non-twin siblings were separated. Now in the context of the novel, this is obviously not the case as the twins have what could be considered a supernatural bond. What Bob pointed out is that in Eastern literature and beliefs the spiritual/supernatural often supersedes the natural, and I think that one would be hard pressed to argue against that belief in The God of Small Things.

This discussion of the bond between Estha and Rahel provides a starting point for our discussion of the act of incest that takes place between them. In most cases our automatic response to incest is one of at worst horror or at the least the subject of bad jokes. However, much like the sex scenes in Lolita, this act is not described in such a way as to arouse those intial responses. In fact, this act is yet another continuation of the theme of love in the novel, particularly who can love whom and how and how much. Over and over again those words are repeated when describing relationships, and the first that comes to mind is the relationship between Ammu and Velutha. Their was a relationship that was doomed from the start due to the caste divide between them. Velutha is an untouchable, and while he is kept around for the invaluable services he can provide the family, he is never really considered a true human being. Thus, when Ammu, who it must be noted is already condemned for her failed marriage, lowers herself to a relationship with an untouchable, nothing but destruction can befall them.

Actually, in many ways this is a novel of destruction with Estha and Rahel paying the greatest price. The events of their childhood from their parents' divorce, to their separation, to their mother's scandalous relationship, to their role in the death of Sophie and Velutha have contributed to make them what I can't help but consider damaged characters. Though they are adults, these childhood events haunt them and continue to impact every aspect of their lives. Perhaps one of the best ways to examine the haunting nature of these events is through an examination of some of the language in the novel. One thing that comes to mind and ties into the theme of love is the remark that Ammu makes to Rahel in which she states that one's actions can make others love that individual a little less. What a statement to make to a young and impressionable child. Of course this sticks in Rahel's head, and throughout the childhood portions she returns back to it and measures the amount of love she believes she receives from Ammu. Language also comes into play when Baby Kochamma forces Rahel and Estha to implicate Velutha in order to salvage the family's name and reputation. They are told that if they do not go along with what Baby Kochamma says then they will be sending their mother to prison. Although she is never presented as an admirable or even pitiable character, this is the most damning act that Baby commits as she manipulates the children. While everyone is complict to evil or wrongdoing in the novel and must receive blame in some way, arguably it is the children who continue to pay for the sins of the family.


wordswordswords said...

Good point on everything, Nance. I feel like it was really difficult to understand the depth to which the caste system permeates the novel. Not being from India & only having a (limited) intellectual knowledge about Indian traditions hurt me in understanding the extent which Ammu & Velutha's relationship was a cultural and religious no-no.

I did like how Danielle talked about how when she visited India, she talked to people who said that the caste system no longer existed, yet everyone was able to tell what caste system they WOULD be in if it did still exist. I imagine old traditions die hard.

wordswordswords said...

Oh, and the language was good, too. I remember us discussing Roy's use of capital letters. Also we discussed the poeticness with which she described certain scenes ("blood spilling from his skull like a secret").