Arundhati Roy is the ‘God of Small Things’. She takes notice of the abysmally small, the compressed and beaten down, the adivasis, the Manipuris, the labourers, the bastards, the women. Her curly hairs are ideas branching out, turning grey out of wisdom and concern rather than age. Her voice too composed for the revolt in her dialogue, just like her writing. Easy and uneasy, as if a winter breeze was given a fountain pen but venom instead of ink. She knows how the politics snatched away from art is like the forest land snatched away from the eroded and gentle hands of the tribals, or like the women whose wombs are out for sale; incomplete, unethical, blasphemous.
We are all in some way shaped by the legislative assembly just as much as by God, our lives designed to blend in with the work-hours allotted on the legal papers, our identity only giving us assurance till the next exodus, our communities completely our own until we drink from an outcast’s well, or drink from an outcast’s eyes. The laws are omnipresent, pushing their discretion even into love, etching in the convention on who should be loved, and how much.
I have read “The God of Small Things” too many times in these 20 years of its existence, only to realise, it has been silently evolving. Pressed between the pages often prematurely abandoned and left to incubate, it has been growing tentacles, appendages, interpretations, smelling timeless like the notes of Dostoevsky from his underground, from his deadhouse (Sicksweet, in Roy’s words. Like old roses on a breeze). The story is perhaps intentionally or owing to personal history, set in a city charged with communism, precisely laying the premise of the story, about human beings yearning for fairness and acceptance. Every character is in the lead; Amma with her heart of buried dreams which still breathe underneath the Earth, shipwrecked after her marriage sank with the man who preferred to seek love in whiskey bottles. Estha and Rahel were her twins who had not seen each other for years, biologically fraternal but Siamese-souls.
“The emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness in the other. That the two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers’ bodies.” Estha occupied very little space in the world, grew up to stop talking. “Yet, Estha’s silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy. It wasn’t an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of aestivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha’s case the dry season looked as though it would last forever.”
“Rahel was expelled after repeated complaints from senior girls. She was accused (quite rightly) of hiding behind doors and deliberately colliding with her seniors. When she was questioned by the principal about her behaviour, she eventually admitted that she had done it to find out whether breasts hurt. In that Christian institution, breasts were not acknowledged. They weren’t supposed to exist, and if they didn’t could they hurt?”
Baby Kochamma was married inside her head but was a convent nun for everyone else. She lived a life of despondency, eternal waiting and loved some in her family more equally than others. Chacko divorced from not only his wife but also himself. Dreamt of his daughter’s eyes, spoke his thoughts in impeccable Oxford English even if they were only inside his mind, oscillated between being a liberal by learning and conservative by sentiment. Sophie Mol, the little one who had to retire too early to her satin-lined, brass-handle-shined, child-sized coffin, was a seeker of small wisdom. “Where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like stones from the sky?” Roy will be answering that in her second book.
The novel is a suspense thriller in the same way our slow and nervous traversing towards an uncertain future is, and in the same way how lovers tiptoe out of our lives after hammering memories onto the walls of our preyed hearts with no crime scene evidence or apology left behind. It is also fantasy fiction, since some love stories like that of Ammu and Velutha could only exist in moonless midnights, by riversides and under banana trees when people are asleep and bats are still blind, but never out in the open, under the dappled sunlight of culture, in the shadow of society. It is also an erotica, where sex is not just a trivial act of one thing in another but a metaphor. A channel for despair, a ritual for a reunion, a trailing and tunnelling back to where you came from and where you belong.
Roy as an activist is made of steel, incendiary and incinerating, always ripping governments apart on the battleground with a sharp well-edged tongue but Roy as a fiction writer, is made of snowflakes and lotus leaves, sleek and provoking and phenomenally feminine, like the backwaters and tea gardens she has lived by. To put her in her own words, velvet-gloved in sandpaper.
I do not know what the motivation behind the book was and maybe I will never figure it out till one day, it stops being a sweet drifting stranger to me, stops changing like the direction of monsoon winds and for once, is completely evolved, literal, mine. But till then, I will embrace it like the small things in life. Butterflies, pastries, spring, early morning kisses, airport hugs and books. The big things are still brooding, taking the form of prayers at the dargah and of anti-depressants, waking us up in the middle of nights, making us reconsider marriages and motherhood and death, time and again. But nothing kills us. In Roy’s words, “Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, worse things kept happening.”