Sunday, January 31, 2010

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

“Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one” - John Berger.
Very true.
It’s a brilliant work. I am glad I read it now, this late, for had I read it 13 years ago, when it won the booker, when I was a child, I would not have appreciated it the way I do now.

A powerful, enchanting style of writing. Frightful. Bewitching.
And frightfully bewitching.

It’s a touching story of two little children, and their mother, the first few years of their childhood in their ancestral home of Kerala, their little world of songs, movies, the river, the boat, their grown up friends and the little secrets between them. It’s a story of the forbidden fruit of love, that their mother ate in all innocence and the silent suffering of a lifetime of alienation and estrangement that followed.

Half an hour past midnight, death came for him.
And for the little family curled up and asleep on a blue cross-stitch counterpane? What came for them? Not Death. Just the end of living.

Pappachi, Mammachi, Chacko, Ammu, Estha, Rahel, Velutha, Baby Kochamma, Kochu Maria, Velya Papen, Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol are the people in this story, each one, special in their own way.

Fortunately the story is not narrated by one of the children themselves.
It would not have been as touching if it were so.
When I say this, I am thinking about Mockingbird by Harper Lee, where the entire story is narrated by the youngest of the kids. While it has its own charm and specialty, there is always a downside to it. You don’t get an insight into the thoughts and feelings of other characters in the story. The story itself becomes limited and coloured by a child’s perspective. The depth has to be perceived by a reader and not directly described by the author.

The story begins with the grown up twins, thirty years old, strangers now, visiting their home town in Kerala after many many years and goes back to the twins in their childhood, two bodies and one soul, lost in their world…

The story swings beautifully back and forth between the past and the present shifting/gliding at the right place and the right time from one time to another, giving the shift relevance, meaning and necessity.
This, is as opposed to the case where this shifting back and forth between scenes and time is more a style of writing adopted by authors for the sake of style itself. Somehow, in Kiran Desai’s ‘Inheritance of Loss’, the shift not only between the past and present but between the two settings of the story - Kalimpong in India and the US seemed ill fitting and painful to read.

The story in itself is not really powerful. But the way it unfolds gives it immense gravity. Even as the reader finds consolation in the gradual settling down of a troubled family and the brief glimpses of happiness that come its way, his attention is frequently drawn to the impending doom.
As you start reading and read on, a womb containing a touching and powerful, yet innocent story opens little by little, consuming and absorbing the reader with each turn of the page. As you read, the mystery unfolds little by little and each unfolding strikes you as beautiful. The right amount of unfolding at the right time, I would say.

I had to read only the first two pages to know that it was a brilliant work. The style was very original – carefree, not hesitating to take liberty with language where effective expression required transcending grammar, unusual adjectives, complete focus on presenting the emotion, the nuances and the spirit of the story in its setting.

Take the expression ‘Immodest green’ -whoever would have thought of using such an adjective to describe the burst of greenery after the first showers of rainfall?

All nuances of life and culture of Kerala are very well captured and presented.

The book contains an extensive use of symbolism (if I am using the right word) –
A moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts, the history house and many others…
“A moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts”, for example, is taken from an incident in the life of Pappachi, the grandfather of the children and an entomologist. The movement of the moth’s wings as it rests on a surface, as if contemplating action, is associated with a strong sentiment of indignation, anger and building tension beginning to be felt by Pappachi during a certain incident.
This ’Pappachi’s moth’ is used repeatedly in the book while referring to similar sentiment felt by other characters in the course of the story, during various contexts …This technique - to create a single reference to a composite feeling and to use that reference all throughout the story whenever needed – is a very effective method to convey exactly what the author has in mind… the reader is quickly able to relate to what the character is feeling. The author does not have to describe all over again, the same composite feeling felt by other characters again and again…

Imagery is excellent. Details of every scene are described with such vividity that you can actually see the scene as you read. It’s stark.
All people in a scene, the clothes they are wearing, the expressions on their faces, their body postures, the objects in the background, on the wall, in the garden, the colour of the sky….everything… it could not be more detailed….and it all seems so relevant and important.
An eye for detail... Minute details that will take you by surprise.

It was a beautiful house. White walled once. Red-roofed. But painted in weather-colours now. With brushes dipped in nature’s palette. Moss-green. Earth-brown. Crumbleblack. Making it look older than it really was. Like sunken treasure dredged up from the ocean bed. Whale kissed and barnacled. Swaddled in silence. Breathing bubbles though its broken windows.

The rotating table fan by the bed measured out its mechanical breeze in exemplary democratic turns - first lifting what was left of Old Mrs Pillai’s hair, then Chacko’s. The mosquitoes dispersed and reassembled tirelessly.

Estha saw the three high stools arranged in a row for the Orangedrink Lemondrink man to sleep on. The wood shiny from his sitting.

Describing the atmosphere in a doctor’s clinic…there was a clink of glass on metal and the whisper and bubble of boiling water. A feverish baby hiccupped on its mother’s breast. The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato.

The low walls of the hut were the same colour as the earth they stood on and seemed to have germinated from a house seed planted in the ground, from which right angled ribs of earth had risen and enclosed space.

The slow ceiling fan. The sun behind the curtains. The yellow wasp wasping against the windowpane in a dangerous buzz. A disbelieving lizard’s blink. The sound of the sun crinkling the washing. Crisping white bedsheets. Stiffening starched saris. Off-white and gold. Red ants on yellow stones.
A sudden breeze made the flowered window curtain billow.

The black hen left through the backdoor, and scratched abstractedly in the yard where woodshavings blew about like blonde curls. Judging from her personality she appeared to have been reared on a diet of hardware; hasps and clasps and nails and old screws.

The Torch Man opened the heavy door into the fan-whirring peanut crunching darkness. It smelled of breathing people and hairoil. And old carpets. A magical sound of music smell that Rahel remembered and treasured. Smells like music hold memories. She breathed deep and bottled it up for posterity.

On the other side of the river, the steep mud banks changed abruptly into low mud walls of shanty hutments. Children hung their bottoms over the edge and defecated directly onto the squelchy sucking mud of the exposed river bed. The smaller ones left their dribbling mustard streaks to find their own way down. Eventually by evening, the river would rouse itself to accept the day’s offerings and sludge off to the sea, leaving wavy lines of thick white scum in its wake. Upstream, clean mothers washed clothes and pots in unadulterated factory effluents. People bathed. Severed torsos soaping themselves, arranged like dark busts on a thin, ribbon lawn.

The tai smelled of sleep. Old clothes rolled up. Damp towers. Armpits. It was after all the taxi driver’s home. He lived in it. It was the only place he had to store his smells. The seats had been killed. Ripped. A swathe of dirty yellow sponge spilled out and shivered on the back seat like an immense jaundiced liver. The driver had the ferrety alertness of a small rodent. He was so small that he watched the road through the steering wheel. To passing traffic it looked like a taxi with passengers but no driver. He drove fast, pugnaciously, darting into empty spaces, nudging other cars out of their lanes. Accelerating at zebra crossings. Jumping lights.

Choice of words is enviable. Unusual simile, metaphor and all...

Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a sitting down sense.

The last strap of light slipped from the cherub’s shoulder. Gloom swallowed the garden. Whole. Like a python......
Hours later, the moon rose and made the gloomy python surrender what it had swallowed. The garden reappeared. Regurgitated whole. With Rahel sitting in it.

Southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green.

Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had stained the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline.

He had looked into that beloved face and said: Yes. Yes, it was him. The word Estha’s octopus couldn’t get at: Yes. Hoovering didn’t seem to help. It was lodged there, deep inside some fold or furrow, like a mango hair between molars. That couldn’t be worried loose.

Estha had slanting sleepy eyes and his new front teeth were still uneven on the ends. Rahel’s new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen. It puzzled everybody that an 18 minute age difference could cause such a discrepancy in front tooth timing.

Mammachi was almost blind and always wore dark glasses when she went out of the house. Her tears trickled down from behind them and trembled along her jaw like raindrops on the edge of a roof. She looked small and ill in her crisp off white sari. Chacko was Mammachi’s only son. Her own grief grieved her. His, devastated her.

They ran along the bank calling out to her. But she was gone. Carried away on the muffled highway. Greygreen. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon in it. There was no storm music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. No shark supervised the tragedy. Just a quiet handing over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam. With a silver thimble clenched for luck in its little fist.

Looking at her weeding photographs, Ammu’s mouth would twist into a small bitter smile at the memory, not of the wedding itself, so much as the fact that permitted herself to be so painstakingly decorated herself before being led to the gallows. It seemed so absurd, so futile. Like polishing firewood.

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.
He was a quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise.

His gold wristwatch was almost hidden by his curly forearm hair. His white Terylene shirt was unbuttoned to where the swell of his belly began. He looked like an unfriendly jewelled bear.

Regardless of whether I like award winning books or not I now seem to begin to understand (having read 4 award winning books -Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), Kiran Desai (Inheritance of Loss), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and this one), one aspect common to these books - which perhaps critics look for in a book for the purpose of the award - life of a people, representing an ethnicity, during a time period – blending fiction with the history of that time - with a background - political, social, economic and religious. Work that will serve to give future readers a perspective, an idea about the lives of ordinary people during a time period in a certain part of the world.

How impressions are formed in the minds of young children - small events, incidents, remarks, comments, moments and rebukes etc… totally unnoticed by elders but leave a lasting impression on children’s minds - is very well (beautifully) illustrated in this book

According to Estha, if they’d been born on the bus, they’d have got free bus rides for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t clear where he’d got this information from, or how he knew these things, but for years the twins harboured a faint resentment against their parents for having diddled them out of a lifetime of free bus rides.

They also believed that if they were killed on a zebra crossing, the government would pay for their funerals. They had the definite impression that that was what zebra crossings were meant for. Free funerals.

As seen from a child’s eye... A woman in the neighbouring car had biscuit crumbs on her mouth. Her husband lit a bent after-biscuit cigarette. He exhaled two tusks of smoke through his nostrils and for a fleeting moment looked like wild boar. Mrs. Boar asked Rahel her name in a Baby Voice.

He walked on water. Perhaps. But could he have swum on land?

Association of pictures and smells with certain feelings that the author has brought forth is also something that you immediately identify with. The smell of steel rods in a government bus for example that the child recollects again and again.

She could smell the sourness of the steel bus rails on the conductor’s hands.

As for humour, there is humour but I think there’s more of satire.

A hundred baby spiders (too light to drown, too small to swim) stippled the smooth surface of the green water, before being swept out to sea. To Madagascar, to start a new phylum of Malayali Swimming Spiders.

She found what she was looking for. The keys to the large locked suitcase on the floor with its airline stickers and baggage tags. She opened it and rooted through the contents with all the delicacy of a dog digging up a flowerbed.

Baby Kochamma was wrong. Adoor Basi wasn’t trying to attract attention. He was only trying to deserve attention that he had already attracted.

The author gives meaningful insights into the social and psychological phenomena specific to the ethnicity selected for the story. Insights also into people’s behaviour and thinking. There is brief but powerful satire in some places. What is so remarkable about this is the effortlessness with which she does this. There aren’t pages and pages dedicated to build a premise or to explain the background. A few short lines in the course of narration, but with the right choice of words do the job. The effectiveness of these lines indicate the clarity of thought and observation that the author possesses. And of course, the author’s strong feelings, which explains the satire.

And there they were, the foreign returnees, in wash and wear suits and rainbow sunglasses. With an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement roofs for their thatched houses. And geysers for their parents’ bathrooms. With sewage systems and septic tanks. Maxis and high heels. Puff sleeves and lipstick. Mixy-grinders and automatic flashes for their cameras. With keys to count and cupboards to lock. With a hunger for kappa and meen vevichathu that they hadnt eaten for so long. With love and a lick of shame that their families who had come to meet them were so…so gawkish. Look at the way they dressed. Surely they had more suitable airport wear. Why did Malayalees have such awful teeth?

The hotel people liked to tell their guests of the ancestral home of Comrade E. M. S. Namboodripad Kerala’s Mao-Tse Tung. The furnitures and knick-knacks were on display labelled with edifying placards. So there it was then, History and Literature enlisted by Commerce. Kurtz and Karl Marx joining palms to greet rich guests as they stepped off the boat. (p126)

Calling an old house ‘The History House’, Chacko explains it to the kids thus… note the political undertones. I think there’s a reference to our war against the British and our subsequent admiration of English customs

We can’t go in because we have been locked out. And we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we cannot understand the whispering because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.
We are prisoners of war. Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.

When the British came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of untouchability. As added incentive they were given a little food and money. They were known as the rice-Christians. It didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were made to have separate churches, with separate services and separate priests. As a special favour, they were even given their own separate Pariah Bishop. After independence, they found they were not entitled to any government benefits like job reservations or bank loans at low interests because officially on paper, they were Christians and therefore casteless. It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all.

I have noted the following three paras for the sheer power in the author’s writing. Note the use of reference to ‘History’ in the first two paras. Another example of a technique of using symbolism – to create a simple reference to a composite feeling or phenomenon and to use that reference through the story giving it depth and power

The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body holding her daughter in his arms glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong footed, caught off-guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day or the tug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed. In that brief moment velutha looked up and saw things that he hadn’t seen before. For instance, he saw that Rahel’s mother was a woman. That she had deep dimples when she smiled and that they stayed on long after her smile left her eyes. He saw that her brown arms were round and firm and perfect. That her shoulders shone, but her eyes were somewhere else. He saw that when he gave her gifts, they no longer needed to be offered flat on the palms of his hands so that she wouldn’t have to touch him. His boats and boxes. His little windmills. He saw too that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him too. This knowing slid into him cleanly. Like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It took only a moment. Ammu saw that he saw. She looked away. He did too. History’s fiends returned to claim them. To rewrap them in its old scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the love laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

The twins were too young to know that the policemen were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear - civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness. Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify. Men’s needs.

Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin and she walked out of the world like a witch to a happier, better place. On days like this, there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divorceehood. Even her walk changed from a safe mother walk to another wilder sort of walk. She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no one. She spent hours on the riverbank with her little plastic transistor shaped like a tangerine. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims. What was it that gave Ammu this unsafe edge? This air of unpredictability? It was what she had battling inside her. An unmixable mix. The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber. It was this that grew inside her and eventually led her to love by night the man her children loved by day. On the days that the radio played Ammu’s songs, everyone was wary of her. They sensed somehow that she lived in the penumbral shadows between two worlds just beyond the grasp of their power.

One or two analogies I thought were somewhat bad. Immature. Original but immature.

He made her feel as though the world belonged to them. As though it lay before them like an opened frog on a dissecting table, begging to be examined.

Outside the rain had stopped. The grey sky curdled and the clouds resolved themselves into little lumps, like substandard mattress stuffing.

Although style of writing is very original and impresses you as you first read, after you have read more than half the book, you begin to feel that a conscious effort has been made to be different. What was in the beginning ‘a sincere manifestation‘ of the author’s ‘nature, thinking & feeling’ seems to have later become a ‘device’ for scoring higher.

I do not wish to spoil the story for you, but the way the story ends (the destiny of twins who meet after 23 years) made me grimace. How I wish it had ended differently! The ending was something I dreaded faintly …and could not believe when the fear came true.

Though it may be based on reality, I will never be able to understand or even come to terms with incest just as I know about Oedipus complex but do not understand it.

The ending feels like a classic example of how authors go overboard in their effort to take their story to dramatic heights - analogous to a singer who raises her voice to a higher and higher pitch, encouraged by her own performance, hoping to thrill the audience a little more and then… the voice cracks…

I have noted the following beautiful lines because I would like to read them again and again...

The wild overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives - rat snake, yellow bullfrogs, mongoose

We entrust into thy hands, most merciful father,
The soul of this our child departed,
And we commit her body to the ground,
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On her tombstone, it said ‘A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly’

Her face was set like stone, but the tears welled up in her eyes and ran down her rigid cheeks. It made the twins sick with fear. Ammu’s tears made everything that had so far seemed unreal, real.

Oddly, neglect seemed to have resulted in an accidental release of spirit.

The Irish monk was studying Hindu scriptures, in order to be able to denounce them intelligently.

He had young baby Kochamma’s aching heart on a leash, bumping behind him, lurching over leaves and small stones. Bruied and almost broken.

Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.

They consulted a twin expert in Hyderabad. She wrote back to say that it was not advisable to separate monozygotic twins but that 2-egg twins were no different from ordinary siblings.

Then to give the kids a historical perspective, Chacko told them about the earth woman. He made them imagine that the earth - 4600 million years old - was a 46 year old woman- as old as Aleyamma teaacher, who gave them Malayalam lessons. It had taken the whole of earth woman’s life for the earth to become what it was. For the oceans to part. For the mountains to rise. The earth woman was 11 yrs old when the first single celled organisms appeared. The first animals, creatures like worms and jellyfish, appeared only when she was forty. She was over forty five - just 8 months ago - when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The whole of human civilization as we know it, began only 2 hrs ago in the earth woman’s life…

Hers too was an ancient age old fear. The fear of being dispossessed.

In her mind, Baby Kochamma kept an organized careful account of Things She’d Done For People and Things People Hadn’t Done For Her.

Mammachi was aware of Chacko’s libertine relationships with the women in the factory, but had ceased to be hurt by them. When Baby Kochamma brought up the subject, Mammachi became tight lipped. “He can’t help having a man’s needs” she said. Surprisingly, Baby Kochamma accepted this explanation and the enigmatic secretly thrilling notion of Men’s needs gained implicit sanction in the house. Neither Mammachi nor Baby Kochamma saw any contradiction between Chacko’s Marxist mind and feudal libido. They only worried about the Naxalites, who had been known to force men from Good families to marry servant girls whom they had made pregnant. They did not even remotely suspect that the missile, when it was fired, the one that would annihilate the family’s good name forever, would come from a completely unexpected quarter.

Chacko said that the high incidence of insanity among Syrian Christians was the price they paid for inbreeding. Mammachi said it wasn’t.
Through the whole of her outburst, he remained restrained and strangely composed. It was a composure born of extreme provocation. It stemmed from a lucidity that lies beyond rage.

Its only now, these years later that Rahel with adult hindsight recognized the sweetness of that gesture. A grown man entertaining three raccoons, treating them like real ladies. Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction, taking care not to decimate it with adult carelessness. Or affection.
It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain. To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do.


Anonymous said...

Are you preparing some essay completion :)??

Anonymous said...

Another Anonymous crisply said what I wanted to state in a bit more elaborate way.

Anonymous said...

My favourite:
Its only now, these years later that Rahel with adult hindsight recognized the sweetness of that gesture. A grown man entertaining three raccoons, treating them like real ladies. Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction, taking care not to decimate it with adult carelessness. Or affection.
It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain. To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do.

Had to pause the reading just to contemplate on the innocence that Roy was trying to push through. Stunning.