God of Small Things

Believe Care Invest: Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”

  • The Indian Province of Kerala in 1992: 29 year old Rahel returns after many years away to help her troubled twin brother Estha. She quickly becomes overwhelmed with memories of different times, including the death of a girl named Sophie Mol when Rahel and Estha were 7.
Though this novel is also assigned in high schools, it requires the most out of its readers of any of those we’re looking at. Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground ripped out from under their feet, leaving them unmoored in time and space, and modern literary masters like Roy attempt to capture that condition in prose.  Complex literary fiction challenges the reader, but in a book such as this one, those readers that rise to the challenge are richly rewarded.

Believe: It’s easy to believe in the reality of this world because every line of the book explodes with vivid, unique imagery that literally brings this world to life: The first line is, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” then we hear that “the countryside turns an immodest green.” Months brood, colors have feelings—everything is alive in this world.

But what really makes the novel seem so utterly real us is the way it intimately captures the crazy logic of childhood. Our own childhoods may not have been as traumatic as Rahel’s, but Roy captures with startling intimacy the way a 7 year-old thinks. To read the book to is to feel like a child again, not in an aw-shucks kind of way, but in an “Oh, right, childhood was weird” kind of way. Rahel is convinced that she would have gotten free bus rides for life if she had been born on a bus, and she’s convinced that the government pays for your funeral if you die in a zebra crossing. That’s harmless enough …but she’s also convinced that Sophie is still alive in her coffin, which is less so.

Care: It will take us a while to understand every trauma that happened in those terrible two weeks in 1969, but we do get just a sense in these first ten pages of each of the various traumas that still have both Rahel and Estha in their grip:
  1. The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did something to Estha (which we can already correctly guess to be molestation)
  2. Their cousin Sophie Mol drowned, and perhaps they’re to blame
  3. A man named Velutha seems to have been killed by the police because of Sophie’s death, and perhaps the kids are to blame for that as well due to some further sin of theirs.
  4. As a result of all of the above, the closer-than-close twins were sent to live in different cities until now.
  5. Estha stopped speaking not long thereafter and has never spoken since.
These traumas have fractured Rahel’s sense of self, and they’ve also fractured her perception (and therefore our perception) of these events, so we get sections like this:
  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
  • And these are only the small things.
From such tangles of memory we have to pick out the salient details and arrange them into a timeline, and we are increasing horrified as it all falls into place.  What is pervasive right away is the feeling of loss and trauma, and that makes us care deeply.

Invest: Like any good hero, Rahel shows up on page one on a heroic mission.  Her brother has finally come home, there’s something wrong with him, and she must come home as well to try and fix him. Most of the pages will be devoted to her fractured memories of what happened to them in those two weeks in 1969, but we will regularly check in on her modern day attempts to get through to Estha, which she will do …in a fashion.  It is only because we are invested in this modern-day mission that we are willing to do the hard work of piecing together their past.

But of course, as with most literary fiction, we are really rooting for Rahel to deal with her own pain. As she and we sort through the shattered pieces of her traumatized psyche, we feel a shared sense of accomplishment. We have to struggle to piece together a coherent story, which can make for a frustrating reading experience, but ultimately, those who do the work the novel requires will feel all the more bonded to the heroine, because she is undergoing the same struggle. She and we are working together to make sense of her life, and we feel a shared sense of accomplishment as the jigsaw pieces slowly click together. Of course, as with any old jigsaw puzzle, we’ll never find all the pieces, but we’ll have enough in the end to get a sense of the total picture.
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The God of Small Things: The Archive

Okay, just got done with an epic Thanksgiving week and need some time to decompress. In the meantime, here’s an archive of our ninth book. We’re starting to have a meaningful data set!

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Rulebook Casefile: The Power and Peril of the “Put a Pin in It” Scene

As I said before, Arundhati Roy begins “The God of Small Things” by jumping all around, not landing at the book’s real 1969 timeline for 40 pages or so. As we jump around, the first scene with dialogue we get is Sophie’s funeral, which comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning. After the funeral we see Ammu take her twins to the police station to half-heatedly try to save Velutha, but we have no idea what’s going on, and Roy doesn’t tell us (Partially because Rahel, our POV character, doesn’t understand, or wants to pretend that she doesn’t understand). The police send Ammu away, and she gets on a bus where she mysteriously says to her kids, “He’s dead, I’ve killed him.” Then we move forward again two weeks to when Estha is sent away, then we move ahead to adult-Rahel’s return, then back to Estha’s earlier adult life, etc.

The brief police station is a “put a pin in it” scene. “Remember this for later, reader, because it will finally make sense to you 300 pages from now.”

This scene could make us say “Ooh, what’s going on here with the police? Who did Ammu kill? I can’t wait to read the book and find out!” but it doesn’t really have that effect. If we had immediately jumped from Ammu saying “I’ve killed him” back to a week before, then we’d have the sense of “Good, now we’ll find out what she meant!”, but since we keep jumping forward, and then jumping around in the adult timeline for a while, we strain to keep our finger on that pin, occasionally asking ourselves, “Wait, what was going on at that police station? Will any of these events we’re seeing now make that clear?”

The trick with such scenes is to keep the reader from wondering, “Wait, was I supposed to understand that?” That’s always my problem with such scenes. Instead of thinking, “Ooh, I can’t wait to find out what was happening there!”, I always find myself thinking, “I’m so dumb for not understanding that scene. It should have been obvious to me how Ammu was killing a man in that last scene.”

How do you write such scenes so they’re clearly unclear? So that the reader will say, “Obviously I wasn’t supposed to understand that yet, and now I’m excited to later find out what was going on,” rather than “I think I was supposed to understand that, but I didn’t.” I would have appreciated a little more hand-holding. Roy could have said something like, “Rahel didn’t know what she meant, and it was only many years later she would put the events together and figure it out.” That would let us know that it wasn’t clear yet but it would be clear later.

Ultimately, Roy doesn’t seem particularly concerned with this question. This is literary fiction, and the reader is supposed to bring some hustle to the game. This is a wildly successful novel, by any measure, but nevertheless, if I’d been giving her notes, I would have begged for just a tiny bit more help, making it clear that it was unclear.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Capture the Logic of Childhood

The major question that hangs over “The God of Small Things”, the question that adult-Rahel seems to be trying to answer for herself, is why Sophie Mol and Velutha had to die, all those years earlier. One of the reasons is that seven year olds don’t make good decisions. The twins’ bad decisions contribute to Sophie’s accidental drowning, and then they are forced to accuse Velutha, who is beaten to death by the police. Now two people are dead, but the twins never really recover either, at least not by age 31.

In order to tell this story, Roy must intimately capture the faulty logic of seven year olds, and I can say, as the father of a seven year old daughter, and a former seven year old myself, that she does a great job.

We jump around a lot at first, but the first real scene we get is Sophie’s funeral (while Velutha is dying in police custody, but we don’t know that, and young Rahel only kind of knows it). Inside Rahel’s head, Roy captures her thoughts and musings:

  • She noticed that Sophie Mol was awake for her funeral. She showed Rahel Two Things.
  • Thing One was the newly painted high dome of the yellow church that Rahel hadn’t ever looked at from the inside. It was painted blue like the sky, with drifting clouds and tiny whizzing jet planes with white trails that crisscrossed in the clouds. It’s true (and must be said) that it would have been easier to notice these things lying in a coffin looking up than standing in the pews, hemmed in by sad hips and hymnbooks.
  • Rahel thought of the someone who had taken the trouble to go up there with cans of paint, white for the clouds, blue for the sky, silver for the jets, and brushes, and thinner. She imagined him up there, someone like Velutha, barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky.
  • She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret
  • [later:]
  • When they lowered Sophie Mol’s coffin into the ground in the little cemetery behind the church, Rahel knew that she still wasn’t dead.
  • [later:]
  • Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can’t hear screams through earth and stone.
  • Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe.
  • Her funeral killed her.

Young Rahel imagines that someone like Velutha might have painting the ceiling, and then imagines him falling to his death, which shows her subconscious struggling with her vague realization of Velutha’s actual mortal peril. We see her convince herself that Sophie is killed by the funeral, not the drowning, which absolves Rahel of her guilt.

But here’s the great thing about this passage: It’s almost funny. The situation could not be more serious, but Roy’s voice (which is only slightly removed from Rahel’s voice, see below*) is so true-to-life that we can’t help but smile. Morbid seven year olds are amusing, in a Wednesday Addams sort of way.

We nervously laugh at this because it’s uncomfortably intimate. We remember what it was like to look at the world through young eyes, to let our imaginations run away with us, not in a “Reading Rainbow” sort of way, but in strange, dark ways. We never thought a book would remind us of those forgotten thoughts, retrace the path of that twisted logic. People cite this as their favorite book not because they love its dark subject matter, but because they feel Roy has been in their heads, and they find that strange intimacy intoxicating.

As with our last book, it’s great to give your hero unique eyes. They should look at the world and see things only they would see. From the first page, even as an adult, Rahel has oddly overimaginative eyes. She looks at nature and sees human emotions where none exist. Nature’s clashes become petulant human squabbles. We then go back to when she was a kid and she cannot look at a corpse without bringing it to life: Sophie’s still alive, so that means she’s looking up at the ceiling, I wonder what she sees… Oh, she sees the newly painted ceiling… I wonder who painted it? Probably someone like Velutha? What if he fell? She can’t deal with the body in the coffin, but she’s happy to create one on the ground. And of course, one corpse will lead to the other in real life, but neither she nor we understand that at this point. This book rewards rereading!

* As I say above, this is all a great example of subjective 3rd person narration, which is one of the hardest ways to write. In the above paragraphs, despite the 3rd-person pronouns, we’re obviously entirely inside Rahel’s head, seeing only what she’s seeing, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling. Roy will later take advantage of being in 3rd to show us scenes that Rahel doesn’t see …but crucially, they’re all scenes (like Estha’s molestation) that Rahel hears about or intuits later. They still fit under the umbrella of things grown-up-Rahel might put together to try to make sense of in modern day.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Help Us Get Our Feet on the Ground (Or Don’t, If That’s What You’d Prefer)

Last time we looked at the way Arundhati Roy accumulates reality from small, odd, vivid details, but once we piece it together “The God of Small Things” is actually a fairly plot-packed story: We get a riot, a molestation, an accidental drowning, and a police murder all happening in a weeklong-period.

So let’s talk about how authors get us to commit to a book in the first chapter, especially one where the narrator (1st or 3rd person) has some perspective on events. The traditional way to is to promise that a lot of juicy stuff is going to happen later on if you keep reading. And indeed, this book is well set-up to do that. We begin with an adult Rahel coming back to town in modern-day to reunite with her long-lost brother and deal with how the event that separated them and traumatized their lives. We will then spend most of the book reliving that eventful week.

I know how I would have written that first chapter: We meet our mysterious heroine as she gets off the train, we find out just a little bit about her, we see that she’s on a mission. She meets with someone from her past while looking for her silent brother, and obliquely references the riot, the molestation, the drowning, and the murder (Now our appetite is whetted for the shocking events to come). Then she finds her brother and tries to speak but the memories flood over her. Then we cut back to the day of the riot and we quickly get dialogue of 7-year-old Rahel in that time period. Now our two heroines (adult Rahel in 1993 and young Rahel in 1969) are established. From that point, Roy would be free to jump around to other points in time, such as the birth of the twins, the mother’s later death, Rahel’s own failed marriage, etc.

But Roy doesn’t do that. She’s all over the place and it’s hard to put your feet down anywhere for the first thirty pages or so. When I read the book, I read those thirty pages, realized I was totally lost, and decided I’d better go back and read them over again if I was going to continue. I did so, was glad I did, and then kept going until I was able to put my feet down around page 40 or so.  While this whole process was going on, I was loving the book, because of the sentences, but I was struggling with committing to the plot.

Roy does foreshadow the book’s momentous events in these opening chapters, but because I didn’t have a sense of whether they were going to happen in a timeline I was going to stick to, they didn’t whet my appetite very much. What I really wanted was dialogue. Dialogue tells me to put my feet down, but the first dialogue we get is at Sophie’s funeral, which actually comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning, so that just discombobulated me further.

Here are four consecutive paragraphs that show how Roy is jumping around

  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.

Now, obviously, this book was a huge award-winner and best seller, and Roy knows exactly what she’s doing.  She isn’t trying to do what I want her to do and failing, she’s doing what she intends to do and succeeding. To a certain degree, her style is emblematic of what is referred to (somewhat problematically) as post-colonial literature (Roy would probably dispute the “post” part). One of the most famous first sentences in literature is from what is perhaps the ultimate post-colonial book, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

  • Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Right there in the opening sentence, we have three time periods mixed up, and the reader will have a hard time getting his or her feet on the ground after that …and yet it’s very easy to fall in love with the book.

Such writing has its pleasures. Readers do enjoy being challenged. We can admire how such writing captures the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed by the modern world, and, as we make sense of it, we can gain tools to sift through and make sense of our own jumbled lives.

Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground yanked out from underneath their feet by invaders, and now that they have reclaimed their countries, they’re trying to find their footing again. But the ground isn’t letting them. It keeps shifting. When they describe their work in interviews, many of them say that their sense of identity, both personal and national, remains fractured. The style of post-colonial literature captures and grapples with that problem.

So the question is, should non-post-colonial writers emulate this style? These are, after all, best-selling and beloved books. But it’s a lot to ask of your reader, especially if it’s not a style that you are personally deeply committed to. Unless you feel that such a style is an essential expression of your theme, you might want to put the reader’s feet on the ground a little more firmly than Roy does, just with a few uses of grounding dialogue.
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Straying from the Party Line: The Abundance of Adjectives and Adverbs in “The God of Small Things”

You may have noticed that in each of my annotations I’ve praised opening sentences for having no adjectives or adverbs, and in our last post I was especially critical of two adjectives together that require a comma. Well let’s look at the opening sentence of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”:

  • May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month

The dreaded stumbling-block comma! Indeed this first chapter is an avalanche of adjectives, with sentences like this one to be found later:

  • She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish.

Five adjectives in one sentence! But let’s go back and look at the rest of that opening paragraphs to figure out how Roy gets away with using so many adjectives without trying the reader’s patience:

  • The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Ten more adjectives and, what’s worse, two adverbs! Yet it’s a glorious opening paragraph, is it not? So what is she doing?

  • First of all, it’s intriguingly odd how she imputes human emotions to nature: “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously.” She’s not really describing what we would see, she’s generating a strange world we would never see if we didn’t see it through her eyes. Simply saying “bluebottles hum” wouldn’t do that job.
  • She’s using fresh adjectives of her own invention: We get the first of many portmanteaus with “dustgreen”. Later we’ll get “wetgreen” and “thunderdarkness”. When the mom passes away, Roy will point out that 31 is “a viable die-able age” (Roy knows she’s got a great, pithy phrase there, and so she reuses it four times in the book!)
  • Her adjectives create conflict: Black crows (death) gorge (a violent verb) on bright mangos (life).  “Dustgreen” is death and life in one word.  She’s not just painting a pretty tableau, she’s imbuing nature with life so that it can fight itself. Her adjectives clash.  

Ultimately, she will justify her non-leanness, her abundance of detail, with the book’s title. Who is the God of Small Things? It’s Roy herself. The whole idea is that tragedies can only be remembered as, and are perhaps best understood as, an accumulation of small things. Why does Sophie (and the book’s actual victim of injustice, Velutha) die? What is the one cause? There isn’t one, because there are hundreds of small things that added up to it.

This is a memory book (though the book is third-person and not entirely limited to Rahel’s firsthand memories). Rahel is trying to piece it all back together and sifting through portentous images and impressions that she accumulated that week, which she and Roy are now re-examining in great detail. Fine-grained descriptions are the whole point. Somewhere in these small things, there is a god who will tell us why these people had to die.
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