Monday, August 13, 2012

The God of Small Things II

In a Book Group discussion of this novel, I bemoaned how sad it is, how hopeless, how lacking in a redemptive message.  Some argued that the reunion of the twins and even their incestuous act, symbolically at least, offered hope for healing, but I was highly skeptical.  To me the incest could just as well be one more nail in the coffin of the Ipe family demise (see previous post).  Unable to find a sign of redemption in the novel, I was tempted to view it as a kind of modern gothic, offering a grotesque view of reality.

A friend who has traveled in India more than once suggested that from an Indian world view, the novel could be deemed realistic rather than gothic.  She said the Indian world view is very fatalistic, accepting the cycle of life and death, success and failure, joy and suffering, love and hate, and of the inevitable turn of events that is beyond human control.  As the narrator repeatedly states, “things can change in a day,” regardless of one’s intentions.  Yet, the narrator also states that a day can be traced back to ancient times, far beyond the control of humans in the present day:  “…it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.”

All this begins to sound more mythological than historical.  The cycle of myth mimics the seasonal cycle, from the spring of creation and new life; through the summer of maturity, romance, and success; through the autumn of decline; to the winter of death.  In that cycle death, destruction, and apocalypse are followed by rebirth, resurrection, and renewal. From this perspective the last word of The God of Small Things –“Tomorrow”—offers a promise of redemption to follow.

However, though “Tomorrow” is the last word of the novel, it is not the last word of the chronological story.  It is uttered by Ammu and Velutha after their first night of lovemaking.  When we read that word, we have already read of the events that followed—the drowning of Sophie Mol, the false accusation of rape and kidnapping, the brutal beating of Velutha, Estha’s betrayal of his beloved friend, the beating of Ammu, the separation of the twins, the self-exile of Chacko, the death of Ammu, the closing of the pickle factory, and the deterioration of Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, not to mention the twins’ incestuous act.  In such a context “Tomorrow” sounds as much ironic and cynical as hopeful.   It takes a good deal of faith in the mythological cycle to find the redemptive message.

At the same time the final scene of the novel, the lovemaking between Ammu and Velutha, is perhaps the most beautiful in the entire narrative.  That the author chooses to end with that scene and with that word suggests, perhaps, her faith that if “things can change in a day” for ill, they can also change in a day for good.

In a sense the entire mythological cycle is covered in the novel—the young, innocent twins and their child-like perspective on the world represent the newness of creation.  The romance of Margaret and Chacko and later of Ammu and Velutha, the success of the pickle factory, even Baby’s ornamental garden represent the height of romance, maturity, and achievement.  Inevitably, however, the zenith is followed by divorce, failure, trauma, deterioration, and death.  Whether one reads the ending with mythological faith or modern despair may depend more on the reader than anything else.  The narrative seems to leave it open.

A mythic reading locates the novel outside of history, suggesting a universal human experience regardless of time and place.  Like incest, themes of twinship; kinship; coming of age; quest, trial, and ordeal; deities; the scapegoat; tragic loss, death, and destruction can be found cross-culturally in story, song, literature, and legend.

In The God of Small Things the twins themselves carry special symbolic significance.  They are fraternal, not identical, male and female, closely bonded from childhood, yet separated for most of their lives, silent and empty, the same but opposite.  They are but one example of countless dualities in the novel: small things vs. big things; Untouchables vs. Touchables;  Marxists vs. Capitalists; Christians vs. Hindus; Indians vs. Anglos; family unity vs. family discord; marriage vs. divorce; love vs. hate; loyalty vs. betrayal; parents vs. children; sisters vs. brothers; mortals vs. deities;  dreams vs. reality; good vs. evil; history vs. myth.  Like Estha and Rahel , these dualities are opposite and separate, yet closely bonded.

Big things overwhelm small things, as when history, religion, culture, and family “honor” all come crashing down on the private love affair of Ammu and Velutha.  Yet, it was that small thing, that small, private love affair between a Touchable and an Untouchable, a Christian and a Hindu, a member of the bourgeoisie and a Marxist that transgresses culture, religion, politics, and history; destroys a family, disrupts a community, brings down a factory, and leaves a wake of psychological trauma for more than one generation.  Human nature and human experience, it seems, are caught in an endless conflict between twin dualities.

As an example of how dualities pervade the narrative, consider that when Velutha is accused, pursued, beaten, and arrested, his fingernails are painted red because he had been playing with the children just before the catastrophic events unfold.  The Marxist leader and the police note this anomaly.  A minor detail, perhaps, but one more duality, that of male and female, one that links his beating with that of Ammu and his oppression with that of all women under patriarchy.  Further, the suggestion of androgyny lifts him above history and enscribes him in mythic terms.

Kinship as well as twinship is a major mythic theme of the novel, as both blood and social relations of family over generations create their own legacy, whether it take the form of blessing or curse.

The story of the twins is also a coming of age story, the transition from innocence to experience.  At an early age their childhood innocence is overshadowed by their parents’ divorce, Estha’s sexual molestation, their implication in the death of Sophie Mol, the beating and death of Velutha, Estha’s betrayal of Velutha, and their separation from each other.  The world goes from being a place of goodness and light to one of suffering, evil, and darkness.  The psychic trauma leaves one of them mute and the other, it seems, perpetually depressed.  Their reunion holds out hope for healing and recovery, but their act of incest leaves their future in doubt.  While their plight may not be universal, all of us must make the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Some of us arrive at a healthy maturity, coming to terms with the evil and suffering in the world without losing touch with goodness and joy.  Some of us, like Estha and Rahel, get stuck in pain and guilt.

Like all of us, also, each character is on a quest—for identity, power, love, honor.  Each undergoes his or her trials and ordeals but enjoys only temporary successes.  In the end there are more failed quests than heroic triumphs in this novel.  Whether Estha and Rahel will eventually recover and achieve psychic health and wholeness is left to our imaginations.

While there are references to religion in the narrative the major “deity” referred to is “the God of small things, the God of Loss.”  Here is yet another major duality, for this deification is conferred on Velutha, the Untouchable, the smallest of mortals.  As a child Velutha had artfully made tiny paper objects to entertain Ammu, holding them out to her on the flat of his hand so she could take them without touching him.  Later he becomes a “proletarian” worker in the Ipe pickle factory, and the friend and playmate of Ammu’s small twins.  Ever associated with “small things” and ultimately with utter loss.  Velutha takes on mythic stature as a scapegoat, who carries the sin and bears the punishment for the Ipe family, though they, of course, do not escape their own punishment.  As a “god” he is associated with Osiris in Egyptian, Dionysius in Greek, Quetzacoatl in Aztec, Odin in Norse, and Jesus in Christian myth.

In traditional scapegoat and “dying god” myths, however, the sacrifice serves to “save” or redeem the hero’s people, whether it be a family, community, society, or the whole human race.  And the dying god is typically resurrected to symbolize the return of life, health, goodness, and prosperity.  Velutha’s sacrifice, on the other hand, is followed by no resurrection, rather by yet more punishment and pain.  From a mythic perspective the story seems truly apocaplyptic, as far as the Ipe family is concerned.

In the Christian apocalypse the end of the world is followed by the coming of the Kingdom of God.  In the world of the novel that Kingdom would raise the Untouchable, the proletarian workers, women, children, and the world’s oppressed to their rightful places in an egalitarian global society.  The Hindu apocalypse is merely the low point of the endless mythic cycle from birth to death, and from creation to destruction.  In either case, The God of Small Things ends before the wheel of fortune begins to turn and largely relies on the faith of the reader for any hope of redemption “Tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The God of Small Things I

It has been noted frequently in this blog that there are two broad ways to read literature (and many sub-divisions of both): historical and universal.  Debates abound on their relative validity, but I prefer the both-and approach rather than the either-or dilemma.

Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel offers an excellent opportunity to compare the two ways of reading and hopefully appreciate both.

The God of Small Things can be read as a post-colonial Indian novel that reflects the blending of cultures (Indian, British, American) and religions (Hinduism, Christianity), the corruption of India’s natural environment by capitalistic ventures, the historical conflict between capitalism and Marxism as it has played out in India and the persistence of ancient Indian traditions in a global environment.

None of these “big things” (culture, history, politics, religion) come off well in the novel, which portrays a world grown putrid with exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and corruption.  Even, especially, the family unit has deteriorated into a hotbed of physical and psychological trauma.  At best the novel can be read as a protest against patriarchy, class and caste,  divisions based on skin color, family “honor,” environmental destruction, the raw exercise of power through social structures, and the corruption even of those (Marxists) who would reverse the power structures and deliver the oppressed from suffering.

Above all, it interrogates the “Love Laws” that determine “Who should be loved.   And how.   And how much.”  The novel demonstrates the destructive effects of both violating the love laws (pedophilia) and of following them (religious restrictions).  In some cases it registers a silent protest against the love laws, as when class, caste, and color forbid the relationship between Ammu and Velutha and the breaking of the taboo leads to violence, deceit, and the exploitation of children in the name of family honor.  In other cases, as when Estha is molested, the love laws are affirmed.  Adultery and divorce seem to pass unjudged. 

The most ambiguous act is the incest between Rahel and Estha, shared not out of “happiness, but hideous grief.”  Whatever aftereffects they might experience are left to our imaginations.  They are not shown to suffer from the act, nor are they shown to benefit, though one can infer they experienced some short term comfort.

Anthropologists have identified incest as an almost universal taboo, though it has been practiced historically in some cultures and has been defined differently in different cultures.  While it occurs in nature, there is evidence that more highly evolved species prefer to mate outside their biological family.

To the close-knit twins the act might feel like an entirely natural coupling (though they had been separated from an early age).  Yet, one wonders to what extent their intimacy may result in yet more guilt and trauma.  Or, perhaps it is their shared childhood guilt and trauma that lead them to turn to each other for comfort.  What is ambiguous is whether that mutual comfort is part of their healing or part of their psychic damage.

For whatever reason, incest is a recurring literary theme, often associated with the tragic fall of a family, whether it be in Greek drama (Oedipus the King), Shakespearean tragedy (Hamlet), gothic fiction (“The Fall of the House of Usher”), or the modern novel (The Sound and the Fury).  In its prime the Ipe family was highly educated, well-respected, and accomplished.  When the patriarch of the family Pappachi fails to get credit for the discovery of a new species of moth, the decline begins, as the family loses its chance for lasting fame.  Pappachi’s bitterness leads him to abuse his family.  Mammachi bears the scars of Pappahi’s beatings and their daughter Ammu enters into a bad marriage to escape the harsh family environment.  Although the family pickle factory is successful, the marriages of both Ammu and her brother Chacko fail, and their aunt, called Baby, who never marries, becomes as bitter and spiteful as Pappachi, grieving over her unrequited love for a priest.

Ammu’s affair with the Untouchable Velutha; the accidental drowning of Chacko’s daughter, Sophie Mol; Baby’s false accusation of rape and kidnapping against Velutha; Estha’s near-coerced betrayal of his beloved Velutha and the latter’s death at the hands of the police; Chacko’s beating of Ammu; the separaton of the twins; and the subsequent failure of the pickle factory leave the family in shambles.  Chacko emigrates to Canada, Ammu dies at age 32, Estha becomes mute, Rahel becomes “empty,” and Baby neglects her ornamental garden as she and Mammachi live out their days watching American television and allowing the house, as well as themselves, to deteriorate.

 In such a context, Estha and Rahel’s act of incest suggests that the family has reached its nadir and that the only hope of a new generation is utterly blighted. 

 As long as we are examining the novel from a historical perspective, we must take note of the History House.  Chacko speaks of the family history as “a long line of Anglophiles,” who have become “trapped outside their own history” by the history of colonialism.  Their true history is found in a metaphorical “History House,” from which they have become alienated. 

The young twins think Chacko is talking about the abandoned house across the river, said to have been the home of an Englishman who had “gone native,” speaking the local language and wearing Indian clothing. Explicit references to “the heart of darkness” refer to both Conrad’s novel (see blog post April, 2010) and the darkness to be found in colonialism.  Ironically, it is not only the colonized who become alienated from their own history and culture, but the colonizers as well.

And the literal History House across the river becomes the site for the secret meetings between Ammu and Velutha, the hiding place of the twins after Sophie Mol drowns, and for the brutal beating of Velutha by the local police.  “Darkness” takes on the meanings of forbidden love, secrecy, tragic loss, and savage violence.  The big things (culture, history, politics, religion, the Love Laws) and the small things of individuals, their private feelings, and their human experience all intersect in the History House, both Chacko’s metaphorical one and the twins’ literal one.  And that intersection takes place in “the heart of darkness.”

Is the Ipe family a microcosm of the Indian nation?  In its larger historical context the novel can perhaps be read as a lament for modern India, an indictment of the colonial legacy, or even as a grotesque warning about the coming global catastrophe. The prospect of globalism and a cross-cultural world community offers no solace.  It is difficult to find any promising or redemptive message unless the writing of the novel itself implies some hope that its dystopian vision might be reversed.

In the next post the case for a more optimistic conclusion will be considered in more depth, but a historical reading yields little to be hopeful about.