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.”