Great Indian Novels #5: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Many people describe Arundhati Roy as a literary enigma, an Indian version of Harper Lee. After winning the Booker Prize with her debut novel The God of Small Things back in 1997, she did not publish another book for twenty years until 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I prefer to think of her as a supremely gifted writer who crafted one of the finest works set in south India that I have had the pleasure of reading.

The God of Small Things is set in a lushly-described Kerala, the verdant state in southern India famous for its backwaters. The narrative flips between 1969 when key protagonists and fraternal twins Rahel (female) and Estappen (male) are seven years old, and 1993 when they are reunited after years apart. The story is difficult to describe because it has so many moving parts, centred around a large household. Rahel and Estappen (Estha) are the children of Ammu Ipe, a woman who marries an abusive alcoholic to escape her overbearing parents. Regretting her decision, she eventually returns to her parental home where we discover Chacko, her brother, returned from England after a divorce from an Englishwoman, and her conniving aunt, known as Baby Kochamma. Tragic events lie at the heart of the book, in part following on from the molestation of Estha in a theatre, and various love affairs both requited and unrequited. 

The book touches on multiple issues affecting Indian society, both in the immediate aftermath of the colonial era, and in more modern times: caste prejudice, religious strife, the dowry system, misogyny, and the workings of the class divide. The book also examines political realities such as the growth of Communism in India, particularly associated with the southern states, but which, in recent times, has become synonymous with a rebel Naxalite movement that the Indian government has classified as terrorism.   

Roy’s themes are many, but at their core lies one central idea: the notion of forbidden love, leading some to interpret the novel as a meditation on the idea that love is an “uncontrollable force”, and that it cannot be bound by social conventions. For instance, Ammu undertakes a love affair with a man from a lower social caste leading to tragic consequences. Another affair touches on incest. In India, particularly the India of 1969, these are taboo topics. Nevertheless, Roy is fearless in dragging matters into the light and this is one of the great strengths of this book. 

My own experience of reading this novel was the feeling of being submerged in a world recreated with a joyful attention to detail. It took Roy four years to write this novel, carefully tooling each sentence. There are multiple narratives, perspectives, and the time shift adds an additional layer of complexity. This is high quality literary prose and Roy displays a strong mastery of technique. 

The book, like all classics, has its critics. Not everyone was convinced that it deserved the Booker Prize. One judge (from the previous Booker year) called it ‘execrable’. Another critic hated the long brooding descriptions stating: “passages pile up in a car-crash of a creative writing tutorial”. In her home state of Kerala, Roy was forced to answer to charges of obscenity. 

For me the novel continues to shine as a genuinely elegiac work, resplendent with beautiful imagery and gorgeous prose. 

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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