To read Arundhati Roy's first novel, The God of Small Things, is to remind oneself how large the gods that dispense literary talent can be: Roy writes with extraordinary grace, creating a world so vivid and strangely beautiful that reading it is akin to entering a mirage. Like Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, and Chitra Divakaruni, Roy is fascinated by the collision of the ancient and modern in India -- the age-old class hatreds and bigotry that continue to thrive beneath roofs studded with satellite dishes. And like those writers, she is expert at limning the territory of cultural dislocation. Roy's achievement lies in her ability to explore this dislocation through the ebbing fortunes of one particular Indian family. The story of the privileged yet doomed Kochammas is in many ways a miniaturized tale of India itself, a country in which, as Roy states, "misfortune is always relative," a country in which personal turmoil is dwarfed by the "vast, violent, insane public turmoil of a nation."
The novel opens with the return of Rahel Kochamma to her home in the southwest Indian province of Kerala 23 years after the drowning of her eight-year-old cousin, Sophie. Rahel has returned to see her twin brother, Estha, who was abruptly sent away in the aftermath of Sophie's death; he has himself only recently returned, rendered literally silent by that long-ago trauma. The landscape Rahel walks through is fecund and dank: "Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks. Black crows gorge on bright mangoes." The riotous imagery is intentional: the monsoon air causes "locked windows to burst open," and "strange insects to appear...like ideas in the evenings." The sense of secrets about to burst, of tenuous bonds about to snap, pervades the narrative. The once-prosperous family Rahel is returning to (they used to own a thriving pickle factory) has been decimated: Rahel and Estha's mother, Ammu, is dead; their grief-stricken Marxist uncle, Chacko, a Rhodes scholar, has emigrated to Canada; Mammachi, their grandmother, is also dead. The only one that remains is their grand-aunt Baby Kochamma, whose obsessive love for gardening has been supplanted by a newfound passion for televised NBA tournaments and "Bold and the Beautiful" reruns. Seeing her seated in her turmeric-stained nightgown, swinging her puffy, tiny, manicured feet, it is hard to imagine the damage Baby wreaked on the twins so many years earlier.
It is to Roy's credit that the story that eventually surfaces of Baby's own past, including her unrequited love for a Benedictine monk, explains her actions while never excusing them. Indeed, the histories of all the members of the Kochamma clan -- unconventional, mysterious Ammu; Pappachi, the twins' grandfather, an accomplished but unacknowledged entomologist; Velutha, the gifted yet doomed untouchable -- are so fully portrayed that it is impossible to see even the most heinous among them as guilty. We see their foibles, dreams, weaknesses, and fury; we see them, in short, within the context of their own histories, and within the larger context of their position within Indian society. Wisely, Roy lets the fragments of their stories emerge gradually. Shifting back and forth through time, Roy circles the events of that summer slowly, all the while tightening the noose of her narrative. If the effect is occasionally chaotic, like the jumbled colors of a kaleidoscope before a pattern clicks into place, the complexity of Roy's mosaic redeems her.
A dazzling way with language doesn't hurt, either. In the humid atmosphere she has created, language itself seems to have twisted and exploded. Roy doesn't hesitate to make up words when ordinary ones don't suffice. Hence afternoon nightmares are called "aftermares," and fat Uncle Chacko's suit grows "less bursty" as he turns shy in front of the daughter he has not seen in several years. Odd yet compelling images abound: A house wears its steep gabled roof "pulled low over its ears, like a low hat." Bright plastic bags blow across the river bordering their home like "subtropical flying-flowers."
The God of Small Things isn't just about a summer when two children's innocence -- and a third's life -- is lost. It is about a country in which, as Roy states, "various kinds of despair compete for primacy." While exploring societal taboos and the often fatal consequences for those who disregard them, Roy, through the relationship between Estha and Rahel, also explores the limits of loyalty and the essential "Law-lessness" of love. In linking the political turmoil of India to the members of this extraordinary family, Roy has offered us a radically new history, a world so deeply imagined that it -- like the best of fictions -- reads as truth. The ability to touch and be touched, Roy knows, lies beyond legislation.
Sarah Midori Zimmerman