By Sneha Roychoudhury
Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
BASED ON THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS BY ARUNDHATI ROY
“There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it.
History in live performance.
If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature–had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him. Unlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot, that morning in the Heart of Darkness the posse of Touchable Policemen acted with economy, not frenzy. Efficiency, not anarchy. Responsibility, not hysteria. They didn’t tear out his hair or burn him alive. They didn’t hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth. They didn’t rape him. Or behead him.”
With words wrapped in harsh violence, author Arundhati Roy seems to address an issue. An issue passed down as a legacy and carefully handed from one generation to the next. With pride. Through Roy’s narrative runs a riveting, soul-capturing depiction, consuming the bridges between social divides and thriving on death and war. Built into the fabric of orthodox practices and beliefs of the Syrian Christian community of communist Kerala, ‘The God of Small Things’ is an account of truth, betrayal, love and the small things that truly change life through the eyes of the two twins whose lives and minds are impacted most by the events that ensue in the book.
Working with various themes, the interplay of a number of socio-political circumstances and the issue of caste-based violence, Roy’s book seeks to venture beyond the mere plot- it explores and questions, and does all of it with the innocence of her seven year old protagonists- the dizygotic twins Rahel and Estha. She weaves into her story the factors that are party to the brutal slaughter of the dark-skinned “Paravan” (one of the lower caste, an Untouchable), her characters being faces to the victims and oppressors that function in the caste-ridden, hierarchical atmosphere of Kerala. At this point, a historical background of the caste dynamics of this region and the inclusion of various religious communities in this machine of malice must be mentioned. “Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians.” While untouchability prevailed in most parts of the State, it becomes important to address the inclusion of the Syrian Christians in the rigidity of conforming to upper-class identities and hence reinforcing the suppression with greater ferocity and fervour. The community of Syrian Christians considers itself to have descended from the Brahmins that had been converted by St. Thomas, when he was a missionary in India, and hence as “pure” and “pious” in its lineage as the upper caste “Touchables” themselves. This inheritance they manifested in all their contempt for the lower castes, in fiercely preventing fluid exchanges between the two castes (lest there be pollution) and fighting down even the slightest prospect of miscegenation (for who could meddle with the fanatic need to protect the purity of blood?).
The stark accuracy in Roy’s text lies in the realisation that there is certainly no escape. There is no breaking away from the fetters of convention, chained to clinically executed discrimination. The story of Ammu and Velutha bases itself on this reality. The death of Velutha and the transition of Ammu from the upper-caste divorcee to a social leper and a prostitute seem to be the natural consequences of this unnatural world. The love between two castes, and the union of the two is met with nothing less than annihilation- a treatment deemed fit for those who dare to spread wings, a message sent out and one received with approving nods by those who uphold the ill-begotten institutions of hatred and separation.
The use of opportunism in the garb of communism is a tact Roy seems to have mastered. Silhouetted, as her story is, against the rising surge of the communist movement in Kerala (one of the two states of India that it was a success in, as Roy admits) the book portrays the paradox of the party ideology and the reason for its rise in the feudal-based economy of Kerala before this movement. A similar question seems to be touched upon, time and again, by historian Dilip Menon, who talks of the relation of caste and communism in some noteworthy detail. Both writers seem to agree that this widely practiced and enforced system of caste, and the violence perpetuated in its name, is a moving reason for the rise of communist ideas in this region. Roy, in her commentary, does go on to investigate the question further, sketching the political reality of the land and the betrayal meted out to the lower castes by the likes of K.N. M. Pillai. Pillai represents the class of ticket holding opportunists who stand back and watch their men de just to use their deaths for leverage. Cunning and despicable, they fill dull eyes with promise and ambition, leading the deprived by the hand to the altar of sacrifice in the name of self interest packed in “party policy”. They remain unblemished, free of guilt and of the true opinion that collateral damage is the answer to greater glory. This, unfortunately, remained the description of this entire movement in way too many narratives.
In the sway of a back-and-forth relation of the events, the book captures a certain pathos- death looming ominously through the story, gripping the reader’s soul right from the beginning. Refusing to budge. Determined not to let go. Fact mixed with fiction, the book makes for an informative read for the message it drives home. Heartbroken, though as it leaves one, it helps the reader to realise that sometimes the walls a man builds is used to crack a head against it and the lines he draws are used to strangle the innocent. Hate crimes, committed by those that protect the law, are rather difficult to break away from. For that is when hatred comes to become an institution, and the crime the mere means to protect that institution. Humiliation, ‘other-ing’ and segregation then become the established rule of the land.
The strong protection of this hierarchy is also noticed in the servility and the inert tendency to accept oppression by the oppressed themselves. This is the story of Velutha’s toddy-tapper father, Vellaya Papen- blinded by the burden of the kindness shown unto him by his benefactor, this is a man that gives his son away and stands in the way of his life, his hopes, his dreams and ambitions. Through this a door opens to the world that lies under the blanket of torture- the souls conditioned to a fate worse than servitude, and one that believes in the shame bestowed upon them by virtue of birth.
This was meant to be a discussion on this soul-piercing story of loss, and the defeat of compassion and passion to the engulfing jaws of loathing and revulsion. It also hoped to address the socio-political background of the story and the hypocrisy, deeply set, surviving the test of time and standing tall against the wave of change. Caste-based violence, prejudice and discrimination are all writings painted on the wall for us. Picking Kerala only emphasises this concern. We are the Baby Kochamas and the Pillais of our time. All letting human cruelty breed and fester, growing strong and breathing death into the soul of our land.
Sneha Roychoudhury is a student of History with a passion for words and can be best described by the collection of books stacked on her shelves and the little doodles made on tattered ends of these volumes. She dreams, and she protects them in a lexical fortress- some of it built and quite some imagined. Music renders her free and literature entwines her being- each mending the chipped pieces of her imperfect soul. Travel and the written word are her soul mates, the world a box of woes and wonder and the untold stories of the nameless millions her singular passion.