Magazine 2014
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
Priya Joseph  
Arundhati Roy centres, the people on the periphery of the big centres, in her novel The God of Small  
Things, published in 1997. The form as well as the content of the novel, permits the use of multiplicity  
of voices, the interspersion of Malayalam words, in order to present a possible reality. The novel and the  
clime is bathed in postcolonial ambience, immediately informed by the divisions of caste and gender in  
a condition of feigned sleep, but nevertheless virulently alive. The paper explores the postcolonial  
concerns of a society in post independent India, informed by feudal concerns older than the British rule,  
and the neocolonial bondage the country finds itself in. The subject under treatment in the novel, demands  
an original narrative and the paper explores Roy’s innovative use of the plastic craft of novel writing.  
Keywords : Multiplicity of narrative Postcolonialism  
Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and  
the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its lair. But he foolishly exposed  
himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and lo! the darkness found him out.” (1)  
A rendezvous with the heart of darkness might have been a matter of choice, in Achebe’s terms, for Mr.  
Kurtz and even ‘karisaipu’ of The God of Small Things. But for Ammu, Estha, Rahel and Velutha it was  
an imperative meeting caused purely by an accident of birth. The God of Small Things, published in  
997, qualifies eminently as postcolonial writing emerging out of a ‘Third World’ nation, at a time when  
the term ‘postcolonial’ has earned for itself a meaning limiting as well as liberating in its effects. It is  
limiting because of obvious reasons of geography and temporality and the modes of writing which run  
the risk of being pigeon holed. It is liberating, for it allowed freedoms within the ‘Third World’, of  
narrating possible stories or rather possibly real stories which ran a very real risk of being stifled within  
more powerful realities.  
Bakhtin in his essay “Epic and Novel”, says that the novel being younger than genres of literature like  
the epic and the tragedy, has no canon of its own, and “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the  
inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing.”(2) This quality of the novel  
explains the openness the genre has to different modes of narration under the umbrella term of the  
novel. The God of Small Things has traces of magical realism in the novel, an example of which could  
be wherein Sophiemol cartwheels in her coffin. A manner in which the text further extends its claim to  
resistance writing, is by being consciously not being linear in narrative. The narrative is fragmented,  
and the novel is told in many voices. The heteroglossia involved in voicing the voiceless in Estha,  
Ammu, Rahel and Velutha is achieved because the voice of the novel takes on the voice of one of the  
transgressed at a given time. The interspersion of Malayalam words through the text aids the author  
in inhabiting the chronotope of the novel with ease and engages the text into a state of intense dialogism  
with the society, the politics of the time and of later time and with the topical reader and the reader  
removed by time and geography. Roy coins words like “re-Returned” to fix an inscape, capitalises at  
random, probably to convey sarcasm or desperation or hopelessness or even an impending sense of  
doom, stretching and pulling language and its conotational and denotational values to awaken the  
reader into a new look at the familiar or the not so familiar depending on the world the reader is rooted  
in. Roy achieves what Viktor Shklovsky terms defamiliarization by forcing us to view the familiar with  
unfamiliar eyes.  
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The novel is set in the village of Aymenem, in the district of Kottayam in Kerala in India. It tells the story  
of a Syrian Christian family, or more particularly of Ammu and her “two-egg twins”(p2) Estha and  
Rahel. The novel unabashedly celebrates the ‘Other’ in Ammu, her twins and Velutha. By being  
decentred with respect to the more privileged characters in the novel, that at varying points gives the  
impression of being a romance, a whodunit, a social commentary; the novel centres these characters.  
Unlike Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Roy is strident and uncompromising in pointing out  
the culprits, the whodunits who have conspired to snuff out two lives, that of Velutha and Ammu, and  
have marked the end of Estha and Rahel’s childhood. That Roy paints the characters in colours which  
are monotoned, probably takes away from the many whorls of reality, the novel could have otherwise  
attained. The battle lines of the many battles in the novel are clearly etched out, with clear pointers to  
othering’ of characters. Chacko and Ammu, the twins and Ammu and the rest of the family, Velutha  
and the rest of the society, the proletariat and the bourgeois, the world of the 1960’s and that of 1990’s,  
are some of the dualities locked in situations which offer no sense of redemption.  
The early life of the twins is described as “ those early amorphous years when memory had only just  
begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and everything was For Ever” (3)and they were  
oblivious of the “confusion(which) lay in a deeper, more secret place”(4). The early life of the twins can  
be seen as a metaphorical description of an Edensque neo-nation on its way to discovering its place  
in the world, aspiring to be untouched by the morass of yesterday, dreaming each other’s dreams,  
living the memory of the other and born of a Bengali father and a Kerala Syrian Christian mother in  
Shillong on the road to Assam, almost born into the threshold space of a bus .  
The author creates a microcosm of the story to be told in the first chapter. In sharp cuts and fades, the  
first chapter sets the pattern for the rest of the novel, which pendulates between the 1960s and the  
990s.The drama of the novel took place during the former years and the latter period offers a vantage  
view of the events which happened and the inevitable outcome of the events. The first chapter not only  
congeals the characters and the atmosphere on to the novel,but lets the reader into all the major  
events of the story to be told. Much like the stories of the “kathakali (which) discovered long ago that  
the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets” (5), The God of Small Things, “don’t  
surprise you with the unforeseen”(6). It tells one of the story having already taken place, thus violating  
the conventional and linear mode of storytelling. The story is already known. What is demanded of the  
reader is to draw the connects in hindsight; the more expansive the vision, the larger the view. By  
opting for such a stylistic configuration, the writer in a sense both fixes and liberates the novel and the  
It is imperative that the narrative has to be fixed into a context more particular than merely Indian. It is  
framed within the societal and communal politics that informed Kerala in the 1960’s. It is sub atomically  
informed by the forces that impel the Syrian Christian community of the state. The novel is a comment  
on the society of the clime not merely influenced by the imposition of colonialism in a not long ago  
past and a newly acquired independence, but by survivals of feudal and caste laws and the essential  
inequality of opportunities for development and progress. The recognizable ‘chronotope’ of the novel,  
as Bakhtin terms it, is the societal, communal and familial make up of postcolonial Kerala in the 1960s  
and to a lesser extent of the 1990s. It is the backdrop which is convincingly entered into by the author  
that makes the story of Estha, Rahel and Ammu ring true. In Bakhtin’s words,”We cannot help but be  
strongly impressed by the representational importance of the chronotope. Time becomes, in effect  
palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh,  
causes blood to flow in their veins.”(7)  
The novel unlike a possible translation emerging out of a postcolonial nation, was not written in  
Malayalam, but in English, the language learnt as second language by the author. There is no escaping  
the mimic men and women who unashamedly parade themselves in the ‘Anglophiles’ that people the  
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novel, quite obviously the descendents of “ a class of interpreters between us(Britishers) and the  
millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in  
opinions, in morals and in intellect”.(8) Pappachi, the Imperial Entomologist , Chacko, the Rhodes  
scholar, of “Marxist mind and feudal libido”(9), who spouts literary bits in a Reading Aloud”(10) voice,  
Baby Kochamma who threatens the children with penalty for every Malayalam word uttered, Ammu  
who wants the children to follow etiquette which is Westward looking and the hoarding of quotes in the  
text from Kipling, fairy tales, flavoured with local colour spreads the “chhi chhi poach”(11) analogy  
across the text. The characters and even the ambience of the novel is stifling in being trapped in their  
own history. The concern with history, the hunt for a historiography, the loss of identity and selfhood, as  
a result of subjugations which might be of a colonial or feudal nature are explicit in the novel. ‘History’  
is treated as a fanged creature with its own set of laws, its own avenging to be done, extracting of its  
dues from the characters arrayed in the novel.  
The history house “whose doors were closed and windows open”, and the ‘kari saipu’ , extends the  
same image as Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of the domesticated foreigner who appropriated  
India as his home and used adolescents for his sexual needs. Roy claims in an interview, that “it was  
an old,abandoned crumbling house that filled my imagination”.(12) Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of  
‘karisaipu’ whose character is traced over Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, agrees with Chinua Achebe’s  
reading of Heart of Darkness as an attempt at dehumanizing humans and denying them culture and  
language and treating them as an extension of the dark and the jungle. “Heart of Darkness projects the  
image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place  
where a man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”(13)  
Roy borrows the evocative term “heart of darkness” from Conrad repeatedly, to point to the forces  
which drive human nature as being” impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly  
impersonal.”(14) The ‘African’’ can be without any loss of meaning, substituted by the Indian and the  
soul that dwells within ‘karisaipu’ and Mr. Kurtz is seen to represent similar forces. In context of the  
text, in postcolonial India, the hierarchy moulded by history comes into play and the people placed on  
the lower rungs of the ladder inevitably take the fall.  
It is the perpetuation of a similar dehumanization that takes place in post independent India. Gayatri  
Spivak talks of the subalterns who find it as difficult to find their voices as denizens of pre independence  
India. The lesser privileged of the nations state—the women, the ‘pelayans’ and ‘paravans’ who in  
spite of the nation stating as equal to the privileged castes who suffer ignominy and even untouchability  
are victims of the perpetration of the same violence, epistemological, cultural and monetary that the  
victims of not long ago perpetrate on them. In Spivak’s terms: “Within the effaced itinerary of the  
subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effected. The question is not of female  
participation in insurgency,or the ground rules of the sexual division of labour,for both of which there is  
evidence’.It is, rather, that both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency,  
the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production,  
the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in  
Fr. Mulligan, the young Irish Catholic missionary studies the Hindu scriptures to denounce them more  
intelligently. This is one of basic moves of the occidental toward creating an idea of the oriental and  
piling on the negative on to the idea, thus justifying a moral, missionary and civilising role that the  
colonial takes on himself.  
Edward Said in Orientalism writes, “Proper knowledge of the Orient proceeded from a thorough study  
of the classical texts, and only after that an application of those texts to the modern Orient. Faced with  
the obvious decrepitude and political impotence of the modern Oriental, the European Orientalist  
found it his duty to rescue some portion of a lost, past classical Oriental grandeur in order to “facilitate  
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ameliorations” in the present Orient. What the European took from the classical Oriental past was a  
vision (and thousands of facts and artefacts) which only he could employ to the best advantage; to the  
modern Oriental he gave facilitation and amelioration – and, too, the benefit of his judgment as to what  
was best for the modern Orient”(16)  
An extension of the same thought belongs to Frantz Fanon:  
..this behaviour ( of the colonizer) betrays a determination to objectify, to confine, to imprison, to  
harden. Phrases such as ‘ I know them’, ‘that’s the way they are’, show this maximum objectification  
successfully achieved…There is on the one hand a culture in which qualities of dynamism, of growth,  
of depth can be recognised. As against this(in colonial cultures) we find characteristics, curiosities,  
things, never a  
culture.” (17)  
In the vaccum accorded, is introduced Occidental religion and thought which lead to subjugations of  
many degrees at many different levels. As Homi Bhabha states in The Location of Culture, “What  
emerges between mimesis and mimicry is a writing, a mode of representation, that marginalises the  
monumentality of history, quite simply mocks its power to be a model, that power which supposedly  
makes it  
imitable.” (18)  
The dredging for history in postcolonial novels is a matter of concern in The God of Small Things too.  
The local beliefs and the little tales which intersperse with fairy tales and lines from The Tempest and  
The Great Gatsby and The Sound of Music, the leaf on Velutha’s back which makes the rains come on  
time, the black cat shaped hole in the universe and the kathakali nights the children grew up on,  
Meenachal river anthropomorphised as a woman of many moods offer an attempt at shoring up  
pieces of a culture and a past hybrid in its composition.  
The world Rahel tries to reinvent for herself thirty years later is weighed upon by not only postcolonialism  
and the remnants of feudal laws from another era, but also by the forces of neo-colonialism. Meenachal  
river with a barrage across her, and “smells of shit and pesticides bought by World Bank loans”. (19)  
The history house has transformed into a heritage hotel for tourism by “the rats racing across the  
ruined landscapes with dollar signs in their eyes”,(20) has been recognised as a lucrative industry  
where kathakali, the dance form of many masks, is performed in an encapsulated form for foreigners  
who neither know nor care. Kochuthomban the temple elephant has not yet been electrocuted at and  
the kathakali dancers, who told the “Great Stories” of the gods, seek pardon of the gods in a temple  
performance for shortselling themselves and their craft.  
The novel in consideration is non-linear in narrative and moves back and forth between the two time  
frames which the novel occupies. As Bakhtin in his essay, “ Forms of Time and Chronotope in the  
Novel” posits, “ The author-creator moves freely in his own time: he can begin his story at the end, in  
the middle, or at any moment of the events represented without violating the objective course of time  
in the event he describes. Here we get a sharp distinction between representing and represented  
The absolute past, tradition, hierarchical distance played no role in the formation of the novel as a  
genre.”(22) History is a term which the author gets back to many times over in the novel. History is  
used almost synonymous with tradition and the hierarchical positions, societally imposed. For the  
subaltern to speak he/she needs to violate hierarchy. It is interesting to note that Bakhtin’s take on the  
novel as a genre, which has been hierarchically on a lower scale at least in the earlier years of its  
existence and the reality explored in The God of Small Things is that not of the Subject but of the Other.  
The plasticity of the novel lends itself aptly to tell the reality of Ammu and the twins. However it is wise  
to bear in mind Bhaktin’s aphorism, “Reality as we have it in the novel is only one of the many possible  
realities; it is not inevitable, it is not arbitrary, it bears within itself other possibilities.”(23)  
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Achebe,Chinua. “An Image of Africa”. The Massachusetts Review, vol. 18, no. 4 (Winter 1977). Web.  
N.p. 27 Oct 2012.<>.  
Bakhhtin, Mikhail. “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination.Trans.Caryl Emerson and Michael  
Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Texas : University of Texas Press,2011. Print. p.27.  
Bakhhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination.  
Trans.Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Texas : University of Texas  
Press,2011. Print. p.250.  
Fanon, Frantz. “Racism and Culture” in his Toward The African Revolution. Trans. H.Chevalier.  
London:Pelican,1970. Print. p.44  
Macaulay, “Minute on Education”. Sources of Indian Tradition,vol.II. Ed. W. Theodore de Bary.  
New York: Columbia University Press,1958. Print. p.49.  
Said,Edward. Orientalism. New Delhi: Penguin India,2001. Print.p.79.  
Spivak, Gayatri. “ Can the Subaltern Speak?”.Web. 27 Oct 2012.  
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.p.125.  
Bakhhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination.  
Trans.Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Texas : University of Texas  
Press,2011. Print. p.255.  
Ms. Priya Joseph : Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Mithibai College, Mumbai