The Boston Phoenix
August 21 - 28, 1997

[Book Reviews]

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Love is in the details

An ornately Rushdiean tale of personal and political rebellion from one of India's new writers

by Akash Kapur

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundhati Roy. Random House, 321 pages, $23.

These are heady days for Indian writing. Every year, it seems, brings a newly acclaimed face, a new voice that would speak for a subcontinent about to celebrate its half-century of independence.

It says something, then, that the hype surrounding Arundhati Roy's debut novel, The God of Small Things, stands out even amidst the media blitz and critical acclaim now ritualistically accorded to Indian writers. Serialized in Granta, and marketed in 15 foreign countries before her launch in the United States, Roy has been widely hailed as a female Salman Rushdie.

The comparison was perhaps inevitable. It was Rushdie who opened the floodgates for Indian writing, and to this day, every Indian author labors under the looming shadow of his Booker-of-Bookers prize-winning 1981 novel Midnight's Children. In many ways, the comparison is justified, too. Roy's touches of magical realism, her fabulist exaltation of the tiniest sensual detail, her wordsmith's penchant for language games -- all place her squarely within the Rushdie tradition of what Pico Iyer has called "pinwheeling invention." Even the structure of her book, a sprawling multigenerational story that weaves together political and personal history, is distinctly Rushdiean.

The God of Small Things is set in the southwestern state of Kerala, a region long characterized by higher levels of literacy, life expectancy, and gender equality than the rest of India. These progressive indicators are in no small part the legacy of Kerala's powerful communist movement, and the bulk of Roy's novel takes place in 1969, during the communists' rise to power. In December of that year, Estha and Rahel, the twin son and daughter of a wealthy Christian family, are paid a visit by their British cousin Sophie Mol, whose estranged father (the twins' communist uncle Chacko) runs the family pickle factory in their sleepy hometown. Her arrival sets in motion the two tragedies at the heart of the novel: a young girl's drowning, and the doomed love affair between the twins' mother, Ammu, and Velutha, an untouchable who works in the pickle factory. From the opening pages, we know that the two tragedies are linked, but we don't know how. It is the unfolding of that mystery, a journey that takes us across three continents and four decades, that drives the narrative.

The journey is sometimes bumpy. Roy's prose, meticulous and ornate, is not always engaging in equal measure. Her poetic descriptions thrive on metaphor and detail: "A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man." Often, the poetry overwhelms the content, and the narrative stalls on an over-attention to minutiae. At one point, the story is put on hold for almost two pages as we wait for Roy to describe a succession of characters' visits to the bathroom.

If Midnight's Children created a wave of opportunity, then the standards it established have also proven stifling for writers struggling to find a voice. Roy's exaggeration of detail, and her elevation of form over content, are characteristic of a condition that the Indian critic Pankaj Mishra has labeled "Rushdie-itis." As Mishra points out, it is a condition that Rushdie has himself succumbed to on several occasions since the publication of his first book. The first time, the word games and messy attentiveness to detail were original. Now, 16 years later, they are in danger of becoming formulaic.

Roy may yet have something to contribute in this regard. For although she appears at times to be treading a well-worn path, there are moments when her unique voice stretches the boundaries of that tradition. Part of Roy's distinctiveness has to do with the woman's perspective she brings to her writing. Along with the now-familiar tale of class and caste rebellion, The God of Small Things is also about female rebellion: Ammu's affair with Velutha is a flagrant -- if hopeless -- violation of what Roy calls society's "Love Laws."

And in the impulse behind Ammu's rebellion lies another departure from the Rushdie tradition. Like Roy, Rushdie has always juxtaposed the personal and the political, but his novels have primarily been about the latter: the grand themes of history, tradition, and power. Roy, on the other hand, concentrates on the intimate and the concrete: a child's longing for his mother's affection, a father's anxiousness for his missing daughter, a man and a woman's desire for each other. Even Chacko's communist rhetoric is applied at home instead of in the political arena. In one scene, he refuses to scold his niece for her poor tooth-brushing habits, reminding himself that "he wasn't a Fascist."

In Roy's story, the small things are no match for the big ones. For her characters, love -- in its various guises -- is always crushed by the Love Laws. But as a storyteller, Roy is never afraid to submit to the small things. In this commitment to the personal lies the success of her novel.

Akash Kapur works at the magazine Transition.

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