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
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
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
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.