A World of The God of Small Things
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
The best kind of books leave you breathless. They throw you in the deep end of a wide ocean, and somehow also push you under the water, every time you attempt to fumble through to the surface. What choice do we have, but to allow ourselves to be submerged? To fall into the uncertain, unfamiliar liquidity, and let it seep into ourselves, filling our lungs rapidly. Perhaps we may expect to grow gills along the way. And the best kind of books offer that miracle too.
Now everything we have said about the best kind of books can also be said about love. Maybe you should read the first paragraph again.
It's impossible to say anything original about love, but in the immortal words of the Hot Priest from Fleabag:
“I was taught if we’re born with love then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot, feeling right, when it feels right it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope.”
After postponing it for 8 years, I finally read Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. (Side note: Nothing helps you to tackle an endless TBR better than a recommendation from a crush.) Honestly, I don't know how to write anything about this book, because to write anything about it, is to essentially reduce its endless layers of images to a bleak, incomplete interpretation. I am wary of that. I love visual writing: words that really create images and paint vivid scenes, rather than mere sentences. Sentences, we can all write, but there’s something about tapping into the deep inherent carousel of images we have in our minds and to be able to translate that loud pallette into calm words. Most charming!
Of course nobody is unfamiliar with Roy's gifted quality of prose – she qualifies as one of the best writers of our times, undoubtedly. Through all her words is a resonant melody that is endemic to her. I also love poetry, but poetic prose is my MOST favourite thing – somehow because there's a paradoxical pedantry in this kind of writing. It's kind of annoying at times, but a good writer knows how to bridge the gaps and frustrations. Roy, by that measure, is a champion of connecting images across time and space. TGoST in its strongest moments is a terribly enchanting painting, coloured with strong poetry. By now you can tell that I loved the book. And I think I read it at the right moment in my own personal time too. Great books also find us at the right junctures in our lives.
The novel, among other things, is about death. (This is a blunt reduction of its themes, of course.) But there is something more final and complex than death, that shrouds the book in a heartbreakingly dense suffusion (I love this word, suffusion): love. At some point in our lives, all of us recognize that all that matters is love. It's not necessarily a sudden realization too, but time plays its part. Roy's novel, insofar as it is categorically Domestic Fiction, begins with exploring this tedious realization at Home. The opening sections of the novel reminded me of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh – another brilliant novel I read this year. The thing is, we learn almost all of our lessons about things that matter – like love – at Home. Ayemenem House in the novel ages through the narrative (another parallel with Rushdie's novel) and while most of the substantial action that drives the narrative forward happens outside the house, the house itself becomes a repository of traumas. Home is, perhaps, more than just a place where we feel at peace or comfortable. It is alive with our memories – good and bad, forgettable and imprinted. When we return to our homes at the end of the day, perhaps its where we deposit all our defeated sorrows. As well as (mild) joys. Roy's narrative is melancholic and her writing is, appropriately, smeared with a tangible sense of loss. But somehow, despair is not the anticipated reaction (it is possible that I read the novel incorrectly).
There are moments that are difficult to read: from sexual harrasment to caste violence, there is a lot happening in the novel. And there is hardly ever a mention of happiness, as far as my memory serves. Each character is composed in and by their tender, urgent losses – which somehow gives a very caustic, real, brutal depth to the plot. But you’ll discover that when you read the book (you have to). And I have to talk about the final chapter of the novel.
Titled 'The Cost of Living', the last chapter is perhaps the most memorable bit of the novel. The tragic actions have all been mapped out and closed, and somehow Roy chooses to travel back in the narrative to a lost time of love, and write something so powerful and tender and heartbreaking, that whatever little annoyance I had with the prose otherwise (it can get a bit too free-indirect-discourse-y at times), was put to a safe and timely rest – and then buried deep in a nameless sea. Please, please read the book for this chapter alone. Of course I can enlist at least 78 other reasons, but nobody's here for that.
It is so easy to get 'love' wrong, because we often say that it's easy to get it right when it feels right (thank you, Hot Priest). We are always being told whom to love and when and how, but the thing is, we love whom we want to love. Great books like The God of Small Things (re)affirm this mad frenzy and agency of love. That despite all odds, and violences of definition, there are things still that are untouched by the cruelty of the world we love and live in. That love between two people is still the ruling force of all things – it's redeeming to believe in that power, even if it is just literary. Roy seems to suggest that there is perhaps a god of these small things too. Something that we should never forget.
I leave you with this incredible passage from The Atlantic's review of Roy's 2017 novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which captures everything I have failed to say above:
From the fine-grained affection that stirs her imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.
Until next time.
By Kartik Chauhan (Columnist)
Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. He finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary.
For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques.