I don’t know about you, but when I think of books written by Indian authors, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is always the first that comes to mind. After years of putting it off, I finally delved into its world recently.
Published in 1997, it is a contemporary novel that is highly regarded by both, readers and critics alike. Set in the little town of Ayemenem in Kerala in 1969, it revolves around the lives of Ammu, her fraternal twins Rahel and Estha, and the rest of their family. The plot dances gracefully around one specific event in their lives that changes their world forever.
The first thing you notice about the book is its writing. Roy is an impeccable writer and it shows in every single line. She works her magic so you can visualize every little detail of the surrounding she is describing. Certain phrases are repeated throughout the book and the result is haunting. In one chapter, she describes, over the course of multiple pages, a Kathakali routine performed by two dancers in a temple courtyard. The description is so startlingly vivid that when it ended, I felt as though I had just witnessed the first Kathakali performance of my life. In another scene, she narrates in detail a horrifying incident of police brutality that sent chills down my spine.
The book is not just an ordinary story, but an eye-opener about the severity of the caste system that exists in India. Throughout the book, Roy weaves a strong political commentary into the writing, giving insight into the advent and rise of communism in Kerala. If you venture into this novel thinking it will be a pleasant, comfortable read, you will soon realize that you are highly mistaken. The author does not sugarcoat things. She serves society in its raw form on the platter and yanks away the reader’s rose-tinted glasses. She does not shy away from exploring topics that are considered taboo even today, and the various court cases filed against her for it serve as plenty of proof. To witness a story so honest to itself and its world is quite refreshing, in the same way, that dipping your toes into an icy lake in the middle of the night is.
Arundhati Roy does not create any one-dimensional story or character. She gives almost never-ending depth to every element of the story, which is commendable, considering that this is her debut novel. The minor characters are in no way just props used to further the main storyline (something which many authors and scriptwriters of today could make note of). Even the local temple elephant, Kochu Thumban has his contribution to the way the lives of the protagonists are shaped, just like every minor element in our real-life surroundings affects our growth as human beings. The butterfly effect is something that comes into focus here. However, one (and probably the only) drawback of this book is that there are maybe one too many characters mentioned. Up until the first quarter of the book, this creates some amount of confusion because one tends to misplace their names and identities.
That being said, Roy presents her characters as they are, with all their uneven edges and rough textures. Everyone is reduced to their crude humanity, stripped down to their naked, imperfect morality. She makes the reader jump from hate to love to sympathy, all in the span of a single page. The reader’s heart is almost a puppet in her skilled hands and she masterfully tugs the right strings every single time. She evokes every emotion in the spectrum and in the end, you’re left with a flood of empathy. You’re not going to find any black and white characters on these pages.
The highlight of the book, however, is the sequence and pacing of the narration. The book starts at the end of the story and finishes in the middle. Roy delves not just into the events of a single night, but everything in the past that led up to the present, and the aftermath of the tragedy, over a decade later. Sometimes she describes only a couple of nights over the course of a chapter, whereas in other places, she covers years of the characters’ lives in the span of two pages. Throughout this narration, the reader is never in confusion, all thanks to the brilliance of her craft. She works the reins of storytelling flawlessly and (almost effortlessly) ensures that every change of pace and every switch in the timeline hits exactly as she intends it to.
The God of Small Things is a beautifully complex book, a mirror held to society and humanity. Arundhati Roy ambitiously takes on a lot of elements and gets most of them right. It’s a must-read, both for fans of artful storytelling and for those who look for books with a cause. A sure contemporary classic in the years to come, it completely deserves that spot in every reader’s bookshelf and heart.