It was no surprise that all had read this novel when it came out first. With great keenness we came together to experience the thrill again and share our appreciation. We kept in mind what Arundhati Roy said of the novel: “It is easy to forget it is a political novel. It is about caste, about violence, about contemporary things. … The most ugly thing about our country, and our culture, is caste. It is there in the book. And please don't forget that.”
Bobby (away facing), Kavita, KumKum, Priya, Thommo, Mathew, Sunil
The most arresting feature of Arundhati Roy's style is the wealth of similes and metaphors, at times overwhelming the reader like a pelting of hail. Somewhere she remarks that the structure of the novel was the most difficult part of the writing, but she lost the painstakingly-made architectural plan of the book in the mêlée at her place soon after the book was published.
Bobby, Kavita, KumKum, and Priya
When the eloquent homilies of her political books on power and powerlessness are forgotten, this novel will remain, and be read and studied. So why can she not oblige with a second novel, she who said in her famous Come September speech: “For reasons that I don't fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.” See
Priya & KumKum exchanging life force à la Michelangelo
Come dance, Ms Roy, or we'll arrive like midwives to wrench that novel already germinating within you, waiting to be born ...
Here are the readers pictured after the session:
Kavita, Priya, Thommo, Bobby (hidden), KumKum Mathew, Sunil, Joe
To read the full record of the session, click below
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy —
Reading on Apr 12, 2013
Present: Priya, KumKum, Joe, Mathew, Sunil, Kavita, Bobby, Thommo
Absent: Talitha (at YWCA to sing), Sivaram (no reason offered), Gopa (away to London), Zakia (called away by family)
The next session is Poetry, on May 10, 2013. The next novel for reading is Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis on Jun 14, 2013.
The Readings are collated at the end of the discussions by individual readers.
Thommo displayed such an intimate knowledge of the societal context of this novel that Joe pleaded with him to write the account of this session. The members of AR's own family are so widely, albeit fictionally, represented in this novel, that some readers have been taken in, to the point that one asked Mrs Mary Roy, AR's mother, who bears a resemblance to Ammu: “Has your son started speaking [for Estha goes mute in the novel]?” But Mary Roy has categorically stated: “I am not Ammu. Arundhati has created a character called Ammu using my bio-data as her bare-bones.'' See
Thommo's mom and Mary Roy are second cousins. Chacko in the novel was based on AR's uncle, George Isaac, and has been described to the T, pickles and all ('Palat Pickles'). He did in real life marry a European and later came away. Thommo met George Isaac at a Roundtable meeting. George Isaac speaks in a very good Indian accent, not Plummy at all, and is a very well educated Rhodes scholar. You can read a great deal more than you need to know about Mary Roy and this novel at:
Thommo made a comment that linked George Isaac with with Patrick Moynihan, US Senator and one-time ambassador to India. Moynihan once visited Kottayam, and he disappeared from sight. The police went to find out what happened and discovered him with George Isaac, lingering over a bottle. Joe asked Thommo: did George Isaac in reality have Men's Needs? To which Mathew replied, to general laughter: Who does not have Men's Needs?
But Priya has a different take: Men just don't understand Women's Needs.
KumKum decried the crudity of men who go urinating everywhere in public. Do you see a woman do that she asked? But she was caught short, because in S. India it is not uncommon for rural women to spread their pavada or saree in a wide circle and micturate in the centre, not even needing to go behind a bush.
Sunil related his evidence of going to Andhra and seeing the public on their haunches on one side of the road in the morning, and on the other side of the road in the evening. Someone said that the usual accompaniment of the morning ablution is a lota or kindi and a stick. The stick is to fend off the pigs who like the freshly laid stuff, which they would fain snatch from the bums.
After Thommo read his passage on Pappachi's Moth, it was noted that Chacko and Pappachi are modelled after real-life counterparts. Sunil remarked on the part where Chacko stops Pappachi from hitting Mammachi with a brass vase: “Always said it with flowers!”
Thommo affirmed the the real-life Pappachi was trim and proper in everything, and a wife-beater too – which was very common in those days. Sunil pointed out that wife-beating was an assertion of patriarchal power, designed to keep women in line. Pappachi, in real life, did not drink. In Mathew's village of Adhirampuzha in Kottayam district, there was no liquor shop, not even a toddy shop. But Sunil said in Thrissur district they always enjoyed the good things of life.
At this point there was a digression on a church in Kumarkoni (?) and the parishioners there putting on a play. From there Thommo mentally transported the readers to the film Guns for San Sebastian where Anthony Quinn, drunk, with a wineskin over his shoulder is shot by invading American Indians when he is standing above a statue of the Blessed Virgin and red liquid starts flowing down the breast of Our Lady. The villagers gasp at the miracle … then the camera pans to Anthony Quinn, his wineskin pierced by the arrow, spilling wine onto the statue. Anthony Quinn was born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn on April 21, 1915, in Chihuahua, Mexico, to an Irish-Mexican father and a Mexican mother. See:
The passage Mathew chose says what he feels about the under-dog. It is Ammu's reaction to the fore-vision of her old age.
After the reading Sunil mentioned that Mrs Roy has admitted something (?). Lalit, AR's brother, lives one floor below Thommo' sister-in-law in a high rise building and their father comes to see Lalit. Prannoy Roy (of NDTV) and AR are first cousins, because Prannoy Roy's dad is the elder brother of AR's father.
Bobby noted that AR has not written fiction after her first and only novel, thus far. KumKum said AR has hinted she is writing one. Considering how numerous have been her political writings, she notes ironically in her famous speech Come September: “For reasons that I don't fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.” See
Mrs Roy got more than her share of property in the end after a long struggle, it seems. You can read about this and her decision to give it to charity here:
What about Comrade Pillai – is he true to life, asked Priya?
Thommo mentioned there is one mistaken detail in TGOST. AR confuses Kari Saipu's house with the bungalow of EMS Namboodiripad. You can read about Kari Saipu, the missionary who took on the ways of Kerala here:
His children fanned out and the next generation went to Thekkady. There is no connection with Laurie Baker, the architect who came to Kerala, and married a Malalyali, Elizabeth.
Sunil's passage describes the art of Kathakali and its reduction to tourism entertainment. This statement of AR in TGOST is most apt about Kathakali:
… the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably.
Sunil found it a depressing book. Why? Because no character lives happily ever after! But AR is not writing a fairy tale ...
In a prefatory remark before reading the passage it was stated that when Lalit, AR's brother, wanted to marry, Mary Roy complained to the police. What was the basis of the complaint, asked Joe? Kidnapping. Odd. Thommo whose knowledge of the distant tributaries of Arundhati Roy's life abounds in stories, stated that someone for shock effect exclaimed at a gathering: “The first lady I slept with was Arundhati Roy!” Turns out, as a child in Mary Roy's school this chap slept through the regulation afternoon nap with AR stretched not far away.
Mathew laughed at this point in the passage:
From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea, into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread.
Kathakali has become a way of earning a living by branding and selling it. Art and culture need patronage, said Mathew, and the new form of patronage is tourism. The rajahs and nawabs offered patronage in the old days which kept all forms of traditional Indian art alive. So it was with Europeans too, where besides the kings, the Catholic Church was a big patron of art, music, and architecture to glorify itself.
TGOST broke new ground in Indian literature in English for its extraordinary word–play and the wonderfully observed countryside in which the story is set. It is all lovingly described. The plant life, the river, the insects, the people. So you are there taking part in the children’s eye view of the scenes, and occasionally in that of the adults.
It has its climax in the taboo subject in India of a lower caste man having sex with an upper middle class woman – much like the gardener in DH Lawrence’s banned novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover. And TGOST is unpalatable to many still for the same reason LCL was for the Victorians, namely, that it crosses a sexual bar, and violates what AR calls the Love Laws. Though TGOST does not have the word ‘fuck’, it does have one clinical use of ‘cunt’
He [Estha] was a naked stranger met in a chance encounter. He was the one that she [Rahel] had known before Life began. The one who had once led her (swimming) through their lovely mother’s cunt.
'Cunt' was one of the reasons LCL was banned for obscenity, a verdict reversed in the UK only 50 odd years ago. Another distinctive feature of the novel is the exploration of the Kerala countryside. As she said herself in a talk two years ago at which I was present: “There is a lot of love for the land in the novel ... every insect every plant, every fish, every smell.” In that talk she also reminded the audience: “It is easy to forget The God Of Small Things is a political novel. It is about caste, about violence, about contemporary things … The most ugly thing about our country, and our culture, is caste. It is there in the book. And please don't forget that.”
The most arresting feature of the writing I found was the use of similes. I counted 473 uses of ‘like’ to introduce a poetic comparison. This is a high density of similes, which testifies to her imagination, and the poetic quality of her writing. In addition there are metaphors which do not need the aid of ‘like.’ The poetry is however offset by her penchant for shaking the reader out of the comfort zone with the awful things that happen. That happiness does not last is a constant message; you pay for every little bit of joy you snatch in life. The foreshadowing of tragedy by the non-linear narration, enhances the reader’s sense of being on edge throughout the novel.
I grasped a great deal more on re-reading it. The non-temporal sequence of narration almost mandates that as soon as you finish the novel you should go back and read it again, which I didn’t originally. AR herself explains:
[The structure] was the most challenging part of writing the book. It begins at the end and ends in the middle. . . . if it had been a straight, linear narrative, it would have meant something altogether different. Each ordinary moment becomes more heightened, more poignant because it is viewed through the complex lens of both past and present.
She can make an ordinary act like pissing a spectacular farce and I think this is a Malayali trait. Once, a fond uncle of mine deflated me when I was going abroad to an American university, saying – Eda, avide thooralnum PhD ondu (Hey, over there you can even get a PhD in Shitting).
Joe's remark on the density of similes in the book provoked Priya to say that AR was greatly influenced by Salman Rushdie. But AR has always denied that influence. Of course, you can point out that Midnight's Children does use the trick of non-temporal sequence in story-telling. So SR must have been influenced by James Joyce, who must have been influenced by Laurence Sterne, and so on. Joe averred that the great difference in style between AR and SR is clear to see: the latter takes off with 'magical realism'; AR is firmly grounded in natural realism. Which is borne out by the confession of the Malayalam translator, Priya A.S., of TGOST, that by far the most difficult time she had with the translation was to find the precise Malayalam equivalents of the hundreds of flora and fauna AR names and describes.
Priya, our KRG reader, reiterated that the telescoped words in TGOST prove AR's kinship with Salman Rushdie; for instance, Sophie Mol is remembered simply as “ThimbleDrinker. CoffinCartwheeler.” But the purpose is quite different, replied Joe; here it is to project a child's imaginative play with words.
AR uses words familiar to Indians in that era, such as “Love-in-Tokyo—two beads on a rubber band, nothing to do with Love or Tokyo.” The scrunchie became famous when Asha Parekh's ponytail was held by a hair clip that consisted of two beads on a rubber band. Priya liked the imagery in the description: “Most of Rahel’s hair sat on top of her head like a fountain.” She referred to the use of the upper case in many words in AR's novel. For a thesis treating this and other stylistic features that recur in TGOST, see
Bobby alluded to the reclusiveness of J.D. Salinger after he wrote Catcher in the Rye. Not that AR has been reclusive; she speaks out and writes frequently, but nowadays only on issues of justice, power, nationalism, and imperial hegemony. In the pre-TGOST days she wrote scripts for movies. She has a complicated personal life, living apart from her second husband, Pradip Krishen, most of the time because of the nature of their individual work. He is acknowledged as “my love” in the dedication to this book. It seems AR has a poor professional opinion of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, from which she graduated.
Bobby liked the image of “high-stepping”chickens in the yard. And the phrase “Jeweled dragonflies hovered” caused Sunil to ask, “Do you see dragonflies any more?” Yes, you do in her garden, said KumKum but they seem scrawny. Sunil mentioned that as children they would catch dragonflies and tie a tiny piece of paper to their tail and see them fly off, thus encumbered. Estha's puff of hair in Elvis Presley's style continues with the comic strip hero, Tintin. It was clarified that 'Punnyan' means saint in Malayalam, for Punnyan Kunju was the nickname of Pappachi's father, Reverend E. John Ipe.
Like the previous reading which ends with the premonitory phrase “Things can change in a day,” the passage of Kavita about Ammu's death, alone in a lodge in Alleppey, ends in a similar phrase, “The door of the furnace clanged shut. There were no tears.” This is the sadness in the book: every reaching out by the characters to chart a happier course in life, comes to naught.
Did Ammu commit suicide? Bobby said the book doesn't state it, but it would appear so, even if the details of Ammu's end are glossed over, which is in striking contrast to the unrelenting description of the kicking, stoning, and beating to death of Velutha by the police. Even in death, the high-born get a pass, this time from the hand of the author.
Burial is the normal disposition of the body for Syrian Christians. One of the churchly reasons for refusing burial in the church graveyard is suicide; then the body is consigned to the themmadi kuzhi (miscreant's grave). But perhaps it was on account of the metaphorical suicide she had committed earlier by marrying a Hindu, and divorcing him. Ironical, isn't it, that even after death we exclude certain categories of people from full participation in the society they leave behind? Mathew said something to the effect that suicides deserve hell-fire according to the church. But who reads the hearts of the dead to know the state of their souls?
The supply of firewood to the crematorium is a hereditary post in Kochi, said Sunil, and that leads to hold-ups. The electric crematorium in Ravipuram, Kochi, has not worked since 2008, but there are plans afoot for an eco-friendly service:
At this point Sunil who was particularly depressed by this book, sought to elicit some humour by telling us of the thrifty ways of Thrissur folk. There was this guy who went to purchase a coffin for himself in advance, and started bargaining with the coffin-maker. “Give me a discount,” he said; “after all I won't be able to use it more than once.”
“Thanks, Bobby and Kavita, for choosing Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. I read this book soon after it won the Booker Prize. But I was in the US at the time and did not know the Kerala countryside at all, being from Bengal. But this time I read more critically for the KRG session.
I still consider the book a stunningly beautiful literary work, for its delightful language, visual charm and the captivating description of the carefree life of children growing up in a rural Kerala setting.
The two children, fraternal twins, seven years old, are the central characters of the story. Much of the story is told from their viewpoint. Hence, it is aptly jumbled up in a non-linear fashion. The story is excavated from the repository of Rahel's childhood memories and it is like a random splicing job; children remember only those things that matter, and some events stick in the mind with gaps, while others they can visualise graphically.
TGOST is not just a children's story. That part camouflages the more serious adult-story of LOVE between a high caste, educated, woman and an ‘untouchable’ man, and describes the brutal retaliation that follows.
There are two pivotal points in the story: The death of Sophie Mol, and the consummation of physical love between Velutha, the untouchable man, and Ammu, the mother of the twins. Though both happen at nearly the same time, somehow, Sophie Mol's accidental death gets sidetracked by the racy story of illicit love. AR is ecstatically carnal in her vivid description of the love-making of these oddly matched lovers
Of course, Sophie Mol's death permanently damaged the well-being of Estha, the innocent culprit of the crime. And it changed Margaret Kochamma's world. Here I quote Roy to describe the effect of this death on Margaret: “She had come to Ayemenem to heal her wounded world, and had lost all of it instead. She shattered like glass.” (p 263)
There was no inquiry, no fact-finding how the accident had happened. Only false accusations, blaming Velutha for the act. But, Margaret Kochamma, intuitively knew who was the real culprit and “she had actually sought Estha out and slapped him until someone calmed her down and led her away.” (p 264)
I like Arundhati Roy's style of writing. But I felt the style she chose was not the right one for this book. It was disorienting to read the story from the seven year old's viewpoint. It contrasts with the simple, yet poetic language and style of the Bengali author, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhay, in his classic novel, Pather Panchali, also a story of childhood.
Since Thommo read the passage that was my first choice too (Pappachi's Moth), I will read instead from Margaret Kochamma's reaction when she knows her daughter, Sophie Mol, has died. Actually, one can open the book anywhere and start to read.”
“That is just like Katahkali,” interjected Mathew.
Sunil noted how Baby Kochamma, ever eager to preserve the sanctimony of the Ipe family, goes to the police station, manipulates the evidence and suborns the children. BK wants to transfer the blame to Velutha for the death of Sophie Mol because he has transgressed the Love Laws. Kavita noted the father, Vellya Paapen, had feared the liaison of his son, Velutha, would end badly. Sunil said a lot of children drown during the summer holidays in Kerala, and added that Ammu goes to Inspector Thomas (the man with the Air India maharaja moustache) to state that the relationship with Velutha was consensual. But I don't think that is borne out by the text; what Ammu goes to to tell Inspector Thomas is that Velutha did not abduct the children, and the accident happened when the children played truant on their own.
Later Ammu visits the Inspector and this is what happens:
So after Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Ammu went to him with the twins to tell him that a mistake had been made and he tapped her breasts with his baton, it was not a policeman’s spontaneous brutishness on his part. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a premeditated gesture, calculated to humiliate and terrorize her. An attempt to instill order into a world gone wrong.
A reference was made to the practice of cutting off the hair of prostitutes (veshyas) in the town of Ayemenem, which the author describes. It still goes on in N. India, said Thommo, probably in the villages where the Khap panchayats administer their own 'laws' and care a fig for the Indian Penal Code. He also noted that the highest crime rate reported in India is in Kerala, as judged by the number of FIRs (First Information Reports) filed in the police station. The reason is that FIRs are recorded as a matter of course in Kerala, whereas in most parts of India, crime goes unrecorded, and if you go to a thana to complain about a crime, the police will persist in brushing it off, and fail to record it most of the time.
Thommo had a minor complaint about women riding scooters in Kerala, for they are taught to ride in the middle of the road.
The passage is the leave-taking on the railway station when Estha is re-returned. It is a poignant scene, as are all leave takings between those who are intimately dependent on each other. Ammu is trying to convince Estha the separation is temporary, but the novel has already announced the death midway of Ammu in a lodge in Alleppey. So the reader knows, even better than Estha, that it will be “Not Ever.”
Sunil sensed an 'orphaned' feeling throughout the novel. This is how AR phrased it when she appeared at the release of the Malayalam translation of TGOST:
A question about the prevailing sense of life being precarious in the novel for the twins, Rahel and Estha, was addressed by the author. She said it perhaps stems from the actual sense her own mother might die any day, for she was subject to severe attacks of asthma a few times a week, and then her mother would lament from her bed what would happen to her two children. She and her brother both derived a sense of being 'unprotected' since her mother was battling it alone in Ayemenem after her divorce, living on the edges of their community with no support.
In the midst of this sadness KumKum was unforgiving of Ammu: “Even if she had Women's Needs, Ammu was selfish and didn't consider what her liaison would do to her children. If you're a mother there is a big responsibility for the child.” In other words, Ammu should have conformed to the Laws of Love and TGOST would never have been written. Go tell that to the other protagonists of literature who disobeyed: Anna Karenina, Helen, Juliet, Laila, Madame Bovary, and the rest.
In this connection someone noted the dedication: “For Mary Roy … who loved me enough to let me go.”
Sunil vividly remembers running after the car of his father in Bangalore when he was left there at age six or seven in a boarding school. The loss of your home's protective environment was tremendous. But then the boys two years senior taught him how to cope and survive. Speaking of which, AR dedicates the novel to her brother with these words: “For LKC, who, like me, survived.”
Kavita added that sending children to boarding school makes the children closer to each other than they are to their parents.
Priya noted there was a recipe for Bananajam by Estha, complete with pectin. She was also taken by the descriptions of Baby Kochamma and her maidservant watching TV together in their dotage. Their garden was abandoned as BK grew older.
Since there was doubt expressed by some about the incest in the book, Joe agreed he'd supply the page reference. It's on p. 327 and begins:
“Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon,” she says. She whispers. She moves her mouth. Their beautiful mother’s mouth.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”
The incest is not as explicitly described as the copulation of Ammu and Velutha, but it is unmistakably there, and intended by the author. Talitha's husband, Satish, said it was there for the masala to attract even more readers. But somebody said, assuming there was incest, isn't it pointless in the novel? Perhaps it's there to reinforce the close connection between the twins that courses through the novel, and now having lost their support, and being ostracised by the rest of the family, they have only each other to turn to.
The reading ended with Priya reporting something she had heard at second hand: it seems AR spoke about oral sex very casually over breakfast, in the presence of her brother and remarked to him that oral sex is no longer a taboo subject. Everybody knows and talks about it. [An earlier version of this statement has been corrected with input from Priya]
For an insightful audio interview with Arundhati Roy at the BBC Radio 4 Bookclub on Oct 2, 2011, see
For an insightful audio interview with Arundhati Roy at the BBC Radio 4 Bookclub on Oct 2, 2011, see
Thommo p.47 – Ch 2 Pappachi's Moth
Mammachi had started making pickles commercially soon after Pappachi retired from Government service in Delhi and came to live in Ayemenem. The Kottayam Bible Society was having a fair and asked Mammachi to make some of her famous banana jam and tender mango pickle. It sold quickly, and Mammachi found that she had more orders than she could cope with. Thrilled with her success, she decided to persist with the pickles and jam, and soon found herself busy all year round. Pappachi, for his part, was having trouble coping with the ignominy of retirement. He was seventeen years older than Mammachi, and realized with a shock that he was an old man when his wife was still in her prime.
Though Mammachi had conical corneas and was already practically blind, Pappachi would not help her with the pickle-making because he did not consider pickle-making a suitable job for a highranking ex-Government official. He had always been a jealous man, so he greatly resented the attention his wife was suddenly getting. He slouched about the compound in his immaculately tailored suits, weaving sullen circles around mounds of red chilies and freshly powdered yellow turmeric, watching Mammachi supervise the buying, the weighing, the salting and drying, of limes and tender mangoes. Every night he beat her with a brass flower vase. The beatings weren’t new. What was new was only the frequency with which they took place. One night Pappachi broke the bow of Mammachi’s violin and threw it in the river.
Then Chacko came home for a summer vacation from Oxford. He had grown to be a big man, and was, in those days, strong from rowing for Balliol. A week after he arrived he found Pappachi beating Mammachi in the study. Chacko strode into the room, caught Pappachi’s vase-hand and twisted it around his back.
'I never want this to happen again,' he told his father. 'Ever.'
For the rest of that day Pappachi sat in the verandah and stared stonily out at the ornamental garden, ignoring the plates of food that Kochu Maria brought him. Late at night he went into his study and brought out his favorite mahogany rocking chair. He put it down in the middle of the driveway and smashed it into little bits with a plumber’s monkey wrench. He left it there in the moonlight, a heap of varnished wicker and splintered wood. He never touched Mammachi again. But he never spoke to her either as long as he lived. When he needed anything he used Kochu Maria or Baby Kochamma as intermediaries.
In the evenings, when he knew visitors were expected, he would sit on the verandah and sew buttons that weren’t missing onto his shirts, to create the impression that Mammachi neglected him. To some small degree he did succeed in further corroding Ayemenem’s view of working wives.
He bought the skyblue Plymouth from an old Englishman in Munnar. He became a familiar sight in Ayemenem, coasting importantly down the narrow road in his wide car looking outwardly elegant but sweating freely inside his woolen suits. He wouldn’t allow Mammachi or anyone else in the family to use it, or even to sit in it. The Plymouth was Pappachi’s revenge.
Pappachi had been an Imperial Entomologist at the Pusa Institute. After Independence, when the British left, his designation was changed from Imperial Entomologist to Joint Director, Entomology The year he retired, he had risen to a rank equivalent to Director.
His life’s greatest setback was not having had the moth that he had discovered named after him.
It fell into his drink one evening while he was sitting in the verandah of a rest house after a long day in the field. As he picked it out he noticed its unusually dense dorsal tufts. He took a closer look. With growing excitement he mounted it, measured it and the next morning placed it in the sun for a few hours for the alcohol to evaporate. Then he caught the first train back to Delhi. To taxonomic attention and, he hoped, fame. After six unbearable months of anxiety, to Pappachi’s intense disappointment he was told that his moth had finally been identified as a slightly unusual race of a well-known species that belonged to the tropical family Lymantriidae.
The real blow came twelve years later, when, as a consequence of a radical taxonomic reshuffle, lepidopterists decided that Pappachi’s moth was in fact a separate species and genus hitherto unknown to science. By then, of course, Pappachi had retired and moved to Ayemenem. It was too late for him to assert his claim to the discovery. His moth was named after the Acting Director of the Department of Entomology, a junior officer whom Pappachi had always disliked.
Mathew p.220 – Ch 11 The God of Small Things
Ammu noticed that both her children were covered in a fine dust. Like two pieces of lightly sugar-dusted, unidentical cake. Rahel had a blond curl lodged among her black ones. A curl from Velutha’s backyard. Ammu picked it out.
'I’ve told you before,' she said. 'I don’t want you going to his house. It will only cause trouble.'
What trouble, she didn’t say. She didn’t know.
Somehow, by not mentioning his name, she knew that she had drawn him into the tousled intimacy of that blue cross-stitch afternoon and the song from the tangerine transistor. By not mentioning his name, she sensed that a pact had been forged between her Dream and the World. And that the midwives of that pact were, or would be, her sawdust-coated two-egg twins.
She knew who he was—the God of Loss, the God of Small Things. Of course she did. She switched off the tangerine radio.
In the afternoon silence (laced with edges of light), her children curled into the warmth of her. The smell of her. They covered their heads with her hair. They sensed somehow that in her sleep she had traveled away from them. They summoned her back now with the palms of their small hands laid flat against the bare skin of her midriff. Between her petticoat and her blouse. They loved the fact that the brown of the backs of their hands was the exact brown of their mother’s stomach skin.
'Estha, look,' Rahel said, plucking at the line of soft down that led southwards from Ammu’s bellybutton.
'Here’s where we kicked you.' Estha traced a wandering silver stretchmark with his finger.
'Was it in the bus, Ammu?'
'On the winding estate road?'
'When Baba had to hold your tummy?'
'Did you have to buy tickets?'
'Did we hurt you?'
And then, keeping her voice casual, Rahel’s question: 'D’you think he may have lost our address?'
Just the hint of a pause in the rhythm of Ammu’s breathing made Estha touch Rahel’s middle finger with his. And middle finger to middle finger, on their beautiful mother’s midriff, they abandoned that line of questioning.
'That’s Estha’s kick, and that’s mine,' Rahel said. '…And that’s Estha’s and that’s mine.'
Between them they apportioned their mother’s seven silver stretch marks. Then Rahel put her mouth on Ammu’s stomach and sucked at it, pulling the soft flesh into her mouth and drawing her head back to admire the shining oval of spit and the faint red imprint of her teeth on her mother’s skin.
Ammu wondered at the transparency of that kiss. It was a clear-as-glass kiss. Unclouded by passion or desire—that pair of dogs that sleep so soundly inside children, waiting for them to grow up. It was a kiss that demanded no kiss-back.
Not a cloudy kiss full of questions that wanted answers. Like the kisses of cheerful one-armed men in dreams.
Ammu grew tired of their proprietary handling of her. She wanted her body back. It was hers. She shrugged her children off the way a bitch shrugs off her pups when she’s had enough of them. She sat up and twisted her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. Then she swung her legs off the bed, walked to the window and drew back the curtains.
Slanting afternoon light flooded the room and brightened two children on the bed.
The twins heard the lock turning in Ammu’s bathroom door.
Ammu looked at herself in the long mirror on the bathroom door and the specter of her future appeared in it to mock her. Pickled. Gray. Rheumy-eyed. Cross-stitch roses on a slack, sunken cheek. Withered breasts that hung like weighted socks. Dry as a bone between her legs, the hair feather-white. Spare. As brittle as a pressed fern.
Skin that flaked and shed like snow.
With that cold feeling on a hot afternoon that Life had been Lived. That her cup was full of dust. That the air, the sky, the trees, the sun, the rain, the light and darkness were all slowly turning to sand. That sand would fill her nostrils, her lungs, her mouth. Would pull her down, leaving on the surface a spinning swirl like crabs leave when they burrow downwards on a beach.
Ammu undressed and put a red toothbrush under a breast to see if it would stay. It didn’t Where she touched herself her flesh was taut and smooth. Under her hands her nipples wrinkled and hardened like dark nuts, pulling at the soft skin on her breasts. The thin line of down from her belly button led over the gentle curve of the base of her belly, to her dark triangle. Like an arrow directing a lost traveler. An inexperienced lover
She undid her hair and turned around to see how long it had grown. It fell, in waves and curls and disobedient frizzy wisps—soft on the inside, coarser on the outside—to just below where her small, strong waist began its curve out towards her hips. The bathroom was hot. Small beads of sweat studded her skin like diamonds. Then they broke and trickled down. Sweat ran down the recessed line of her spine. She looked a little critically at her round, heavy behind. Not big in itself. Not big per se (as Chacko-of-Oxford would no doubt have put it). Big only because the rest of her was so slender. It belonged on another, more voluptuous body.
She had to admit that they would happily support a toothbrush apiece. Perhaps two. She laughed out loud at the idea of walking naked down Ayemenem with an array of colored toothbrushes sticking out from either cheek of her bottom. She silenced herself quickly. She saw a wisp of madness escape from its bottle and caper triumphantly around the bathroom.
Ammu worried about madness.
Mammachi said it ran in their family. That it came on people suddenly and caught them unawares. There was Pathil Ammai, who at the age of sixty-five began to take her clothes off and run naked along the river, singing to the fish. There was Thampi Chachen, who searched his shit every morning with a knitting-needle for a gold tooth he had swallowed years ago. And Dr. Muthachen, who had to be removed from his own wedding in a sack. Would future generations say, 'There was Ammu—Ammu Ipe. Married a Bengali. Went quite mad. Died young. In a cheap lodge somewhere.'
Chacko said that the high incidence of insanity among Syrian Christians was the price they paid for Inbreeding. Mammachi said it wasn’t.
Ammu gathered up her heavy hair, wrapped it around her face, and peered down the road to Age and Death through its parted strands. Like a medieval executioner peering through the tilted eye-slits of his peaked black hood at the executionee. A slender, naked executioner with dark nipples and deep dimples when she smiled. With seven silver stretchmarks from her two-egg twins, born to her by candlelight amid news of a lost war.
It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself. No milestones marked its progress. No trees grew along it. No dappled shadows shaded it. No mists rolled over it. No birds circled it. No twists, no turns or hairpin bends obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with an awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. And Ammu knew. Or thought she knew, which was really just as bad (because if in a dream you’ve eaten fish, it means you’ve eaten fish). And what Ammu knew (or thought she knew) smelled of the vapid, vinegary fumes that rose from the cement vats—of Paradise Pickles. Fumes that wrinkled youth and pickled futures.
Hooded in her own hair, Ammu leaned against herself in the bathroom mirror and tried to weep.
For the God of Small Things.
For the sugar-dusted twin midwives of her dream.
Sunil p.228 – Ch 12 Kochu Thomban
June is low season for kathakali. But there are some temples that a troupe will not pass by without performing in. The Ayemenem temple wasn’t one of them, but these days, thanks to its geography, things had changed.
In Ayemenem they danced to jettison their humiliation in the Heart of Darkness. Their truncated swimming-pool performances. Their turning to tourism to stave off starvation.
On their way back from the Heart of Darkness, they stopped at the temple to ask pardon of their gods. To apologize for corrupting their stories. For encashing their identities. Misappropriating their lives.
On these occasions, a human audience was welcome, but entirely incidental.
In the broad, covered corridor—the colonnaded kuthambalam abutting the heart of the temple where the Blue God lived with his flute, the drummers drummed and the dancers danced, their colors turning slowly in the night Rahel sat down cross-legged, resting her back against the roundness of a white pillar. A tall canister of coconut oil gleamed in the flickering light of the brass lamp. The oil replenished the light. The light lit the tin.
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.
To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child, of his own. He teases it He punishes it. He sends it up—like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey’s tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive mischief of Krishna’s smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.
He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.
The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument. From the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed wholly to the task of storytelling. He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skins.
But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to become clerks and bus conductors. Class IV nongazetted officers. With unions of their own.
But he himself, left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth, cannot do what they do. He cannot slide down the aisles of buses, counting change and selling tickets. He cannot answer bells that summon him. He cannot stoop behind trays of tea and Marie biscuits.
In despair, he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.
He becomes a Regional Flavor.
In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee. He gets drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the gods.
Joe p.174 – Ch 8 Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol
A little way away, Velutha walked up the shortcut through the rubber trees. Barebodied. A coil of insulated electrical wire was looped over one shoulder. He wore his printed dark-blue-and-black mundu loosely folded up above his knees. On his back, his lucky leaf from the birthmark tree (that made the monsoons come on time). His autumn leaf at night.
Before he emerged through the trees and stepped into the driveway, Rahel saw him and slipped out of the Play and went to him.
Ammu saw her go.
Offstage, she watched them perform their elaborate Official Greeting. Velutha curtsied as he had been taught to, his mundu spread like a skirt, like the English dairymaid in “The King’s Breakfast” Rahel bowed (and said “Bow”). Then they hooked little fingers and shook hands gravely with the mien of bankers at a convention.
In the dappled sunlight filtering through the dark-green trees, Ammu watched Velutha lift her daughter effortlessly as though she was an inflatable child, made of air. As he tossed her up and she landed in his arms, Ammu saw on Rahel’s face the high delight of the airborne young.
She saw the ridges of muscle on Velutha’s stomach grow taut and rise under his skin like the divisions on a slab of chocolate. She wondered at how his body had changed—so quietly, from a flatmuscled boy’s body into a man’s body. Contoured and hard. A swimmer’s body. A swimmer-carpenter’s body. Polished with a high-wax body polish.
He had high cheekbones and a white, sudden smile.
It was his smile that reminded Ammu of Velutha as a little boy. Helping Vellya Paapen to count coconuts. Holding out little gifts he had made for her, flat on the palm of his hand so that she could take them without touching him. Boats, boxes, small windmills. Calling her Ammukutty. Little Ammu. Though she was so much less little than he was. When she looked at him now, she couldn’t help thinking that the man he had become bore so little resemblance to the boy he had been. His smile was the only piece of baggage he had carried with him from boyhood into manhood.
Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him that Rahel saw in the march. She hoped it had been him that had raised his flag and knotted arm in anger. She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against.
She hoped it had been him.
She was surprised at the extent of her daughter’s physical ease with him. Surprised that her child seemed to have a sub-world that excluded her entirely. A tactile world of smiles and laughter that she, her mother, had no part in. Ammu recognized vaguely that her thoughts were shot with a delicate, purple tinge of envy. She didn’t allow herself to consider who it was that she envied. The man or her own child. Or just their world of hooked fingers and sudden smiles.
The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the tug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed.
In that brief moment, Velutha looked up and saw things that he hadn’t seen before. Things that had been out of bounds so far, obscured by history’s blinkers.
For instance, he saw that Rahel’s mother was a woman.
That she had deep dimples when she smiled and that they stayed on long after her smile left her eyes. He saw that her brown arms were round and firm and perfect That her shoulders shone, but her eyes were somewhere else. He saw that when he gave her gifts they no longer needed to be offered flat on the palms of his hands so that she wouldn’t have to touch him. His boats and boxes. His little windmills. He saw too that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him, too.
This knowing slid into him cleanly, like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It only took a moment.
Ammu saw that he saw. She looked away. He did too. History’s fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.
Bobby p. 201 – Ch 10 The River in the Boat
Outside, the Air was Alert and Bright and Hot. Rahel lay next to Ammu, wide awake in her matching airport knickers. She could see the pattern of the cross-stitch flowers from the blue cross-stitch counterpane on Ammu’s cheek. She could hear the blue cross-stitch afternoon.
The slow ceiling fan. The sun behind the curtains.
The yellow wasp wasping against the windowpane in a dangerous dzzzz.
A disbelieving lizard’s blink.
High-stepping chickens in the yard.
The sound of the sun crinkling the washing. Crisping white bedsheets. Stiffening starched saris. Off-white and gold.
Red ants on yellow stones.
A hot cow feeling hot. Amhoo. In the distance.
And the smell of a cunning Englishman ghost, sickled to a rubber tree, asking courteously for a cigar.
'Umm… excuse me? You wouldn’t happen to have an umm… cigar, would you?'
In a kind, schoolteacherly voice.
And Estha waiting for her. By the river. Under the mangosteen tree that Reverend E.John Ipe had brought home from his visit to Mandalay.
What was Estha sitting on? On what they always sat on under the mangosteen tree. Something gray and grizzled. Covered in moss and lichen, smothered in ferns. Something that the earth had claimed. Not a log. Not a rock . . .
Before she completed the thought, Rahel was up and running.
Through the kitchen, past Kochu Maria fast asleep. Thickwrinkied like a sudden rhinoceros in a frilly apron.
Past the factory.
Tumbling barefoot through the greenheat, followed by a yellow wasp.
Comrade Estha was there. Under the mangosteen tree. With the red flag planted in the earth beside him. A Mobile Republic. A Twin Revolution with a Puff.
And what was he sitting on?
Something covered with moss, hidden by ferns.
Knock on it and it made a hollow knocked-on sound.
The silence dipped and soared and swooped and looped in figures of eight.
Jeweled dragonflies hovered like shrill children’s voices in the sun.
Finger-colored fingers fought the ferns, moved the stones, cleared the way. There was a sweaty grappling for an edge to hold on to. And a One Two and.
Things can change in a day.
Kavita p. 161 – Ch 7 Wisdom Exercise Notebooks
Ammu died in a grimy room in the Bharat Lodge in Alleppey, where she had gone for a job interview as someone’s secretary. She died alone. With a noisy ceiling fan for company and no Estha to lie at the back of her and talk to her. She was thirty-one. Not old, not young, but a viable, die-able age.
She had woken up at night to escape from a familiar, recurrent dream in which policemen approached her with snicking scissors, wanting to hack off her hair. They did that in Kottayam to prostitutes whom they’d caught in the bazaar—branded them so that everybody would know them for what they were. Veshyas. So that new policemen on the beat would have no trouble identifying whom to harass. Ammu always noticed them in the market, the women with vacant eyes and forcibly shaved heads in the land where long, oiled hair was only for the morally upright.
That night in the lodge, Ammu sat up in the strange bed in the strange room in the strange town. She didn’t know where she was, she recognized nothing around her. Only her fear was familiar. The faraway man inside her began to shout. This time the steely fist never loosened its grip. Shadows gathered like bats in the steep hollows near her collarbone.
The sweeper found her in the morning. He switched off the fan.
She had a deep blue sac under one eye that was bloated like a bubble. As though her eye had tried to do what her lungs couldn’t. Some time close to midnight, the faraway man who lived in her chest had stopped shouting. A platoon of ants carried a dead cockroach sedately through the door, demonstrating what should be done with corpses.
The church refused to bury Ammu. On several counts. So Chacko hired a van to transport the body to the electric crematorium. He had her wrapped in a dirty bedsheet and laid out on a stretcher. Rahel thought she looked like a Roman Senator. Et tu, Ammu! she thought and smiled, remembering Estha.
It was odd driving through bright, busy streets with a dead Roman Senator on the floor of the van. It made the blue sky bluer. Outside the van windows, people, like cut-out paper puppets, went on with their paper-puppet lives. Real life was inside the van. Where real death was. Over the jarring bumps and potholes in the road, Ammu’s body jiggled and slid off the stretcher. Her head hit an iron bolt on the floor. She didn’t wince or wake up. There was a hum in Rahel’s head, and for the rest of the day Chacko had to shout at her if he wanted to be heard.
The crematorium had the same rotten, rundown air of a railway station, except that it was deserted. No trains, no crowds. Nobody except beggars, derelicts and the police-custody dead were cremated there. People who died with nobody to lie at the back of them and talk to them. When Ammu’s turn came, Chacko held Rahel’s hand tightly. She didn’t want her hand held. She used the slickness of crematorium sweat to slither out of his grip. No one else from the family was there.
The steel door of the incinerator went up and the muted hum of the eternal fire became a red roaring. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. Then Rahel’s Ammu was fed to it. Her hair, her skin, her smile. Her voice. The way she used Kipling to love her children before putting them to bed: We be of one blood, thou and I! Her goodnight kiss. The way she held their faces steady with one hand (squashed-cheeked, fish-mouthed) while she parted and combed their hair with the other. The way she held knickers out, for Rahel to climb into. Left leg, right leg. All this was fed to the beast, and it was satisfied.
She was their Ammu and their Baba and she had loved them Double.
The door of the furnace clanged shut. There were no tears.
KumKum p. 263 – Ch 13 The Pessimist and the Optimist
Meanwhile, Baby Kochamma returned to Ayemenem. The Plymouth was parked in the driveway. Margaret Kochamma and Chacko were back from Cochin.
Sophie Mol was laid out on the chaise longue.
When Margaret Kochamma saw her little daughter’s body, shock swelled in her like phantom applause in an empty auditorium. It overflowed in a wave of vomit and left her mute and empty-eyed. She mourned two deaths, not one. With the loss of Sophie Mol, Joe died again. And this time there was no homework to finish or egg to eat. She had come to Ayemenem to heal her wounded world, and had lost all of it instead. She shattered like glass.
Her memory of the days that followed was fuzzy. Long, dim, hours of thick, furry-tongued serenity (medically administered by Dr. Verghese Verghese) lacerated by sharp, steely slashes of hysteria, as keen and cutting as the edge of a new razor blade.
She was vaguely conscious of Chacko—concerned and gentlevoiced when he was by her side—otherwise incensed, blowing like an enraged wind through the Ayemenem House. So different from the amused Rumpled Porcupine she had met that long-ago Oxford morning at the cafâ.
She remembered faintly the funeral in the yellow church. The sad singing. A bat that had bothered someone. She remembered the sounds of doors being battered down, and frightened women’s voices. And how at night the bush crickets had sounded like creaking stars and amplified the fear and gloom that hung over the Ayemenem House.
She never forgot her irrational rage at the other two younger children who had for some reason been spared. Her fevered mind fastened like a limpet onto the notion that Estha was somehow responsible for Sophie Mol’s death.
Priya p.324 – Ch 20 The Madras Mail
It took the twins years to understand Ammu’s part in what had happened. At Sophie Mol’s funeral and in the days before Estha was Returned, they saw her swollen eyes, and with the self-centeredness of children, held themselves wholly culpable for her grief.
'Eat the sandwiches before they get soggy,' Ammu said. 'And don’t forget to write.'
She scanned the finger-nails of the little hand she held, and slid a black sickle of dirt from under the thumb-nail.
'And look after my sweetheart for me. Until I come and get him.'
'When, Ammu? When will you come for him?'
'But when? When eggzackly?'
'Soon, sweetheart. As soon as I can.'
'Month-after-next? Ammu?' Deliberately making it a long time away so that Ammu would say Before that, Estha. Be practical. What about your studies?
'As soon as I get a job. As soon as I can go away from here and get a job,' Ammu said.
'But that will be never!' A wave of panic. A bottomless bottomful feeling.
The eating lady eavesdropped indulgently.
'See how nicely he speaks English,' she said to her children in Tamil. 'But that will be never,' her oldest daughter said combatively… 'En ee vee ee aar. Never.'
By 'never' Estha had only meant that it would be too far away. That it wouldn’t be now, wouldn’t be soon.
By 'never' he hadn’t meant, Not Ever.
But that’s how the words came out
But that will be never!
For Never they just took the O and T out of Not Ever.
The Government. Where people were sent to Jolly Well Behave.
And that’s how it had all turned out.
Never. Not Ever.
It was his fault that the faraway man in Ammu’s chest stopped shouting. His fault that she died alone in the lodge with no one to lie at the back of her and talk to her.
Because he was the one that had said it But Ammu that will be never!
'Don’t be silly, Estha. It’ll be soon,' Ammu’s mouth said. 'I’ll be a teacher. I’ll start a school. And you and Rahel will be in it.'
'And we’ll be able to afford it because it will be Ours!' Estha said with his enduring pragmatism. His eye on the main chance. Free bus rides. Free funerals. Free education. Little Man. He lived in a cara-van. Dum dum.
'We’ll have our own house,' Ammu said.
'A little house,' Rahel said.
'And in our school we’ll have classrooms and blackboards,' Estha said.
'And Real Teachers teaching.'
'And proper punishments,' Rahel said.
This was the stuff their dreams were made of. On the day that Estha was Returned. Chalk. Blackboards. Proper punishments.
They didn’t ask to be let off lightly. They only asked for punishments that fitted their crimes. Not ones that came like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. Not ones you spent your whole life in, wandering through its maze of shelves.
Without warning the train began to move. Very slowly.
Estha’s pupils dilated. His nails dug into Ammu’s hand as she walked along the platform. Her walk turning into a run as the Madras Mail picked up speed.
Godbless, my baby. My sweetheart. I’ll come for you soon!
'Ammu!' Estha said as she disengaged her hand. Prising loose small finger after finger. 'Ammu! Feeling vomity!' Estha’s voice lifted into a wail.
Little Elvis-the-Pelvis with a spoiled, special-outing puff. And beige and pointy shoes. He left his voice behind.
On the station platform Rahel doubled over and screamed and screamed.
The train pulled out. The light pulled in.