Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2020

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, winner of the Booker Prize in 1997

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, won the Booker Prize in 1997.

February 2nd, 2001

This book caused a bit of a storm when it won the Booker in 1997. Some people really disliked it. I loved it, especially the wordplay and the private language of the twins. They way they pick up and distort words and phrases from the adults around them can be very funny at times, as when they turn Baby Kochamma’s stern warning to be ‘Ambassador of India’ at the airport into ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’. At other times this wordplay shows a dawning awareness of the grim and heartless world of adults, as when an angry parent’s ‘later’ delivered ‘meaningfully’ becomes LayTer, a horrible, menacing, ‘goose-bumpy’ word.

Of all the adult characters, only Ammu is sympathetically drawn, and even she is selfish in risking her family with forbidden love for an ‘Untouchable’. Velutha is depicted as a kindly man, ambitious for an ‘Untouchable’ but we never really see inside his head. Chacko, a foolish Anglophile and bully, would be comic if he were not so cruel and self-deluded; he still loves the idea of Margaret as his wife (because she’s English) even after she divorced him because of his laziness and selfishness. Baby Kochamma is a viperous old woman keen to stir up trouble for everyone and anyone, and so protective of her family’s reputation that she invents murder and rape to convict Velutha. (Not that there’s any need for a trial. In Roy’s India police can deliver a fatal beating with impunity, it seems.)

(My favourite character was actually Baby Kochamma, wicked old crone that she was. Her malevolence permeates every event; she’s only happy when others are down for she needs to feel morally superior to survive. Bossy, opinionated, disagreeable in every way – she’s a wonderful invention!)

As the story is revealed, we become aware that Estha has become an elective mute because it was his word that denounced Velutha, his friend and adult playmate. Baby Kochamma blackmails him into agreeing that the children were abducted when in fact they were running away from angry adults – trying to teach them a lesson and intending to come back when the adults ‘begged’.

With the theme of forbidden love, there are numerous taboos broken. Chacko marries an English girl to the dismay of both families. Baby Kochamma nurtures a fruitless love for a Catholic priest for a lifetime. Ammu falls for Velutha, though it’s just for sex and they both know it; and as adults Estha and Rahel have an incestuous relationship. Then there’s the dirty old man who abuses little Estha at the pictures, to the irony of the wholesome Sound of Music on screen.

So nobody has a happy love life – all yearn for the forbidden, and suffer for it. A tragic theme but not a tragic book. It’s too playful for that and the language is rich and powerful, never sordid or gloomy. It’s as if Roy says: bad things will happen; the god of small things will have his way, but life goes on – and people do as they will in surviving it.

It’s clear that Roy doesn’t like the caste system, but she interprets it as part of the inheritance of exclusion and snobbery that came with British rule. It’s also part of the way women wield power when they are otherwise powerless. Roy seems to love India too much to be appalled by it and is content to bring it to world attention and leave it to others to express opinions about it.

Highly recommended and a terrific book for book groups.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 3.2.2001


Responses

  1. I enjoyed this too long time ago. Recommended it to everyone. May have to give it a second read.

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    • Yes, I thought it was a bit odd that it was a controversial choice…

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  2. I loved this for the same reasons you did. It had a vibrancy and energy that swept you along.

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    • I love books that do that. Like Sea of Poppies, I loved that too.

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  3. I also loved this when I read it. A lot of the details have faded from memory but I remember being so struck by the richness of the language as you describe.

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    • Just talking with Sue from Whispering Gums about what we remember from books long after the details have faded, and I could have mentioned this one for the vivid images of the women in their colourful saris.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this soon after it was published. Very special book.

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    • I wonder how many of recent Bookers we will remember in years to come.
      I’m a bit shocked that The Mirror and the Light wasn’t shortlisted.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that they must have thought that two out of three wins for a single series was more than enough, to be honest. Surely there are lesser known authors who need to be highlighted and acknowledged through this prize. I know people loved these books, but seriously, let’s not be selfish. She got a third time on the long list, and she should be pleased with that.

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        • I haven’t heard anything about her reaction…
          I thought of this issue yesterday when they announced that The Yield was shortlisted for the Voss Prize, and I remembered other instances of books that had swept the prize pool in a single year and authors who had dominated prizes winning everything in sight year after year.
          LOL I always think of Shakespeare: he was a genius, and everything he wrote would have been the Best of the Year, but had there been such a thing as LitPrizes in those days, would the judges have decided that Shakespeare had won enough and they should give out encouragement prizes to others who were not in his league?

          Liked by 1 person

          • HA interesting thought. By the way, a friend of mine just noticed that this short list has NO British authors… and it is supposed to be a British prize. Very strange…

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            • Historically it’s British: but even before they widened the criteria to let American authors be eligible, I believe, it was a prize for books written in English and published in England or Ireland. In the beginning, that was just British people, but now it includes writers from all over the Commonwealth…

              Liked by 1 person

  5. I adored this book too. I remember it as being challenging but rewarding. It started an Indian Lit obsession that lasted for several years (A Passage to India, Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, Jhumpa Lahiri and pretty much everything I could lay my hands on by Anita and Kiran Desai).
    I’ve often wondered if it would be as good with a reread.

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    • Yes me too, I really like Indian Lit…I don’t do challenges but I do have a Goodreads a shelf called Indian Lit Vishy to Read which comes from recommendations at Vishy the Knight’s blog, see https://vishytheknight.wordpress.com/category/book-recommendations/
      I have worked my way through quite a few of these on and off and have never been disappointed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the link to the list. I’ve only read 3 of the 12 do have a lot to look forward to!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I adored this when I read it years ago. Sounds like it could make for a good reread!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. At last, one of your Booker winners that I have read, years ago. But well enough remembered that I bought (and read) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as soon as I could. I’m not sure that Roy isn’t appalled by India, she is certainly unhappy with resurgent Hindu-ism, but celebrates what remains of its multiculturalism.
    Just saying, Patrick White withdrew from the MF to give lesser writers a go (and then used his Nobel winnings to celebrate the unrecognized worthy).

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  8. He did indeed. (And some of my favourite authors have won it too.)

    The Nobel, of course, is a great deal of money, much much more than any of the other prizes knocking around. Even that now discontinued WA prize of $100,000 (I think) would only be enough income for a few years, depending on how frugal the winner was. And a prize doesn’t always translate into sales or other writerly income…

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