Thursday, April 15, 2010

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

1997 Booker Prize

“The God of Small Things” is Arundhati Roy’s powerful account of a wildly dysfunctional Keralite family’s personal tragedy catapulted into hideous social injustice. The series of events leading to it, and its aftermath are seen through the eyes of Estha and Rahel, twinned in soul, and not just by accident of birth.

Besides its brilliant characterization, what lends power and force to this story is the author’s language – lyrical, passionate and sensuous. She excels at very luscious descriptions, and is really able to evoke the beauty of ‘small things’. She is equally good at evoking disgust and revulsion.

Explicit violence, graphic sex, a fixation with the male anatomy - and I felt that some of it at least, was just for effect. It seems intended to jolt the reader.

Its other drawbacks – her writing can also be jarringly idiosyncratic, riddled with metaphors that don’t always work, generously sprinkled with obscenities, and annoyingly precious. When she meanders into the morass of regional politics, her tone becomes oddly flat and unconvincing. Her social criticism oscillates between heartfelt pathos, and strident hectoring.

But her delicate irony, and wicked sense of humor illuminate an otherwise joyless story. She writes like an angel, whenever she’s talking about or through the children. If I ever read this book again, it would be solely for that reason. Though a lot of the book deals with ugly matters, what gives beauty to it is this – the tender humor and aching compassion. It’s like a rainbow in a gutter.

The plot itself, a love affair doomed by social divides and political conniving, will be nothing new to those who have had their fair share of Indian movie melodrama. Her depiction of 1960s Kerala as a hotbed of social oppression is questionable. But whatever its other weaknesses, the characterization more than makes up for this book’s shortcomings. Her characters, however seriously flawed, are never demonized. They err by being human.

The book itself is an intriguing juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful. In that vein, Roy’s linguistic eccentricities, her shrill social criticism, and dismal world-view, are finely counterbalanced by her poetic prose, deep compassion, and, exquisite sense of humor.

Admirers of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits” may like this book.

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