I am back with a book review after weeks of procrastination and futile prioritizing. The Booker is on its way again and the reading virus infects us all—the worm in the bookworms.
Nostalgia grips my senses when I open my book cupboards. Sifting through myriad titles, my fingers curl themselves over and over again around books read once—months, years and even decades back. What is it about old titles and musty pages that draw me out from the latest bestseller and wraps itself around my distracted mind? Like when I chanced upon The God of Small Things after all these years, after the hoo-hah over its Booker award and rave reviews. Its timeworn smells wafted out to me, urging me to read, and I did; plunged into The God of Small Things, and in it, the harbinger of big tidings nudged into dark recesses of the mind, tantalizingly juxtaposed images of childhood lived and lost, the dark secrets of relationships and their impact on the world of children and their mothers, the politics of manipulation and motivation.
It struck chord again, overwhelmed me with its language, images, ideas, and the disquiet of loss. At the end of the book, I stopped at two words that should have resonated with promise but carry emptiness in their wombs. “Naaley. Tomorrow.” In the narrative, that tomorrow never comes. What does come though is the never-ness of this promise, the futility of its utterance, the exquisite pain of its hopeless hopefulness. This pathos permeates the narrative, its external manifestations and internal ramifications. It curls itself into the dreams that Rahel and Estha’s mother, Ammu, dream in the afternoon, what Estha calls her “afternoon-mares” transcribing the idea of a nightmare on to afternoon dreams. It is not mere wordplay in a child’s mind but a symbol of the long, endless nightmare into which the characters plunge.
Words. And there are plenty of them that Arundhati Roy plays around with in this sensitively written story of a pair of twins and their mother, of their life sans a father, of Ayemenem, of mean minded, manipulating adults with whom the kids share space, of dreams that are meant to break, of local politics that plays its dirty games. Amidst all the cacophony and silence, Ammu, around whom the events unfold and crash, holds her own in a Syrian Christian, male dominated, chauvinistic society, trying to hold on to and protect her fatherless twins, yet giving them enough leeway to learn on their own, from mistakes and escapades. The two-egg twins, bound by their twin-ness, practice their unusual language on everybody, both hilarious and tender at the same time. Like their backward reading, “Ot pots niart llup niach” (To stop train pull chain) or their arbitrary use of words that would defy the rabid etymologist, fast, faster, fest.
The family in Ayemenm is a microcosm of families in many other Indian villages, towns and cities, tossed around by wiles and guiles, desires and unfulfilled longing, biases and prejudices, socio-political machinations of tradition and disinheritance. When Ammu begins her long slow slide into a financial and emotional abyss, the kids are scattered, their thoughts and emotions, fused in their mother’s womb, a silent burden in their adult lives, a weight that finds release only in sharing, breaking taboo laws of love and belonging, fusing into one, two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Their mother defies taboos too, with Velutha, the man whom her children loved by day and she by night. Velutha, the Paravan, the untouchable, whom no “touchable” was meant to touch, Velutha, who glides into Ammu’s dreams and binds her two kids together in an indescribable bond with him.
Arundhati Roy was accused of obscenity in the scenes where Velutha and Ammu come together. The slander is unfortunate, because those scenes are infinitely tender, infinitely agonizing, ripped out of the characters’ lives as though without their creator’s conscious effort, without their own efforts. It is this tenderness that permeates the novel, setting new standards for pain and longing, love and loss.
The God of Small Things brings big pleasures, sensitizes the reader, and touches a hidden chord within us. It celebrates the senses, each one of them, and is the perfect example of sensual writing at its best. The unusual word plays jar at times, but that is a small cost for lyricism that stays with one long after the book is stacked away, waiting for nostalgia to strike again.
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