I seem to be focused on small things lately. Maybe in getting old, I have realized that big things are rare. I’ve learned one truly valuable lesson growing up (I want to believe we keep growing): You can fashion a good life out of small things. You do so by making big things of small ones. It’s not that hard—it’s what humans do to feel more than the speck we suspect we are in this vast, old universe.
It’s what Arundhati Roy does in the God of Small Things (GST), the one novel she’s written. She has other books tucked in her resumé but they’re basically about social activism and getting involved. By education, she’s an architect.
One novel is all it takes, if it resonates with enough big and small people, to get a prestigious prize—in this case, the 1997 Man Booker. Also, well-deserved renown: GST is often listed by famous list-makers among the top 100 books of fiction.
It’s certainly worth reading. If for nothing else but the beauty of its prose. I believe there are a couple of reasons I’m currently fixated on a couple of female Indian writers: the new perspectives they present (to me, anyway), and their gift for lyrical language.
The first three sentences of GST hooked me right away:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.
That vivid description transported me at once to an exotic location I could see, taste, and feel. Every subsequent sentence on the first page immerses me more into the setting and its intriguing possibilities. Descriptions like these illustrate a way writers can—but seldom do—make something big out of small things: mangoes, for instance, or black crows, an insignificant river, or even May in a locale foreign to most Westerners.
The story appears to focus on two-egg twins, Rahel and her brother Estha. But it’s equally about their mother, Ammu. It’s more about social and character studies than some major conflict that gets resolved by the end of the novel. Definitely more than genre, but literary at its best.
It does have events happening in it. Estha suffers child abuse by the Orangedrink Lemondrink seller in a moviehouse, and Ammu has a hot love affair with a low-caste social activist worker who the police murders—a murder that’s quickly and easily covered up. These are events that the social milieu around the characters prefers to minimize, treating them as small things. Morally, though, Ms. Roy makes them big.
No, she doesn’t shout out her views. Can you imagine someone with a gift for elegant language doing that? Instead, she makes good use of satirical humor with descriptions that inject little details not only about scenes but about people and events, and I find her way of doing so a delight.
But don’t be deceived. She does use this novel to give a strong social commentary—on the abuse of children and the lower class, and the precarious existence of women in India. As she does so, she also takes potshots at small segments of society.
Why “God of Small Things?” I’m not quite sure. Maybe, it’s another take on the expression “God is in the detail.”
I believe Ms. Roy is saying that small things we take for granted or want to treat as relatively insignificant do often have large meanings. They can change the course of a life. A child accidentally drowns (not a small thing, really), like Sophie Mol in this novel, and the lives of those who knew her, including children, are shaped by it. Same goes for child abuse and murder. The size of the costs of these “small things” may be gauged not so much by the “things” themselves but by the enormity of their effects on others or—not immediately obvious—society itself.