Fractured lives in Arundhati Roy’s : “The God of Small things”

The writer’s debut novel won the Booker Prize in 1997

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Set in the 1960s in Ayemenem, Kerala, India, the novel (Fourth Estate, HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 1997) revolves around the twins Estha, a boy, and Rahel, a girl. The mother is Ammu. The grandfather and grandmother are Pappachi and Mammachi. Baby Kochamma is the grandaunt (grandmother’s younger sister). Chacko is the maternal uncle. Velutha is Vellya Paapen’s son, both Untouchables i.e. belonging to the lowest rung of Indian social hierarchy. Their lives are characterized by failed relationships.


Baby Kochamma, 83, is unmarried. At 18 she fell for an Irish priest; failure to seduce him and her infatuation rather than love leave her disappointed. Unrequited love and jealousy will affect her own life and she ends up destroying the lives of plenty of people as well. Rahel, her grandniece, had expulsions at school for misbehaviour and had no friends. Having “a fierce lack of ambition” (p 18), she mostly kept to herself. Later she “drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge” (p 18) with an American. She is sympathetic but he is exasperated by her eyes that “behaved as though they belonged to someone else” (p 19). He cannot relate to her. Her lack of involvement or sexual incompatibility has roots in tragic events as we will discover later. Divorce follows. She comes back to Ayemenem, broken-hearted.

Chacko’s wife is Margaret, a British woman. They have a daughter, Sophie. At one moment he was jobless and getting obese, lazy and negligent. Her parents disliked Indians and did not attend the marriage ceremony. Fed up with him, she divorces Chacko and marries Joe who is financially stable. The latter dies in an accident. Chacko invites his ex-wife and child to Ayemenem for Christmas. Unfortunately Sophie accidentally drowns in the Minachal river. Margaret is “shattered like glass” (p 263). Her “grief and bitterness coiled inside her like an angry spring” (p 31).  However, she conceals her anguish and pretends to face the mishaps calmly.

Male chauvinism   

Mammachi hates Margaret. Chacko runs the pickles factory but flirts with his women workers. He takes them by bus to Trade Union classes; when they return by boat the women are “happy with glass bangles and flowers in their hair” (p 65). His mother knows about his libertine relationships but thinks that a male “can’t help having a Man’s Needs” (p 168). She even builds a separate entrance to his room so that the women do not pass through the house. She also secretly slips them money to keep them happy. Her double standards come through when Ammu, Chacko’s sister, is vilified for her affair with Velutha, a pariah.

Pappachi is foul-tempered. 17 years older than Mammachi, he realizes that “he was an old man when his wife was still in her prime” (p 47). Jealous at the attention she is receiving, he gets irrational and every night he beats her with a brass flower vase. One day Chacko intervenes to stop the nonsense. Pappachi stops beating her but decides not to speak to her for the rest of his life. Too engrossed in his obsession about his dominant position in the household as a patriarch, he has no time to think over the effect of his behaviour on others. Mammachi bears it in silence. It is not in her to rebel. Defying male authority means she might be thrown out. Society can be cruel: a divorcee or a wife rejected may have a difficult life. The author draws a scathing picture of men abusing their power over women and the latter are powerless at the gender inequality in a deeply conventional society. Despite the rough treatment, Mammachi conforms because this is what is expected of her. Much later “the scars of old beatings” (p 166) will still be there. She is condemned to live with memories of cruelty filed away deep in her mind.

When Ammu was aged 9, she and Mammachi were driven out of the house by Pappachi. They hid in the hedge in cold winter. The girl crept into the house to fetch her beloved gumboots. Caught, she was flogged by the father and the gumboots were torn to pieces –  a pain she will never forget. The bad treatment may have something to do with her poor health in adulthood.

Ill-fated lovers   

Seeing no possibility of a marriage in Ayemenem, Ammu escapes to Calcutta where she marries an assistant manager of a tea estate. She discovers that he is “a full-blown alcoholic with all of an alcoholic deviousness” (p 40). He is also an outrageous liar. When the twins were born, he was stretched out on a bench in the hospital corridor. She hits back when he becomes violent. Repelled by “the medicinal smell of stale alcohol” and the “caked vomit that encrusted his mouth like a pie every morning” (p 42), she leaves him the moment he beats the children. She returns to Ayemenem.

Velutha, a carpenter, is kind-hearted but marginalized because of his inferior social status. He is well-known to Ammu’s family. Her loneliness, her despair and something about his physique draws her to him. His father comes to Mammachi to reveal that his son has crossed the limit. He wants to apologize. As a loyal servant, he even wants to kill his son for transgression: he has seen Ammu and Velutha “standing together in the moonlight. Skin to skin” (p 255). An Untouchable touching Ammu? Mammachi treats Vellya Paapen as “drunken dog!” (p 256) and furiously pushes him in the mud and spits “THOO! THOO! THOO!” (p 256). It is the ultimate insult to a low-caste person – an insult stripping him of all dignity. She feels “a cold contempt” (p 257) for her daughter and for what she has done. She nearly vomits on thinking about the hand of a “filthy coolie” (p 257) on her daughter’s breast. She considers Ammu’s relationship with Velutha illicit, scandalous but does not regard her son’s relationship with various women as such. Roy brings out this contradiction sharply.

Baby Kochamma conspires to wreck the lovers’ lives. She lies to the police to preserve the family honour: Velutha has forced himself on a divorcee. The police as agent of oppression will brutally kill Velutha. Chacko, angry, will send Ammu out of the house. She will die, aggrieved. The caste system, like a black cat, came in the lovers’ way to ruin their future, like it has done across centuries in India.


While the family is watching a film in a cinema hall, Estha goes to the Refreshment Counter. The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man invites him to a free cold drink. Trusting him, the child accepts. The man makes him hold his sex organ. The child goes back, his hand sticky. He wants to vomit. He is scared his mother would love him less if she knows the truth. So he lives with the secret tucked away in his head. Intense guilt will haunt him and adversely change his personality. Another guilt-ridden incident will devastate him: Baby Kochamma had invented a tale to have Velutha arrested but there had been no rape complaint. Therefore there was no case. And Velutha had been roughly handled. To save her skin, she manipulates and instils fear in the twins – betray Velutha or their mother will be jailed. Estha will betray the good-natured man.  The children will grow up to regret it forever.

An underlying element of protest runs in the novel against the injustices prevalent in society (police brutality, caste, violence against children, and sexual exploitation or shameless manipulation of children).

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