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Literature / The God of Small Things

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"It didn't matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings."
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The God of Small Things is Arundhati Roy's bitter, funny, and heart-wrenching novel about the ruin of an Indian family through a mesh of tradition, prejudice, politics, and the meddling of a bitter spinster great-aunt. It is told out of sequence, spanning several generations, with the bulk of the story centered around the childhood of Rahel and Estha, fraternal twins who are separated at the age of seven after the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol.

Half-English and all-privileged, Sophie Mol arrives in Ayemenem, India, after the death of her stepfather. Her mother's sensationalizing of the local customs infuriates Ammu, the mother of the twins; filled with the conflicted indignation with the rape of her culture simultaneously as that culture repeatedly stifles and nullifies all that she is as a woman and a single mother, she runs for comfort to the arms of the beautiful untouchable servant working for her family. Baby Kochamma, the spiteful great aunt who hates Ammu's ability to cope with life without a husband, finds out about the affair and, petrified of what consequences it could have on the family name, decides to put a stop to it.

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Luckily for her, the disappearance of Sophie Mol in a heavy storm gives her a pretext on which she can have Velutha the Untouchable carted off to prison and out of their lives, but what she does not account for is that Velutha's political party makes him a very dangerous target. Forced to either provide corroboration or admit her lie and be legally responsible for a false accusation, Baby Kochamma coerces the twins into testifying against Velutha by telling them that their mother's freedom depended on their account. Estha agrees to testify and does so, only to experience a horrific realization.


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This work provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Pappachi.
  • Anachronic Order: Chapters flash back and forth between the twins' childhood in The '60s and their adulthood early in The '90s, not to mention occasional long passages to even earlier times like in Ammu's own childhood.
  • Arc Words: Take your pick. "A [fill-in-the-blank]-shaped Hole in the Universe," and "seye rieht ni nataS" are common. Plus, for some unfathomable reason, everything associated with The Sound of Music is described as peppermint. No exceptions.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Ipes. Pappachi is abusive and tyrannical, Mammachi is domineering and distrustful of Untouchables, Baby Kochamma is a spiteful Manipulative Bitch, Ammu is something of a social climber, Chacko is a has-been with broken dreams, depression and delusions of grandeur, and the twins—who bear the brunt of it all—eventually take it by shutting down, withdrawing from the world, and seeking solace only in each other—romantically. One could be forgiven for sensing a Lannister vibe in this family.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Twincest, to be exact.
  • Buried Alive: The opening scene of Sophie Mol's funeral, told from Rahel's point of view, indicates that this was Sophie's fate. However, Rahel's perception is suspect from the get-go (she believes she sees Sophie doing cartwheels in her coffin), and later scenes further confirm that Sophie was in fact dead when she was buried.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Baby Kochamma is Catholic, went to Catholic school, has a rosary and develops an unrequited crush on Irish Jesuit Father Mulligan, but otherwise averted: the main Christian sect in Ayemenem is Syrian Christianity (directly founded in India by followers of St Thomas coming from Syria, according to lore, and thus not brought by colonisers), and then Anglicanism is mentioned as a religion which some of the Paravans (Untouchables) convert to, not that it does them much better.
  • Divergent Character Evolution: Played for Drama. Much of the book's present-day passages deal with how Rahel and Estha no longer share the bond they once did, and the book ends with them trying to reconnect in the only way they feel able—through sex.
  • Domestic Abuse: Pappachi, and Ammu's husband.
  • Dysfunction Junction
  • Emotionless Girl: After Estha is separated from her, Rahel turns into this. Her husband thought she had a Sugar-and-Ice Personality. He was wrong.
    • After the separation, Estha qualifies for this trope even more than Rahel (just switch "girl" to "boy"). There are hints that he's more emotionally repressed than truly emotionless, though.
  • Fat Bastard: Baby Kochamma.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The novel opens with Sophie Mol's funeral and establishes many times that she is dead. Velutha is also given this treatment.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Estha and Rahel.
  • He's A Man He Can't Help It: Mammachi's reasoning for tolerating Chacko's harassment of women from lower classes - his "Man's Needs."
  • Hot for Preacher: When she was young, Baby Kochamma fell desperately in love with Father Mulligan, an Irish missionary in India.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Baby Kochamma and Mammachi. Even Chacko was handsome before he let himself go.
  • Ironic Echo: On the way to Cochin to see The Sound of Music, the twins see Velutha marching in a Communist Party demonstration. He playfully denies it and jokes that it was his twin brother. Later, when the twins see Velutha beaten up to the point of dying at the police station, they attempt to deny the fact—by imagining it was his twin brother.
  • Karma Houdini: Deconstructed with Baby Kochamma. True, she gets away with the multiple layers of manipulation towards her family, particularly in how she manipulates Estha and Rahel into testifying that Velutha kidnapped them and killed Sophie Mol just to save her sorry skin. But by the time we see her in 1993 Ayemenem, she's living a hollow life where her plants have all died, she's basically a prisoner in the old family home due to her television addiction and failing health, and she's hopelessly trying to preserve her love for Father Mulligan with her diary. In the end her situation looks much more like a Pyrrhic Victory than a real one.
    • Played straight with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man that forces Estha to give him a handjob.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Baby Kochamma
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Rahel sees Sophie Mol do a cartwheel in her coffin, but no one else sees this.
  • No Name Given: "Ammu" simply means "mother" and everyone refers to her as such.
  • No Pregger Sex: Averted: Margaret Kochamma's affair with Joe, which ended her marriage with Chacko, happened when she was pregnant (and physically, at her most attractive).
  • Old, Dark House: The ancestral home of the Ipe family. When Rahel returns in 1993, the lights are dimming, the garden is wild and overgrown, the wooden fittings are rotting in, and the car has rusted into the ground, giving the house a very Gothic atmosphere overall.
  • One-Book Author: Until 2017, when Roy came out with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
  • Police Brutality: How Velutha received his fatal wounds
  • Posthumous Character: Several. The book opens with the funeral of Sophie Mol and explores her through flashback. Ammu and Velutha are also revealed to be these as well. Several minor characters such as Margaret Kochamma's second husband Joe, Baby Kochamma's love interest Father Mulligan, and Pappachi also count. One of the novel's major themes is about how characters, despite being dead, are still very much alive due to the presence of memories and the recurrence of history.
  • Rape as Drama: Estha's molestation at the hands of the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man.
  • Single-Minded Twins: Rahel and Estha, played for drama (they're described as two-egg twins that are two halves of the same soul.)
  • The '60s: Opens in 1969. The Sound of Music is still being shown in Kerala's theatres.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Ammu and Velutha know from the start things will not go well if they get together.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mammachi
  • Show Within a Show: The Kathakali plays.
  • Shrinking Violet: Estha, who's always been a quiet child. And then...
    "Estha occupied very little space in the world."
  • There Are No Therapists
  • Train-Station Goodbye
  • Twincest
  • Type Caste
  • Unreliable Narrator: Some of the scenes told (in third-person limited) from the children's point of view contain elements of this, most notably Sophie Mol's funeral.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: This was Margaret Kochamma and Chacko's relationship. At first.
  • The Voiceless: After he is Returned, Estha becomes this.

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