India is a country—heck, an entire landmass—that I know very little about, so maybe it was fitting that in ordering The God of Small Things I knew nothing about the book’s subject matter at all. Someone on Reddit (or maybe it was Quora) included it in a short list of absolute must-read books, which was how I became aware of it for the first time. Normally I wouldn’t make such a purchase on a whim, but this random Internet stranger seemed so convinced of his choices that I placed an order for the book based solely on that and didn’t even see an inkling of its summary until it arrived in the mail and I read the back cover.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first novel I’ve read which takes place in India and is written by a native author, and so it was my most intimate look to date at the cultural legacy of the caste system, and in particular that of the untouchables. Presented mostly from the perspective of a girl named Rahel, the story, leading up to an event referred continually to as “the Terror”, is told in splintered fragments. With the narrative jumping nervously back and forth through time, reading Small Things is like piecing a broken mirror together, with the dubious event, which scarred the lives of Rahel and her twin brother Estha forevermore, kept tauntingly out of reach, only to be revealed when all the shards have come together. Whether all the details leading up to the revealing of “the Terror” are really necessary might be questionable, but along with Arundhati’s peculiar and vivid prose, they flesh out her characters and the village of Ayemenem in bold sensory and emotional detail. I Wasn’t A Fan of the way Arundhati capitalized Words Inexplicably throughout the Entire Read, a tendency which never seemed to evolve a pattern, but I’ll allow that it may have portrayed Rahel’s childlike perspective on events by assigning significance to small things that others wouldn’t register as anything special. Well, the book is called The God of Small Things after all.
I can’t say this is a work that I got hooked into and couldn’t put down. I tended to leave it on the back burner for days at a time before picking it up and covering a few more chapters. I suppose I could have just been going through a particularly busy time, but when a book’s sunk its teeth into me I usually can’t wait to at least dive back into it for a while before hitting the lights at night. It might have been the aforementioned splintered style of storytelling: it felt some of the time like there just wasn’t a whole lot going on. Or that there was, but I couldn’t make out what it was leading to, even if it was beautifully written through and through. As Rahel considers at one point, looking back on one of her fond childhood memories, “it is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain.”
Arundhati’s imagery and examination of little details is often scintillating, more than once making me re-read passages to admire their grace, and the way she plucks out and holds up to the light quirks and intricacies of the human heart is only fitting for a novel concerned with “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how”, with a social class known as the untouchables on the very bottom. There are themes surrounding love which were illustrated well enough to make me voice a mental wow: that of the love between mother and child, and the child’s fear of losing that love, as though it were something that could crumble away like plaster due to the child’s indiscretions; the pitiful love of material goods and the subsequent fear of losing them; or more tragically, the character Baby Kochamma’s undying love for a man she knew and fell in love with in her youth—a person who’s calling in life got in the way of them ever being together, and who she eventually outlived. Every night Baby Kochamma (now in old age, unlike the name would suggest) makes a fresh entry in her diary—“I love you I love you”—writing to a man as he was, as she had longed for, and not as he became. She possesses him in memory exactly as she always desired him to be, frozen in the time before he denied her, loving her back, embracing her. Sometimes a book will bring me a story like Baby Kochamma’s and make me realize that, while the heart wants what it wants, there’s enough disappointment and people loved in vain on this planet to make you wonder how our pale blue dot manages to contain it all.
I feel I’m just a little less ignorant now about aspects of social stratification in India, and in particular what the experience of someone of “untouchable” lineage might have been like, even after the country’s 1955 Untouchability Act, which officially prohibited discrimination against untouchables by making the practice of that caste division illegal (the story takes place from 1969-1993). I can say I’m glad to have paid attention to that Internet stranger and his must-read list, at least just this once. When I consider being let down by reading choices, sometimes even with novels I was highly anticipating, taking a total leap of faith with a book once in a while is a very Small Thing, with the potential for Big Rewards.