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Invitation to World Literature

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Getting Started

The Love Laws

Every culture wrestles with that most basic of human networks: the family. Our ties to family members are permanent and powerful, shaping our characters, our actions, and the opportunities we have to succeed, love, hate, struggle, and create our own identity.

In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's contemporary Indian novel, twin siblings Rahel and Estha experience full immersion in their large, diverse, unique, and typical family. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings all play a role in shaping the world of the twins, for better and for worse. Each family member's life is affected by politics, history, and culture clash, and while each person takes a different path through it all, each of their choices influences the family at large.

Simon Gikandi

Simon Gikandi
Professor of English, Princeton University:

"Mahatma Gandhi himself went out of his way to get people to transgress caste laws. They're not laws written in the books. They are laws about social behavior. Who can you touch? Who can you give money to? Who can you invite into your house? And most importantly who can you love?"

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CE 1947 Guided by the nonviolent resistance movement lead by Mahatma Gandhi, India gains independence from British rule. The country is partitioned into West and East Pakistan for Muslims, and India for Hindus.
1961 Arundhati Roy is born and grows up in Aymanam in Kerala, where her novel will be set.
1971 East and West Pakistan split, with East Pakistan becoming the nation of Bangladesh.
1992 Narasimha Rao becomes Prime Minister. Arundhati Roy is at work on The God of Small Things, setting it in 1992.
1997 The God of Small Things is published.

The God of Small Things flashes back and forth in time, from the early 1990s when the novel was written, when the grown-up Rahel is visiting her twin brother Estha in India, to the past, when they were children in 1969. The focal point of the flashbacks is the time when the twins' cousin Sophie Mol comes to India with her mother for a visit from England. While Rahel and Estha deal with their feelings of being second-class citizens in relation to their half-white cousin, their mother Ammu is in a secret relationship with Velutha, an Untouchable, a man from the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system. Members of the lowest caste, dalits, are called Untouchables. They were severely punished for mixing with higher-caste members. Ammu's secret affair with Velutha therefore has potentially fatal consequences. In fact, tragedy strikes all five of these characters. In the general grieving that ends the flashbacks, Ammu, Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol's mother and father are all left without hope or purpose in life.

The story of what happened to Velutha and Sophie Mol is given out piecemeal, with readers only gradually coming to understand what happened and why at the very end. Roy uses this technique to convey the sense of childhood memory, of Rahel's and Estha's incomplete grasp on facts and motives. The terrible part the twins are forced to play in Velutha's death by their aunt, Baby Kochamma, is at first only dimly understood by the children. The reader, also, comes slowly to understand exactly what happened to Ammu, Velutha, Rahel and Estha, and to make sense of the emptiness and withdrawal from the world that characterizes the twins as adults.

In this way, The God of Small Things makes us ask what power we really have over our own lives, when all of us are so intertwined with other people, particularly the family members who loom large in our childhoods but are only really understood when we grow up. When we do grow up, how do we loom large over the children in our own lives? What is the full legacy of a family, and how do we—can we?—separate ourselves from our family in order to create our own destiny? How are the dynamics of family life mirrored in the connections and betrayals created by broader religious and political modes of belonging?

The God of Small Things was written in English, which is spoken by many Indians together with one or more Indian languages. There are also words, phrases, and sentences from the Malayalam language—one of India's twenty-two official languages—which Roy also speaks. Roy uses different types of English for different characters; the children speak a more childlike, simple English than the adults, mixing words and taking them apart. In this way, later becomes "Lay. Ter." The novel is written entirely in the third-person, but most of the story unfolds from Rahel's point of view, from her innocent childhood or her reflective adulthood.

Ammu
The twins' mother, who suffers from the abuse and control of her father and then her husband. Divorced, living back in her home town, she is drifting through life when she too briefly finds happiness with Velutha.
Baby Kochamma
The twins' great-aunt is an old maid whose only passion in her youth was a hopeless love for an Irish monk. She lives her life in bitterness, hating Rahel and Estha, and helps cause the death of Velutha.
Chacko
Ammu's older brother, who travels to England to study and marries an Englishwoman. They divorce and he returns to live in India, struggling to keep up the family pickle business, and flirting with Marxism.
Estha Yako
A sensitive boy, Rahel's twin brother and closest ally in navigating the perilous adult world.
Margaret Kochamma
An Englishwoman who met Ammu's brother Chacko when he was studying in England. They had a daughter but their marriage soon fell apart, and she remained in England with their daughter when Chacko returned home. As the novel opens, Margaret and Sophie Mol are making their first visit to Chacko and his town.
Rahel Kochamma
A quiet girl with an inner emptiness, Rahel is a keen observer of the world around her.
Sophie Mol
Daughter of Margaret and Chacko, she visits India with her mother and forms a bond with the twins. Her tragic death will change the twins' lives.
Velutha
Handyman around the household. As an Untouchable, a member of the lowest caste in the Indian social system, Velutha is forbidden to touch Ammu, let alone have an affair with her.