The epigraph for Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things seems especially relevant to a discussion of The New Canon. Taken from John Berger’s novel G., which in relating one man’s seduction of many women, manages to combine the intimate and the historical, the quotation emphasizes that no one story is the only story. If we extend this idea to The Canon, we see the importance of treating each work within it not as the lens through which we are to interpret the world but as one such lens available to us. It follows logically that The New Canon should offer a variety of lenses, with varieties of genders, races, ages, classes, sexualities, and more. Here, The God of Small Things succeeds by offering well-developed perspectives for the many different characters making up and interacting with the Ipe family, yet as a woman who drew from her own childhood in India as well as her other experiences to write the novel, Roy probably allows readers the most time with Rahel, the sister twin of the brother-sister pair at the heart of the events that shape the narrative. Like Berger before her, Roy is able to expand readers’ knowledge of the world by focusing on the personal interactions of characters living in it. The result is a post-colonial novel with a relatively simple plot but complexly tragic characters illuminated through a postmodern writing style.
Set mainly in Ayemenem, Kerala, India, The God of Small Things moves back and forth through time between the years 1969, when seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel become involved in a family tragedy, and 1993, when they meet again as adults still feeling the aftermath. Through the characters’ eyes, readers get to see not only the social upheaval of 1960s India, the Marxist marches and illicit love affairs, but also the ways in which a history of British colonization and a deeply entrenched caste system (which the British exploited when administering their Raj) have influenced the Indian characters’ views of themselves. Roy provides post-colonial symbolism throughout the novel, most noticeably through The History House, which begins as a metaphor from the twins’ uncle Chacko but becomes, through the adorably relatable misunderstanding of the children, a name for a literal site (a mysterious, abandoned house that comes to be marked by secrets and violence). Chacko’s original metaphor, depicting history as a house his people cannot enter inhabited by ancestors whose whispering cannot be understood, illustrates the paradox of post-colonial identity: “They were all Anglophiles…Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away” (51-52). Through such rich use of everyday language, The God of Small Things empowers readers to understand life as lived by those other than the dominant group—indeed, to understand the complexities of dominance that make a simple division into dominant and dominated problematic.
Because the story revolves for the most part around two seven-year-olds, much of the novel is infused with a childlike voice; that said, The God of Small Things is not children’s literature as it exposes all of its characters to the harsh realities of life. In the novel as in real life, children experience sexual abuse, children die, and children carry around fear and guilt for that which they do not understand. Children cannot even depend upon constant parental affection. When Rahel insults her mother Ammu with the familiar childhood taunt “So why don’t you marry him then?”, Ammu explains that careless words have a cost in love, leading Rahel to feel, “A little less her Ammu loved her” (106-107). This idea of losing love recurs throughout the novel. Of course, children are not the only ones who suffer in life. For everyone in the book, from the twins’ grandfather Pappachi who suffers the indignity of never getting credit for his great moth discovery to their adult friend Velutha who faces the severe limitations (or else the severer consequences) of being an Untouchable, happy moments are few and always come at a cost, and love is never uncomplicated. Love is in fact dictated by its own set of laws, the code for the caste system laying down “who should be loved, and how. And how much” (33). Characters’ desires come into conflict with the love laws all through the novel, often resulting in tragedy.
Providing both welcome contrast and useful complement to the serious and distressing subject matter is the playfulness of Roy’s writing style, the childlike voice mentioned above. Take for example Rahel’s description of thirty-one years, how old Ammu was when she died: “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age” (5). The phrase has a pleasant rhythm to it, not to mention the creative rhyme derived from the made-up word “die-able,” but the meaning behind the words is that Rahel and Estha have reached an age when their lives could be over, just as their mother’s life ended. Roy further experiments with rhythm by removing spacing between words, as in the sentence “The singing stopped for a ‘Whatisit? Whathappened?’ and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping” (8). Other experimentation entails capitalization for emphasis, phonetic spelling, frequent use of lists, and word-for-word reproduction of signs, definitions, and the like. Since the story moves back and forth through time, repetition also occurs. Roy’s linguistic playfulness along with the post-colonial perspectives and the nonlinear use of time establishes The God of Small Things as a postmodern work.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy deserves a place in The New Canon for the complexity and variety of its characters, the unique perspectives they offer on life in general and 1960s India in particular, and the inventive way in which Roy communicates these perspectives. Roy was aware of the English literary tradition dominated by old white men when she wrote her book. Not only does the epigraph quote John Berger, but also the body of the novel contains references to works by William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others in the traditional canon. Roy blends the literature with history, pop culture, personal experience, and imagination to create a read as engaging as it is enlightening. When deciding which works belong in The New Canon, we should look to The God of Small Things as a great example of how to move away from the old canon toward something more inclusive.