It begins so beautifully.
“Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against the clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
“The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
“But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen.”
It’s so lovely: fatly baffled — what a phrase! Suffused with sloth and sullen expectation — what alliteration, what a way to draw out those sounds, slower and slower, exactly like a slow, sultry night time when you wait forever for coolness that never comes. Thrilled children — what a rhyme! And the sharp, glittering sunshine they snatch to play with — what an image! Immodest green and mossgreen — my God!
And though the tone is far darker, it ends with the same beauty:
“He held her against him, resting his back against the mangosteen tree, while she cried and laughed at once. Then, for what seemed like an eternity, but was really no more than five minutes, she slept leaning against him, her back against his chest. Seven years of oblivion lifted off her and flew into the shadows on weighty, quaking wings. :Like a dull, steel peahen. And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared. Copper grass spangled with blue butterflies. Beyond it, an abyss.”
It’s magnificent. The clarity of the images, the remarkable insight into the symbolism of color and movement and the connections between life forms — he against the tree and she against him; oblivion flying away like a peahen, both of them dull and steel-colored; a sunny meadow appearing on the road of life in this small, lovely interlude, this moment of peace in the midst of turmoil and destruction and sorrow, leading to that waiting abyss. It’s amazing. I can’t read this book enough. I can’t teach it enough. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a novel by a writer as poetic as Arundhati Roy, in her book The God of Small Things.
So then what the hell is this:
“He was a naked stranger met in a chance encounter. He was the one that she had known before Life began. The one who had once led her (swimming) through their lovely mother’s cunt.”
Wait, what? That’s the image, twin infants swimming through the birth canal? And that’s the word you want to use? Their lovely mother’s cunt? Why on God’s green and verdant Earth would you use that word, and that image, in that moment? Admittedly, the very next line connects this passage to the idea of jarring discord, to paradox and conflicting feelings — “Both things unbearable in their polarity. In their irreconcilable far-apartness.” So I assume that the use of jarring words and clashing images, the image of the pain and the tearing and ripping of birth sweetened into a casual synchronized swim, and the juxtaposition of “lovely mother” with “cunt,” are meant to show this unbearable polarity, this irreconcilable far-apartness. Okay. It makes sense. I still don’t like it, but it makes sense.
But that’s not the only one. There’s also this:
“As Khubchand lay dying on his cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. To Estha—steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man—the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. A bird in flight reflected in an old dog’s balls. It made him smile out loud.”
And I love the phrase “smile out loud.” So what’s with the dog’s purple scrotum? Who spends that much time staring at dog balls? How the hell could the sky be reflected in dog scrotum-skin? Is that possible? You know what, I’m never going to know. Because I’m never going to check. And the idea that this is a smiling occasion, that old dog nuts are the perfect image of tender fragility, is just not a thought I’m prepared to entertain. Nope. Once again, I get it — testicles are indeed fragile, as I’m fully aware; and an old dog is a deeply tender and sweet beast: I already had my heart broken just before this passage, when Roy describes the dog’s failing health, his murky eyes and his uncontrolled bladder, because both of those are crystal clear reminders of my beloved dog’s last days — but I don’t need to know what mystical secrets you see when you stare at a dog’s junk. This only makes me think Estha and Arundhati Roy herself are too irretrievably weird for me to handle.
But I can’t just leave it at that. Because I get the book. I understand the idea of the Small Things, and how deeply important they are, and how the whole world can pivot on a single point, can go from up-facing heaven-ascending glory, swiveled down to a face full of mud and hell, on one brief tick of the clock, sometimes no more than a minute. There is a moment when Ammu, the lovely mother of the swimming twins, looks up and sees Velutha, the man who will become her lover, the man who makes her oblivion fly away, and she sees him for the first time as a man: she has known him since childhood, and their respective stations in life — he an Untouchable Hindu laborer, she the upper-caste daughter of a factory owner and a Syrian Christian — have kept them from seeing each other as equals and therefore potential partners; but in this one moment, she spots him not only with his shirt off and his lovely body showing, but also, she sees him playing affectionately with her daughter, and Ammu thinks: father — husband — man. Had she not looked up in that moment, she might never have seen Velutha in that way, and she might never have leaned against him under a mangosteen tree and laughed and cried at once. And the doom of everyone in the novel may not have been sealed. She had to see him right then, and she had to be feeling the way she did right then. That one moment changed everything.
Life is a collection of such tiny moments. But most of them, we ignore completely: because we only look at the big things. We are inundated with the suffering of the world around us, and so we cannot bear to speak of our own, not even when that speech would save us from guilt and choking silence like that which eventually swallows Estha, before he follows in the footsteps of his surrogate father and becomes for his twin sister Rahel the God of Small Things, as Velutha was for Ammu, their mother — and, we hope (though we do not know) is saved and redeemed by that one small moment of solace, his own oblivion leaving him as Ammu’s did before. We do as Estha did: we think of ourselves as small, as unimportant; we think of those tiny moments, those pivotal points when everything changes, as tiny as well, even though they are, in reality, everything. Even the large things, the suffering of war, and famine, and pestilence, and death, are made up of tiny, pivotal moments in the lives of tiny individual people — individual people who make up all of teeming humanity.
So how does Roy show us this contrast, between the big things and the small things? With a madman’s penis, that’s how.
“Murlidharan, the level-crossing lunatic, perched cross-legged and perfectly balanced
on the milestone. His balls and penis dangled down, pointing towards the sign which
“Murlidharan was naked except for the tall plastic bag that somebody had fitted onto
his head like a transparent chef’s cap, through which the view of the landscape continued –dimmed, chef – shaped, but uninterrupted. He couldn’t remove his cap even if he had wanted to, because he had no arms. They had been blown off in Singapore in ‘42, within the first week of his running away from home to join the fighting ranks of the Indian National Army.”
That’s right: an army veteran with no arms, because he lost them in a pointless war, only a week into his military service. And because of his missing arms — surely the thing we notice the most, as we are forced to consider the experience of living without through the surreal and terrible image of some buttmunch putting a plastic bag on this poor guy’s head, which he can’t then remove — we only notice the large things, and not the small things. But it’s the small things that matter: the character’s madness, described as cabinets in his mind, which predicts Estha’s future similar mindset; and the place they are going, where Estha’s madness will begin when he is molested by the Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man. Where is that place? Cochin. And what points the way there?
Why, Ms. Roy? Why do you have to make a dick joke? Why couldn’t this guy just be sitting under the sign, with the words right over his head, or maybe reflected in his eyes? Why does he have to point to them with his genitalia?
AND WHY DO I HAVE TO KEEP THINKING “WELL, THOSE MUST BE THE SMALL THINGS?”
Here’s why I hate this. Because the book is both brilliant and complex. Because it’s taken me three readings to understand maybe half of it well. And I know there is far more that I am missing than I am getting. So when I read these little obscene, absurd moments, when I am so bothered and discombobulated by them, I can’t help but think that I am missing something. That there is no possible better word to describe birth than “swimming,” and no better way to talk about Ammu than to refer to her cunt. That the perfect image for fragility is a flying bird reflected in dog’s balls. That the best foreshadowing in the world is to have a penis pointing to the name of the place where another penis will begin the ruination of Estha.
I assume, when I am bothered by what I think of as really terrible choices by a really brilliant author, that the problem is not her, but me. That I am too lame to appreciate the book fully. And that turns my whole-hearted admiration for this wonderful work into something much more sour and cracked and sulfurous.
See? It’s the little things that make all the difference.