In my first review of The God of Small Things, I dismissed the book as unworthy of a Booker Prize. I was harsh in the review because I felt the book was not good. While I still stick to it, I wanted to address the content of the book, which while done to death, and is a little bleak, plays itself out in Indian households with alarming regularity. There are a number of families where it does not happen, but India is a country where even small percentages are sizable populations. And anyone saying they are not privy to this, outright denies these practices and pushes back indignantly is a big problem in not acknowledging, and thus not correcting, for these evils.
The Dysfunctional Family
The biggest myth among many Indians is the longevity of marriage and their ability to “adjust”. A brag about how kids love and respect parents perennially more than in any other society. And of parental love towards kids. Both are taken to be unconditional and more importantly unconditioned. While the statistics might be true the underlying cause is faulty. The analogy works quite like in the army. Efficiency and longevity is ensured through strict enforcement of unbridgeable cultural boundaries. The male unquestionability, female culinary dominance, the infallible patriarch’s right of way, controlling habits masquerading as well meaning advises and sheer non exploration of relations (mostly marital) and obedience. Take these away and you have mayhem.
In most houses we do not see a relinquishing of any of these boundaries to grow into mature relationships. There is an intentional blind spot about questioning anything that is practiced in the house. There are taboo subjects (sex, religion, power, decision making, career choices) which bring about repression and which in turn manifests as ill adjusted empathy towards human relations and rights. The dominant Indian’s attitude about fidelity, rape, piety, manliness and femininity stems directly from this. The God of Small Things explores this directly. You can see it in Comrade Pillai’s joint family where he lives with his mother, in Baby Kochamma’s frustrated inability to appreciate love and in Ammu’s stigmatization to take on a lover.
The transfer of emotional support of Mammachi to Chakko from Pappachi is all too real in an Indian household where the wife is just a lifetime holder of repressed ambitions, fantasies and hate.
Casteism and Classism
The Indian caste system is endemic. And corrosive. It does not take anybody any serious analysis to realize how dangerously bigoted the division of privileges among people is. But still you will find people practicing it. The act is equivalent to a person vehemently protesting killing an animal in front of him, but having no qualms in eating it as long as the act is hidden from his eyes. The hypocrisy is mind boggling. Every day you hear thousands of people dying, being raped, discriminated against in work, access to government benefits and justice and so many basic rights just because they belong to a different caste, religion and class. And every day you hear reasonings along the lines of “but I did not do it myself. I cant help it if the practice is being misused”. How much more intelligence does one need to put two and two together? It is the same practice of feeding charlatan yogis, homophobic babas, hate spewing clerics and mind numbing sermons that gives the marauding lawbreaker and lawmaker whatever moral support his heinous act needs.
Velutha would have been a success had he not been born a paravan. Chakko is magnanimous in his dealings but is handed one contrived misfortune after another till he breaks (one of my biggest complaints about the book). The older generation of Velya Appaappan, Baby Kochamma and Mammachi embody the inflexible upholding of intolerance without a single iota of reasoning other than that they are born that way and never thought of the custom and practice any other way. Chakko is fully aware of his status and also takes advantage of his feudal status to have his way with the women workers, which given his education and sarcasm, must have sated and repulsed him equally.
So in all fairness, while the book might have sucked for me because it was just a regurgitation of the ills plaguing Indian society, I can understand that it is necessary to write about it. By dismissing it without acknowledging the truth in it I was just turning a blind eye to everything the book stood for.