Neither foot prints in the sand nor ripples in the water

” ..The landscape of your early childhood kind of lives in you.. The tiny fishes in the poodles left behind by the monsoon. The fruity air drenched in the scent of burst jack fruits. The blue bottles hitting the window panes embracing death..”

ARE YOU able to identify the lady in the ruddy blend of black and grey toting hand bags on both shoulders in a pair of corduroy pants one size too big?

Indeed it is none other than Arundhati Roy of the ‘God of Small Things’ (GOST – 1997 Booker prize) caught in camera strolling in Hauz Khas village, the arty little enclave well known for Indian designer clothing boutiques and art galleries in South Delhi.

I have often considered Roy to be the mercurial chanter of her own songs who is always in conflict with her youthful problems perhaps in finding her own identity. 

Tolstoy’s observation that ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ (Anna Karenina) holds  true especially when you consider the case of GOST.  The story line travels back and forth through time, from the beginning of the 1990s when Rahel visits India to see her twin brother Esthappan to a past in 1969 when they both were young children. In the earlier time frame of the novel Sophie Mol who is a cousin of the twins comes to visit them from England with her mother. Rahel and Esthappan feel themselves to be second class citizens before their half-white cousin. As circumstances have it their distraught mother associates herself with the ‘untouchable’ Velutha (member of a lower order in the caste system) which brings about tragic consequences. As a matter of fact tragedy strikes on all of them. Sophie Mol drowns. Velutha is killed. Rahel, Esthappan and the mothers (theirs and Sophie Mol’s) find themselves without purpose in life.

Cover of "The God of Small Things"

The GOST cover

However, the narrative is not straight forward as most readers may have been used to, yet the incidents that unfold do not exactly climax into a quick sand configuration. On the other hand they are held together by an out of tune rustic hymn that runs beneath the whims of the characters like a soliloquy played over your heart-strings. The whole GOST experience makes one wonder how much control we wield over our own lives; how we are able to understand and interpret people and their actions with a deeper sense of purpose and meaning now that as children we never did; the dynamics of life in the family and how it is impacted by the betrayals and misunderstandings brought about by political deceits and misconstrued religious beliefs. In sum, it is a burnt slice of life plucked out of a time span that we consider bygone but actually not. 

Some writers have confessed to writing to rhythms of the music of their liking. Roy’s experiments are far more daring. Her word plays are outlandish but innocent sometimes for the sake of innocence: “Later” is converted to “Lay.Ter” and “An owl” to “A Nowl” and stranger still, “Heart of Darkness” becomes “Dark of Heartness”.

Perhaps such verbal abundance, have prompted a laissez-faire like Carmen Callil, who was a Booker judge in 1996, to appear in British television after the Booker Prize dinner to condemn Roy. The West generally does not recognize great Indian writers like Bibhuthi Bhushan Bandopadhyay, or B.V. Karanth, or Thakazhi (there’s mention of the twins returning from the local cinema house after seeing ‘Wrath of Sea’ in GOST) because their work medium was not English.

It makes me sad if something happens to that place I grew up, says Roy. Is that why she appears more Margaret Atwood than Atwood herself? Is that why the abundant metaphorical collages leave one in an unreal reverie where irony doesn’t translate into destiny?

Her mother was a divorcee who fought against the Christian inheritance law. The spirited woman’s efforts in the end won a landmark verdict that granted Christian women the right to parent’s property. Being the daughter of a rebel with a cause she lived a life on the edge of the community before leaving home to be on her own at the age of 16.

In retrospect she says, when I was growing up, it was like the revolution was around the corner. And there lies within the fragmented narrative like the mislaid silhouette of a torn fabric the transgressive union of the twins’ mother with the untouchable.

Some of the social reformists’ reaction was predictably dogmatic deprecating Roy as a projector of bourgeois aesthetics. Taking for granted that the character ‘Ammu’ was modeled after Roy’s own mother, they went on to argue that how could a mother feel proud of a daughter’s writing where she has been indicted with sexual anarchy. The intellectual bourgeois though did not stoop to such levels in real life, actually enjoyed gossiping about deviated sexual behavior.

I have a curious habit of trying to re-live the past by retracting history. Such hypothetical discontinuities in the flow of time as if in a time warp have been unique in the sense that they lead you to sometimes rediscovering yourself. The Aymenem experience 11 years ago was indeed distinct. In an interview Roy had said, the landscape of your early childhood kind of lives in you. I knew that then. The tiny fishes in the poodles left behind by the monsoon. The fruity air drenched in the scent of burst jack fruits. The blue bottles hitting the window panes embracing death. And the omnipotent Provider of all these ‘small things’ Who neither leaves footprints in the sand nor ripples in the water.. (Chapter 11).

But in the present I am condemned to live with the paranoia of my own opinions. Then there is also the Chinese curse denouncing me to live in interesting times.


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