Saturday 16 June 2012

Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" and the Text of Empathy Vs. Sympathy

“Estha and Rahel had no doubt that the house Chacko meant was the house on the other side of the river, in the middle of the abandoned rubber estate where they had never been. Kari Saipu’s house. The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had ‘gone native.’ Who spoke Malayam and wore mundus. Ayemenem’s own Kurtz. Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness. He had shot himself through the head ten years ago, when his young lover’s parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school.”

The God of Small Things centers on the lives of Rahel Ipe and her brother Estha, displaced fraternal twins who are thirty-one years old in the narrative present, but who cannot stop revisiting the traumatic events that took place in 1969 in their home town of Ayemenem, situated in India’s southwestern Kerala state. Rahel and Estha are the children of Ammu Ipe, a woman who elopes with a man from Calcutta to escape her overbearing father, only to discover that her husband is an abusive alcoholic who wants to advance himself by forcing her to become his boss’s mistress. Choosing the lesser of two evils, Ammu returns home in disgrace to raise her children on her family’s estate. While living in Ayemenem, twins Estha and Rahel form a close bond with Velutha, an employee of the Ipes and a lowly “untouchable” in the Hindu caste system. A forbidden romance soon develops between Velutha and Ammu, precipitating the events that will haunt Rahel and Estha for the rest of their lives.

When I first read The God of Small Things in my precocious undergraduate years, the experience redefined the way I approached the misfortunes of other people. Before reading this book, I reacted to the pain of the world with sympathy, which is to say that I thought caring for others meant “feeling bad” for them. The God of Small Things, though, helped me distinguish how empathy was something different – not the pity of sympathy, but a shared suffering; the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” that Atticus Finch would encourage us all to practice. In short, the book had a pretty darn meaningful impact on my life. (Note: whether or not true empathy is actually possible is a debate I leave to my undergraduate years; the discussion will tell you little more than who’s cynical and who isn’t).

Thematically, The God of Small Things delves into the crushing institutional prejudices that persisted in 1960s India and historically stemmed from British colonialism, patriarchal gender conventions, and the Hindu caste system, to name only a few. The book gives harrowing accounts of injustice, but makes its strongest impact when it speaks of forbidden love, whether it be through the devotion that Ammu and Velutha feel for one another, or the controversial bond that forms between siblings Rahel and Estha, who are so emotionally close that the novel often speaks of them as the same person.

In addition to her insightful understanding of human emotion, Roy’s prose is superb, as is the masterful way in which she chooses to structure her novel. Using a third-person omniscient narrator, the novel is non-linear in its time scheme, following the associative routes of Rahel’s personal memories rather than reporting events in chronological order. The narrative returns to the past over and over, yet each time from a different angle. In doing so, it mimics the same movements our own minds make when we try to make sense of a profoundly upsetting experience. Such an experience flashes into our minds when we walk down the street and keeps us awake at night, provoking sudden cringes and quick breaths that seem to go unnoticed by the world around us. We replay this bad experience for ourselves over and over, hoping that we will hit upon some idea that will finally put it (and who knows, maybe our bodies) to bed.

“Blood spilled from his skull like a secret. His face was swollen and his head looked like a pumpkin, too large and heavy from the slender stem it grew from. A pumpkin with a monstrous upside down smile. Police boots stepped back from a pool of urine spreading from him, the bright bare electric bulb reflected in it.”

For many fans of the book, The God of Small Things is just as interesting for its publication history as it is for its content. In 1997, Roy was just 28-years old and a rookie to the world of novel writing. Yet after an enthusiastic HarperCollins agent named Pankaj Mishra became a champion for the book’s merits, Roy  received more than 500,000 pounds in advances alone! History would prove the publishers correct, as Roy’s novel would go on to win the 1997 Man Booker Prize and sell over 6 million copies. All in all, I would say this is as much of a feel-good story about the publishing industry as you will find anywhere. Yet the future would not be all roses for Roy, who would face severe criticism on many fronts, as well as criminal charges for obscenity in her home province of Kerala. If you haven’t read the book, I’ll tease you a little and say that it’s not for her portrayal of sex alone that  Roy faced these charges.

With all of this book’s profound empathy and its criticism of injustice, it should not be surprising to discover that Arundhati Roy has worked most of her life as an extremely influential human rights and environmental activist. I feel compelled to mention this, though I’m not quite sure how to follow it. What can I say? An incredible person wrote an incredible book. 

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