How the Heart Fails in Arundhati Roy’s "The God of Small Things"
“Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. […] Little events, ordinary
things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they
become the bleached bones of a story. […] It could be argued that it began long
before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag.
That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws
that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (Excerpted
from The God of Small Things)
The year is 1993. It has been nearly two decades since you last saw the place you grew up in, a
village called Ayemenem, located in the Kottayam District of Kerala, India. It’s June, the season of monsoons and wind-broken trees. Small fish wander puddles collected in the street. The air is thick with damp earth. Rain glitters the heads of all dead and living things, and as you approach your childhood home, now empty and moss-painted, you walk over the patch of earth where you were once small enough to be lifted by the man your mother loved in secrecy. You never knew just how much love, though. In a few moments, you will see your twin brother for the first time in twenty-three years since they sent him away. You knew things about him that you shouldn’t have, things he never told you. As the sky opens its floodgates, memories pour through you like spoonfuls of cough syrup. Memories of the river. The makeshift boat. The night you took to its black current and paid the price with another’s life. The funeral that followed. In many ways, those few fateful hours were when it all ended—you know this. When death took your brother’s childhood and replaced it with silence. When the god of small things became nothing more than a broken body in a prison cell. And when the others walked off into history, hand-in-hand with loss. But as you reach for the door, you ask yourself where it all began—the story itself, the small things, the one named a god. Then, as if looking for the answer, you enter.
“Half an hour past midnight, Death came for him. And for the little family curled
up and asleep on a blue cross-stitch counterpane? What came for them? Not
Death. Just the end of living.” (Excerpted from The God of Small Things)
About The God of Small Things & Why You Should Read It
There are few novels, in my opinion, that are deserving of their own homage—few stories that
have procured the privilege of being categorized as classic literature long before their writer has
passed. The God of Small Things is singular in its possession of this title. I had the privilege of
studying it during my sophomore year at university and, since then, have used this time to
reorder my thoughts; the love, the contempt, and the grief. Therefore, it is with care and purpose
that I offer my judgments to those seeking something to read.
Published in 1997 and recipient of the renowned Booker Prize, The God of Small Things
is the semi-autobiographical work of Indian writer, humanitarian activist, and retired filmmaker
Arundhati Roy. In the years preluding its publication, she set out to create something that could
not undergo negotiation by other peoples’ interpretations and perspectives, a work that was her
own, not a compromise. What transpired was a story situated in a period of India’s political,
social, and cultural significance, but more overtly, a story that asks too much of love.
It is difficult to identify what permits a novel like The God of Small Things to garner such
admiration from readers and why literary circles hold it in high esteem. It is like asking one to
prove beauty. There is only so much to feel, and too little to say.
The novel arguably surpasses ordinary literature for its departure from conventional
language. A test of limits, Roy’s creative writing is lush. Dense. Poetic. Rule-breaking. The
world she fashions from ink exists between the thin margin of what is real and surreal. Dreams
bleed over into wakings. Bodies are not merely bodies but mountainous heaps. Her story reads
like an old memory, softened and watered down by time. Without giving too much away, here
are some noteworthy examples:
“Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it. Dictated the rhythm with which
their bodies answered each other. As though they already knew that for each
tremor of pleasure, they would pay with an equal measure of pain. As though they
knew that how far they went would be measured against how far they would be
“Estha, without turning his head, could see her. Faintly outlined. The sharp line of
her jaw. Her collarbones like wings that spread from the base of her throat to the
ends of her shoulders. A bird held down by skin.”
“It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer
than the memory of the life that it purloined. [...] It was always there. Like a fruit
in season. Every season.”
“She woke to the sound of his heart knocking against his chest. As though it was
searching for a way out. For that movable rib. A secret sliding-folding panel.”
“He left behind a Hole in the Universe through which darkness poured like liquid
Other readers acclaim the novel as a socially transgressive piece, particularly for its explicit
depiction of India’s rigid caste system. The most notable example is an affair between two characters of different social classes, an upper-class woman and a lower-class Paravan, also called an “Untouchable.” As it suggests, the name forbids higher-class individuals from engaging in physical contact with them, maintaining class separation. To couple with an Untouchable in any manner is a deplorable act, hence the discriminatory backdrop of the novel.
But Roy’s forbidden lovers exist for more than the picturesque. Whether shared with their world or not, their union is a defying act, a political statement against social stratification. By crossing the invisible boundaries of class structure, they shatter the Love Laws, “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
This is where the heart fails—to listen, to know anything other than devotion, over and over again. And we must bless it for failing.
There are other things—small things—worth mentioning, like how Roy depicts child-like
innocence and the in-betweenness of life, all those partial mercies. Or how the novel is written in
non-sequential order, mimicking memory itself. Only in the end, after reaching back and forth
through time, does the story allow you to see it in full. There is no way out.
A Synopsis of the Novel (No Spoilers)
Nearly two decades after the tragedy, Rahel Ipe returns to Kerala, India, the blood of loss still
thick on her hands, after hearing news of Estha’s arrival—her twin brother. She has not seen him since he waved an indefinite goodbye from the train car twenty-three years ago, and it is unclear what happened on that fateful night in the summer of 1969. Only that it tore love and life in two, sending each family member in opposite directions, pain ricocheting.
Piece by piece, body by body, the story mends itself through staggered recollection. In the end, Rahel’s emptiness is understood, as is Estha’s silence. And as for their mother, Ammu, who falls for an “Untouchable,” the metaphorical Love Laws dictate her fate.
A love affair between history and the present, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things contains the part of the body that fails best—the heart. When asked to stop, it cannot. When thrown to a world drawn by division, it will learn no boundaries. It is innocent of nothing.
“But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. [...] Only that there was a
snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-
colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each
other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not
happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws.
That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.” (Excerpted from
The God of Small Things)