The God of Small Things is the book I have been searching for all my life – in every novel about multigenerational secrets and family tragedies, in novels decoding memory biases and loss of innocence, and in every literary fiction I read by authors all over the world. And to think that the mothership of melancholy fiction was in my backyard all along, abandoned by me twice before (both times within the first chapter. Once, because it was sexually explicit and I wasn’t, and the other time because it was too prose-y), in an odd way, gives me hope for all the yet-to-read books on my shelf.
The book suddenly popped into my head a couple of days ago, and I decided to give it another chance. After all, I now have experience reading plenty of sad, sexually-explicit books with dense prose – most of which, I can see now, was probably inspired by The God of Small Things. At the ripe old age of thirty-two (Not young. Not old. But a viable die-able age), I found the book unputdownable. I finished it in two days.
The book is weird, no doubt about it. It took a while for me to adjust to the writing style and see it as more than just an author showing off her skill with words. The writing is both solid and liquid, firmly rooting you to the setting but making the characters wet and slippery. It’s inventive and frustrating. It’s like a raving, sagely lunatic who knows the secrets of the world offering you a ride on her Scooty. Accept it, and you’ll have bumps and bruises at the end of it, you might even lose your head, but you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if you refuse to go on the ride and feel the dip of potholes and the crazy wind in your hair, if you only observe from far away, all you’ll see is a madwoman driving through the streets.
Behind the fragile facade of greenery lived a press of people who could gather at a moment’s notice. To beat to death a careless bus driver. To smash the windscreen of a car that dared to venture out on the day of an Opposition bandh. To steal Baby Kochamma’s imported insulin and her cream buns that came all the way from Bestbakery in Kottayam.
As a wannabe novelist, this book was a 99-rupees writing workshop. Only now do I truly understand several age-old writing advice like ‘Write what you know’, ‘Write what makes you uncomfortable’, and even ‘Show, don’t tell’ (that scene from the Kochu Thomban chapter with a Christian woman and her mute twin in a Hindu temple next to a snoozing elephant watching a high-as-a-kite Kathakali Bheema murder Kathakali Dushasana is the very definition of the phrase ‘visceral imagery’).
Though the rain washed Mammachi’s spit off his face, it didn’t stop the feeling that somebody had lifted off his head and vomited into his body.
Arundhati Roy doesn’t just paint an image with words, she enters your mind and installs it in your brain. She has this free-associative way of viewing the world that took my breath away. “It can’t be a practiced art, can it?” I had to ask myself to avoid feeling jealous. Still, it is absurd to imagine her sitting at a desk haggling with metaphors and metalepses to describe perfectly normal things like nightfall or abnormal things like a little girl’s dead body. Whether it is a gift or a skill, I have not seen too many writers with this ability to bend a language to their will.
As for the story, saying anything would give something away because how it is said matters as much as what is being said. It’s a haunting story, hauntingly told. I will gladly carry its sadness and madness with me for a long, long time.
The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in.