Tuesday, 15 January 2013

MM's heirs? Arundhati Roy - part 2

Fierce, polemical and controversial

Arundhati Roy: novelist and campaigner

Part 2
Following his article in emag 33, Richard Lees uses Marxist, post-colonial and feminist perspectives to highlight the connections between Roy’s fictional God of Small Things and her non-fiction political writing.

            ....the shared interests overlapping Roy’s fiction and non-fiction are palpable: as a compelling human drama, The God of Small Things depicts the brutal and brutalising effects on individuals and communities of oppressive power structures – patriarchy, caste and class, neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism – the same social institutions and systems that Roy scrutinises with such intensity in her polemical non-fiction.

With these non-fiction connections in mind, and having ‘read’ the novel from a formalist viewpoint in my last article in emag 33, I now want to suggest starting points for three other approaches to The God of Small Things – feminist, Marxist and postcolonial perspectives – approaches that could be expanded and integrated to form a more detailed picture of Roy’s concerns as a novelist.

A feminist perspective

At the beginning Roy depicts female experiences of disempowerment mainly in relation to Ammu:

...Pappachi insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl, so Ammu had no choice but to leave Delhi and move with them. There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework...
...Chacko always referred to it as my factory, my pineapples, my pickles. Legally, this was the case,
because Ammu, as a daughter, had no claim to the property.

Once established, Roy’s analysis of patriarchy becomes wide-ranging. From Pappachi’s regular beatings of Mammachi and Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s shocking sexual assault on Estha, to the satisfaction of Chacko’s ‘manly’ needs and Dr Verghese Verghese’s habitual abuse of female patients, Roy presents male violence and sexual predation as culturally engrained, systematically traumatic and, in the case of the kathakali dancers, casual and endemic:
The Kathakali Men took off their make-up and went home to beat their wives. (Chapter 12)
With so many male characters maintaining their dominance through coercion, violence and sexual abuse, Ayemenam circa 1969 is represented by the author of The God of Small Things as a ruthlessly patriarchal society riddled with repressive traditions, ruled by discriminatory laws and regulated through reactionary police intervention. Roy makes this last point explicit in her account of Inspector Thomas Mathew’s role in the final, violent unfolding of events. While interviewing Ammu about her allegations of a ‘mistake’ regarding Velutha, Inspector Mathew labels her a prostitute (‘veshya’) and makes a thinly veiled threat of sexual violation:

...when...he tapped her breasts with her baton, it was not a policeman’s spontaneous brutishness on his part. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a premeditated gesture, calculated to
humiliate and terrorize her. An attempt to instil order into a world gone wrong. (Chapter 13)

A Marxist perspective

For Mathew and other characters, Ammu and Velutha’s relationship breaches the unwritten codes which keep not just women, but also ‘untouchables’, workers and peasants firmly in their subservient places. That Roy presents these structures not as fixed and rigid but rather in dynamic conflict with forces of resistance and change, corresponds, in broad terms, with the Marxist idea of dialectics. The key image for this struggle – and one which Roy has identified as an inspiration for the novel as a whole – is when the family, travelling to Cochin in their sky blue Plymouth, get caught up in a mass demonstration:

The marchers that day were party workers, students and the labourers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse...
...Inside the Plymouth it was still and hot.
Baby Kochamma’s fear lay rolled up on the car floor like a damp, clammy cheroot...The fear of being dispossessed. (Chapter 2)

Roy’s potted political ‘history’ of Keralan class struggle in this chapter adopts the register of a non-fiction critique, in which most political positions are closely scrutinised, particularly the Communist Party’s:
The real secret was that communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to.
Later in the novel, Roy’s depicts Comrade Pillai’s dealings with Chacko (Marxist bourgeois) and Velutha (Untouchable Party Member) as opportunistic, self-serving and, finally, regarding his duplicity towards Velutha, fatal.

A postcolonial perspective

Roy’s sense of solidarity with those struggling to resist gender-role enforcement and class/caste prejudice resonates in one of the story’s most memorable refrains, about breaking ‘the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’. Yet the novel firmly establishes these conflicts within ever wider historical and international contexts, which inform as well as surround the actions of its protagonists. For anyone coming from a postcolonial viewpoint, Roy’s interest in exposing the effects of globalization and cultural imperialism can be detected at every level in her representation of Indian life. Early chapters are particularly rich with references:

...the river that smelled of shit, and pesticides bought with World Bank loans...
Baby Kochamma had installed a dish antenna on the roof of the Ayemenam house. She presided over the world in her drawing room on satellite TV.
Further east, in a small country with similar landscape (jungles, river, rice-fields, communists), enough bombs were being dropped to cover all of it in six inches of steel.
She made them write lines – ‘impositions’ she called them – ‘I will always speak English, I will always speak English’...
Pappachi...didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife.

A former colonial residence becomes an important location for Roy’s focus on the pervasive influence of post and neo-colonialism:

Kari Saipu’s house. The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had ‘gone native’...Ayemenam’s own Kurtz. Ayemenam his private Heart of Darkness...The History House...

becomes a symbol for Chacko of his family’s debilitating Anglophile heritage:

‘But we can’t go in,’ Chacko explained, ‘because we’ve been locked out...our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost...A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.’

In addition to representing a collective postcolonial psychology, the History House in the 1969 story becomes the venue for Velutha’s horrific beating, which Roy cross-cuts with a glimpse of its future use as the centre of a hotel:

The History House.
Where, in the years that followed, the Terror (still-to-come) would be buried in a shallow grave. Hidden under the happy humming of hotel cooks...The slow death of dancers. The toy histories that
rich tourists came to play with.

So that in the 1972 story, the extensively modernised and upgraded former colonial residence becomes an equally potent symbol for the degradation of Indian culture where, for example, a kathakali performer is forced to bastardize his art:

In despair he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.
He becomes a Regional Flavour.
In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them...

Roy’s concern with the economics of neo-colonialism and globalisation runs through her fiction and non-fiction alike, connecting the kathakali dancers with the dispossessed of the Narmada Valley; a point which returns us to the idea of Roy as a writer who rejects notions of impartiality and objectivity in favour of raising awareness and taking sides. In an interview with David Barsamian published in 2001, Roy challenges the genre distinctions that neatly pigeon-hole her work, forcing us to reconsider it as a whole in relation to, what is for Roy, a decisive abstract concept, namely the truth:

I don’t see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of non-fiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It’s very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr Wolfensohn at the World Bank. That’s what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.

Richard Lees
This article first appeared in emagazine 34.

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