Last month, the New York Times, and subsequently other major news outlets, covered the controversy over trigger warnings in academia, i.e., a growing movement on US college campuses to have professors provide warnings in advance of potentially disturbing topics covered in their syllabi (rape, racism, suicide, etc.). When I saw some of the books listed as requiring trigger warnings (Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, Things Fall Apart), I was deeply disturbed and I generally agree with those who have spoken out against warnings. And does no one use Cliff’s Notes any more? Lord knows, you could go online and find spoilers for just about any book or movie out there these days.
The trigger warning debate was at the forefront of my mind as I began reading The God of Small Things. This novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1997, touches on several big triggers for me — sexual molestation and emotional abuse of children; a child’s death; mothers, children and families ripped apart — and these topics are introduced very early in the story. I considered putting it aside but I’m glad I didn’t because it is a beautifully written and brilliantly constructed novel about corruption (physical, moral, political) and the price of survival.
When the story begins, Rahel, a 31-year-old woman, has returned to her home village Ayemenem, to her family’s dilapidated home and abandoned pickle factory. Her twin brother Estha wanders about like a ghost, having stopped speaking decades earlier. We know this is somehow related to the drowning death of their cousin when they were 8 years old, but the full details are related slowly throughout the novel. The other inhabitants of the house are the maid and a great aunt, Baby Kochamma, who resents the presence of both Estha and Rahel, just as she resented their mother, Baby Kochamma’s niece, Ammu. We know that Ammu died at the age of 31, “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Much of the early part of the novel focuses on the special relationship between the siblings, who seem to have had a strong psychic bond, a “single siamese soul,” from birth. But the twins were born in 1962 into circumstances of conflict — political, religious and familial conflicts — that corrode their world. From the outset, the reader sees that Rahel and Estha take responsibility for the destruction of their lives, but it’s only when the novel has unfolded that we see why they think so and how awful it is that they do.
The world into which the twins were born was full of contradiction and injustice. Their mother Ammu, a Syrian Christian, married a Hindu man for love rather than submitting to an arranged marriage with another Christian. She then divorced him and moved home with the twins, living with the derision and embarrassment of her mother and aunt Baby Kochamma (who is a failed nun and a mean, vindictive hypocrite). Meanwhile, Ammu’s brother Chacko married an Englishwoman for love while a Rhodes scholar and also wound up divorced, but he is his mother’s adored favorite. While the family is Christian, they also rigorously uphold the caste system, particularly regarding “untouchables,” even when the expertise of those “untouchables” in the family factory is what keeps the business going. Chacko runs the family pickle factory (poorly) and the family owns a large estate, yet Chacko considers himself a communist without actually doing much to back that up. Ultimately, these contradictions lead to conflict between siblings, between parents and children, and tragedy ensues.
Roy’s structure for the novel demonstrates that she is a careful and creative architect (which is her profession by training). The narration cuts from the present day to episodes in the past, and in doing this we sometimes learn results before we understand the actual events and which characters were involved in them. Roy’s language can be downright poetic, with certain refrains recurring throughout the text, such as “Anything can Happen to Anyone…. It’s Best to be Prepared.” While the story is a tragedy, the structure, which Roy describes as beginning at the end and ending in the middle, leaves the reader with some small hope. Sometimes when the larger world is so overwhelmingly hard, you learn to treasure that which is ordinary, the small things.