The God Of Small Things (1997)

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Picked this up amid the buzz around Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Title refers to the subsumption of personal grievance into the “Worse Things” that happen on a national level. The impossibility of stacking our own needs and pleas against a mass of traditional and political movements.

So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. … He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression. (19)

Here framed as Larry’s inability to comprehend an expression on the face of his wife Rahel, central character. Thus this disparity helps introduce friction from cultural clashes both domestic (most notably caste, religion) and international (Anglo-Indian). Successful love (even if temporary) is framed, in TGoST, as a focus on Small Things, even if (especially if) temporarily so.

The Big Things ever lurked inside. they knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things. (338)

This also helps decode Roy’s distinctively empirical style. Nearly every chapter is introduced with Conradian scenery (HoD is an explicit touchstone, but I thought also of the peripheral isolation and partial porosity of Almayer’s Folly‘s outpost), as if the scenery imposes itself upon its inhabitants. Minor observational details stick, become extended metaphors that build into a kaleidoscopic symbolic vocabulary for complicated personal histories. Perhaps excluding the climactic final third, this modal cascading makes Roy’s novel a kind of minimalist tone poem. This irreducible, rhythmic quality sometimes threatens to rise and overwhelm the narrative (compare, as I had to, Midnight’s Children, with its narratively micromanaged tapestry of foreshadowing and callbacks. AR does do well to confound expectations, though, playing with character perspectives to reveal initially unseen truths: Balliol alum Uncle Chacko is presented as a liberal intervention into ignorant patriarchal violence (48) before being shown to hypocritically manipulate laws of property to cement his own masculine ascendency (57).). However, the tonality ties in to the running theme of childish perspective and interpretation of relationships and events, which is dominated by (sometimes inaccurately) rote-learned, capitalised concepts and phrases – Small Things take on supreme, constitutional importance.

Baby Kochamma, principle villain, serves to distort Big Things through her own personal worries as avarice and spite. She has become isolated, imposed upon by grander forces (“She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture” 28) but not above manipulating them to maintain her status quo. She is an agent for the conservative forces which heartbreakingly pin Estha and Rahel in their places, as when they are unable to constitute themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

The pressure and heat warps family relations, introducing the theme of forbidden love which reacts with frailty against convention, at least until the empowering final chapter (it is the twins’ mother Ammu’s romantic rebellions that primarily compel BK to light the fuse). Untouchable carpenter Velutha is central here; his crime is one of attitude:

It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it. (76)

Interesting to consider alongside The End of Eddy, in which EL’s crimes are not of action but of appearance and description. V’s horrifying punishment – the consummation of a thread of tragedy that extends from the death of Ammu (161) which ranks with Nabokov’s Luzhin’s father for cold pathos – is horrifyingly matter of fact, a weighing-in of history upon individual life, a reassertion of order through authority. It is amid these later incomprehensible terrors that the childish perspective blooms as an effective device evoking regressive traumatised responses: their families are rendered as the grieving parents of Hamelin in their plans to abscond through terrified reaction against Ammu’s condemnation (292), but they come home to roost in the History House like “Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams will be captured and redreamed.” (293) Throughout, however, imagination is preserved as a precious defence-system, a flickering vestal flame:

The twins climbed into the vallom and rowed across vast, choppy waters.
With a Thaiy thaiy thaka thaiy thaiy thome. And a jewelled Jesus watching.
He walked on water. Perhaps. But could He have swum on land?
In matching knickers and dark glasses? With his Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? In pointy shoes and a puff? Would He have had the imagination? (211)

Roy’s style is very distinctive but sometimes distracting, as mentioned, and occasionally the fey misunderstandings feel uncomfortably persistent (childish, even). The story can verge on mawkish, if shocking, melodrama. But the telescopic scoping is handled seamlessly, with the interrelation of Big and Small events integral both to the worldview and the plot. Definitely a keen eye for detail, synesthetic description of a beautiful and broken world. The sort of book that rewards more the more you invest in it.

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Pather Panchali (1950)

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First time with Satyajit Ray.

Though this is the beginning of the fabled Apu Trilogy, PP is really the story of three women. Sarbajaya’s life is dominated by routine activity – I wrote this about La Terra Trema:

Recalled Philip Fisher’s use of the term “manual” in ‘The Failure of Habit’: ie. “that part of any realistic novel or memoir independent of the line of action, suspense, and adventure, that part that documents how lives are lived as a means to celebrate or denounce styles of life.” Associates habit (repetition, behaviour) with ‘manual’ production, but in LTT the town’s habits both force Antonio’s hand and suppress his neighbours: the distinction is thus obliterated

S’s labours provide the structural “manual” imagery that grounds Ray’s realism. But she also exists at the emotional centre of PP. She is like Atlas holding the world of the family together; the pressure of her daughter Durga’s irrepressible thievery and her elderly cousin Indir’s mischievous encouragement weigh down on her shoulders as their actions are attributed to her failure to maintain a proper home. There is a LTT showdown in her yard, with accusatory neighbours scattering her daughter’s possessions, red with accusations; this point creates a fundamental split as she wordlessly punishes D but only after defending her publicly. One of the most touching scenes is a dusky soliloquy where S recalls her unrealised dreams, persuasively asserts that her kind-hearted but naïve husband Harihar cannot, on some level, comprehend her stress and fear.

I steals the first half of PP for me. She is an amazing shape, bent and bowed like an ancient tree. She’s cast out again and again by her cousin, chucking kittens around on departure, first returning for the birth of Apu, united in shot with D. Her death connects her to D too, and also to S. There is a haunting thread of images that connects S’s wistful soliloquy, I singing about death outside under the night sky, S quiet on the same step as someone somewhere sings the same song after I has expired in the forest. On her last visit she is again denied a bed; simply requesting water, she gives most of it to an old plant near her habitual seat. Her roots are immovable.

D is where we begin. She is generous and inquisitive (love the shot from inside the pot as she reaches in); she usually occupies the films most intimate moments, as when she shares secret food with Apu, or during the turmoil of her fever. This is gripping: the wind howls outside like a wolf at the door, fluttering makeshift curtains and slamming windows; S keeps wary watch as if D were a sacred flame (there is a candle that flickers and moves beneath a rocking statuette of Ganesh). Her death sprawls across the film’s most powerful scenes: a monsoon heralded by quiet drums and D praying for maturity; chanting under leafy cover with A, asking the rain to leave; the deathbed; H’s return with gifts that culminate in an unbearable truth.

Apu is not at the centre but at the fringes. His round, glowing eyes take everything in like an infant (as a child he is introduced in the morning through just his eye under a blanket). We see him watching drama, music, children playing. We see his imagination in a mirror. We race behind him to catch up with a train that disappears into the countryside.

There is almost always a warmth to PP that does raise the question of poverty and happiness. Some have complained that Ray romanticises hardship. We feel sympathy for every single character at some point, but the almost irredeemable neighbour’s confession gives a clue: “Staying in one place makes you mean; it’s done that to me.” The beauty of the film is in the family’s ability to find happiness not inside but in spite of their condition – fundamentally it celebrates only childhood, while it examines what happens to childhood as a constituent part of us as we grow older.

You have to watch films like this every now and again. PP is a glowing world with a score by Ravi Shankar like a tumbling stream or a breathless sprint through a field, but it also has an unabashed sentimentality which is infused, as by Ray’s heroes, into scenes of documentary realism. They should keep a few copies of this in a nuclear bunker somewhere, or ship it out into space on a probe.

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