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Subalternity in Arundhoti Roy's The God of Small Things

Faculty Supervisor:
Ami Regier
Year of Project Completion:
Adam Gaeddert


Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1997, can be viewed as an attempt to reckon with some of the main questions driving the field of Subaltern Studies. Just as Ghosh’s In an Antique Land wrestles with the problem of telling a story about characters who are so marginal to history that almost nothing is known about them, The God of Small Things attempts to tells stories of characters whose lives have been rewritten by society’s, and history’s, higher powers. The prototypical stories of Bhubaneswari, Chandra, and Ben Yiju resonate in Roy’s narratives of the Untouchable worker Velutha, the “Imperial Entomologist” Pappachi, the divorcee Ammu, the British-Indian child Sophie Mol, and the twin children Estha and Rahel. With one notable exception, each of these narratives ends in disappearance and loss, due in part to unfortunate turns of events but due primarily to the marginalizing sweep of history. Embedded within the novel are stories of characters whose sexual desires are re-written as social deviancy, characters who have no choice but to internalize society’s Rules and Lessons emphasizing how people are not supposed to act, and characters who are taught to be complicit in their own silencing. To counteract the overwhelming presence of such narratives, though, Roy’s novel participates equally in the subalternist project of tracking resistance. This occurs by way of the narrator’s almost religious devotion to Small Things. Rather than participating in the academic tradition of seeking to “understand” its characters by creating a grand explanatory narrative that depersonalizes those very same characters, the novel speaks through the subjectivity of its children, treating minute sensual details as building blocks of experience and memory, and undermining the Platonic rigidity of the linguistic sign by stripping words down to their sounds and visual qualities. In addition to enacting the tragic plight of the subaltern, The God of Small Things also mirrors the subalternist method of piecing together (hi)stories by examining the fragments and shards of a broken past that get lost in the process of historical explanation. Guha elaborates on the pitfalls of History as it is usually told: The ordinary apparatus of historiography has little to offer us here. Designed for big events and institutions, it is most at ease when made to operate on those larger phenomena which visibly stick out of the debris of the past. As a result, historical scholarship has developed … a tradition that tends to ignore the small drama and fine detail of social existence, especially at its lower depths. (qtd. in Gopal 140) The narrator gives a rationale for rejecting Guha’s “ordinary apparatus of historiography” in the first chapter: In a purely practical sense it would probably be correct to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem. Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story. Still, to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it. (Roy 32) Considered in light of the novel’s epithet from John Berger (“Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one”), these lines assume supreme importance. These paragraphs establish the narrator’s relationship to the text as unofficial and in flux. The narrator hereby takes the first important step of refusing to assume the position of truth-teller, and instead emphasizes her/his own fallibility by acknowledging the “practical” necessity of beginning the story somewhere, even if that same story could just as well begin “thousands of years ago” (33). If the story is to be told, however, then it impels the storyteller not to let the smaller details slip through the cracks. The most important thing is to remember that storytelling involves beginnings, endings, omissions, and points of emphasis, and the choice belongs only to the storyteller. Like the Kathakali dancer, “He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, [or] he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf” (219).

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