“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy
clothes. Baby Kochamma showed Rahel the letter. It was written in a slanting, feminine,
convent-school hand, but the signature underneath was their father’s. Or at least the
name was. Rahel wouldn’t have recognized the signature. The letter said that he, their
father, had retired from his carbon-black job and was emigrating to Australia, where he
had got a job as Chief of Security at a ceramics factory, and that he couldn’t take Estha
with him. He wished everybody in Ayemenem the very best and said that he would look
in on Estha if he ever came back to India, which, he went on to say, was a bit unlikely.
Baby Kochamma told Rahel that she could keep the letter if she wanted to. Rahel put
it back into its envelope. The paper had grown soft, and folded like cloth.
She had forgotten just how damp the monsoon air in Ayemenem could be. Swollen
cupboards creaked. Locked windows burst open. Books got soft and wavy between their
covers. Strange insects appeared like ideas in the evenings and burned themselves on
Baby Kochamma’s dim forty-watt bulbs. In the daytime their crisp, incinerated corpses
littered the floor and windowsills, and until Kochu Maria swept them away in her plastic
dustpan, the air smelled of Something Burning.
It hadn’t changed, the June Rain.
Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well,
greenmossing the pigless pigsty carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way
memory bombs still, tea-colored minds. The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy
earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent.
Further away, in the wind and rain, on the banks of the river, in the sudden
thunderdarkness of the day, Estha was walking. He was wearing a crushed-strawberry-
pink T-shirt, drenched darker now, and he knew that Rahel had come.
Estha had always been a quiet child, so no one could pinpoint with any degree of
accuracy exactly when (the year, if not the month or day) he had stopped talking.
Stopped talking altogether, that is. The fact is that there wasn’t an “exactly when.” It had
been a gradual winding down and closing shop. A barely noticeable quietening. As
though he had simply run out of conversation and had nothing left to say. Yet Estha’s
silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy. It wasn’t an accusing,
protesting silence as much as a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological
equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in
Estha’s case the dry season looked as though it would last forever.
Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background of wherever he
was—into bookshelves, gardens, curtains, doorways, streets—to appear inanimate,
almost invisible to the untrained eye. It usually took strangers a while to notice him even
when they were in the same room with him. It took them even longer to notice that he
never spoke. Some never noticed at all.
Estha occupied very little space in the world.
After Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Estha was Returned, their father sent him to a boys’
school in Calcutta. He was not an exceptional student, but neither was he backward, nor
particularly bad at anything. An average student, or Satisfactory work were the usual
comments that his teachers wrote in his Annual Progress Reports. Does not participate
in Group Activities was another recurring complaint. Though what exactly they meant by
`Group Activities’ they never said.
Estha finished school with mediocre results, but refused to go to college. Instead,
much to the initial embarrassment of his father and stepmother, he began to do the
housework. As though in his own way he was trying to earn his keep. He did the
sweeping, swabbing and all the laundry. He learned to cook and shop for vegetables.
Vendors in the bazaar, sitting behind pyramids of oiled, shining vegetables, grew to
recognize him and would attend to him amidst the clamoring of their other customers.
They gave him rusted film cans in which to put the vegetables he picked. He never
bargained. They never cheated him. When the vegetables had been weighed and paid
for, they would transfer them to his red plastic shopping basket (onions at the bottom,
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy
brinjal and tomatoes on the top) and always a sprig of coriander and a fistful of green
chilies for free. Estha carried them home in the crowded tram. A quiet bubble floating on
a sea of noise.
At mealtimes, when he wanted something, he got up and helped himself.
Once the quietness arrived, it stayed and spread in Estha. It reached out of his head
and enfolded him in its swampy arms. It rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal
heartbeat. It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull,
hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory; dislodging old sentences, whisking them
off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left
them pared and naked. Unspeakable. Numb. And to an observer therefore, perhaps
barely there. Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew
accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer
on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed
somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it.
When Khubchand, his beloved, blind, bald, incontinent seventeen-year-old mongrel,
decided to stage a miserable, long drawn-out death, Estha nursed him through his final
ordeal as though his own life somehow depended on it. In the last months of his life,
Khubchand, who had the best of intentions but the most unreliable of bladders, would
drag himself to the top-hinged dog-flap built into the bottom of the door that led out into
the back garden, push his head through it and urinate unsteadily, bright yellowly, inside.
Then, with bladder empty and conscience clear, he would look up at Estha with opaque
green eyes that stood in his grizzled skull like scummy pools and weave his way back to
his damp cushion, leaving wet footprints on the floor. As Khubchand lay dying on his
cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And
the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. To Estha—steeped in the smell of old
roses, blooded on memories of a broken man—the fact that something so fragile, so
unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. A bird in
flight reflected in an old dog’s balls. It made him smile out loud.
After Khubchand died, Estha started his walking. He walked for hours on end. Initially
he patrolled only the neighborhood, but gradually went farther and farther afield.
People got used to seeing him on the road. A well-dressed man with a quiet walk. His
face grew dark and outdoorsy. Rugged. Wrinkled by the sun. He began to look wiser
than he really was. Like a fisherman in a city. With sea-secrets in him.
Now that he’d been re-Returned, Estha walked all over Ayemenem.
Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides
bought with World Bank loans. Most of the fish had died. The ones that survived
suffered from fin-rot and had broken out in boils.
Other days he walked down the road. Past the new, freshly baked, iced, Gulf-money
houses built by nurses, masons, wire-benders and bank clerks, who worked hard and
unhappily in faraway places. Past the resentful older houses tinged green with envy,
cowering in their private driveways among their private rubber trees. Each a tottering
fiefdom with an epic of its own.
He walked past the village school that his great-grandfather built for Untouchable
Past Sophie Mol’s yellow church. Past the Ayemenem Youth Kung Fu Club. Past the
Tender Buds Nursery School (for Touchables), past the ration shop that sold rice, sugar
and bananas that hung in yellow bunches from the roof. Cheap soft-porn magazines
about fictitious South Indian sex-fiends were clipped with clothes pegs to ropes that
hung from the ceiling. They spun lazily in the warm breeze, tempting honest ration-
buyers with glimpses of ripe, naked women lying in pools of fake blood.
Sometimes Estha walked past Lucky Press —old Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s printing
press, once the Ayemenem office of the Communist Party, where midnight study
meetings were held, and pamphlets with rousing lyrics of Marxist Party songs were
printed and distributed. The flag that fluttered on the roof had grown limp and old. The
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy
red had bled away.
Comrade Pillai himself came out in the mornings in a graying Aertex vest, his balls
silhouetted against his soft white mundu. He oiled himself with warm, peppered coconut
oil, kneading his old, loose flesh that stretched willingly off his bones like chewing gum.
He lived alone now. His wife, Kalyani, had died of ovarian cancer. His son, Lenin, had
moved to Delhi, where he worked as a services contractor for foreign embassies.
If Comrade Pillai was outside his house oiling himself when Estha walked past, he
made it a point to greet him.
`Estha Mon!” he would call out, in his high, piping voice, frayed and fibrous now, like
sugarcane stripped of its bark. `Good morning! Your daily constitutional?”
Estha would walk past, not rude, not polite. Just quiet
Comrade Pillai would slap himself all over to get his circulation going. He couldn’t tell
whether Estha recognized him after all those years or not. Not that he particularly cared.
Though his part in the whole thing had by no means been a small one, Comrade Pillai
didn’t hold himself in any way personally responsible for what had happened. He
dismissed the whole business as the Inevitable Consequence of Necessary Politics. The
old omelette-and-eggs thing. But then, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai was essentially a political
man. A professional omeletteer. He walked through the world like a chameleon. Never
revealing himself, never appearing not to. Emerging through chaos unscathed.
He was the first person in Ayemenem to hear of Rahel’s return. The news didn’t
perturb him as much as excite his curiosity. Estha was almost a complete stranger to
Comrade Pillai. His expulsion from Ayemenem had been so sudden and
unceremonious, and so very long ago. But Rahel Comrade Pillai knew well. He had
watched her grow up. He wondered what had brought her back. After all these years.
It had been quiet in Estha’s head until Rahel came. But with her she had brought the
sound of passing trains, and the light and shade and light and shade that falls on you if
you have a window seat. The world, locked out for years, suddenly flooded in, and now
Estha couldn’t hear himself for the noise. Trains. Traffic. Music. The stock market. A
dam had burst and savage waters swept everything up in a swirling. Comets, violins,
parades, loneliness, clouds, beards, bigots, lists, flags, earthquakes, despair were all
swept up in a scrambled swirling.
And Estha, walking on the riverbank, couldn’t feel the wetness of the rain, or the
sudden shudder of the cold puppy that had temporarily adopted him and squelched at
his side. He walked past the old mangosteen tree and up to the edge of a laterite spur
that jutted out into the river. He squatted on his haunches and rocked himself in the rain.
The wet mud under his shoes made rude, sucking sounds. The cold puppy shivered—
Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria, the vinegar-hearted, short-tempered, midget cook,
were the only people left in the Ayemenem House when Estha was re-Returned.
Mammachi, their grandmother, was dead. Chacko lived in Canada now, and ran an
unsuccessful antiques business.
As for Rahel…
After Ammu died (after the last time she came back to Ayemenem, swollen with
cortisone and a rattle in her chest that sounded like a faraway man shouting), Rahel
drifted. From school to school. She spent her holidays in Ayemenem, largely ignored by
Chacko and Mammachi (grown soft with sorrow, slumped in their bereavement like a
pair of drunks in a toddy bar) and largely ignoring Baby Kochamma. In matters related to
the raising of Rahel, Chacko and Mammachi tried, but couldn’t. They provided the care
(food, clothes, fees), but withdrew the concern.
The Loss of Sophie Mol stepped softly around the Ayemenem House like a quiet thing
in socks. It hid in books and food. In Mammachi’s violin case. In the scabs of the sores
on Chacko’s shins that he constantly worried. In his slack, womanish legs.
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy
It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the
memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol (the
seeker of small wisdoms: Where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like
stones from the sky? The harbinger of harsh reality: You’re both whole wogs and I’m a
half one. The guru of gore: I’ve seen a man in an accident with his eyeball twinging on
the end of a nerve, like a yo-yo) slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and
alive. It was always there. Like a fruit in season. Every season. As permanent as a
government job. It ushered Rahel through childhood (from school to school to school)
Rahel was first blacklisted in Nazareth Convent at the age of eleven, when she was
caught outside her Housemistress’s garden gate decorating a knob of fresh cow dung
with small flowers. At Assembly the next morning she was made to look up depravity in
the Oxford Dictionary and read aloud its meaning. “The quality or condition of being
depraved or corrupt,” Rahel read, with a row of sternmouthed nuns seated behind her
and a sea of sniggering schoolgirl faces in front. “Perverted quality; Moral perversion;
The innate corruption of human nature due to original sin; Both the elect and the non-
elect come into the world in a state of total d. and alienation from God, and can, of
themselves do nothing but sin. J. H. Blunt.”
Six months later she was expelled after repeated complaints from senior girls. She
was accused (quite rightly) of hiding behind doors and deliberately colliding with her
seniors. When she was questioned by the Principal about her behavior (cajoled, caned,
starved), she eventually admitted that she had done it to find out whether breasts hurt.
In that Christian institution, breasts were not acknowledged. They weren’t supposed to
exist (and if they didn’t could they hurt?).
That was the first of three expulsions. The second for smoking. The third for setting
fire to her Housemistress’s false-hair bun, which, under duress, Rahel confessed to
In each of the schools she went to, the teachers noted that she:
(a) Was an extremely polite child.
(b) Had no friends.
It appeared to be a civil, solitary form of corruption. Arid for this very reason, they all
agreed (savoring their teacherly disapproval, touching it with their tongues, sucking it
like a sweet) all the more serious.
It was, they whispered to each other, as though she didn’t know how to be a girl.
They weren’t far off the mark.
Oddly, neglect seemed to have resulted in an accidental release of the spirit.
Rahel grew up without a brief. Without anybody to arrange a marriage for her. Without
anybody who would pay her a dowry and therefore without an obligatory husband
looming on her horizon.
So as long as she wasn’t noisy about it, she remained free to make her own enquiries:
into breasts and how much they hurt. Into falsehair buns and how well they burned. Into
life and how it ought to be lived.
When she finished school, she won admission into a mediocre college of architecture
in Delhi. It wasn’t the outcome of any serious interest in architecture. Nor even, in fact,
of a superficial one. She just happened to take the entrance exam, and happened to get
through. The staff were impressed by the size (enormous), rather than the skill, of her
charcoal still-life sketches. The careless, reckless lines were mistaken for artistic
confidence, though in truth, their creator was no artist.
She spent eight years in college without finishing the five-year undergraduate course
and taking her degree. The fees were low and it wasn’t hard to scratch out a living,
staying in the hostel, eating in the subsidized student mess, rarely going to class,
working instead as a draftsman in gloomy architectural firms that exploited cheap
student labor to render their presentation drawings and to blame when things went
wrong. The other students, particularly the boys, were intimidated by Rahel’s
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy
waywardness and almost fierce lack of ambition. They left her alone. She was never
invited to their nice homes or noisy parties. Even her professors were a little wary of
her—her bizarre, impractical building plans, presented on cheap brown paper, her
indifference to their passionate critiques.
She occasionally wrote to Chacko and Mammachi, but never returned to Ayemenem.
Not when Mammachi died. Not when Chacko emigrated to Canada.
It was while she was at the college of architecture that she met Larry McCaslin, who
was in Delhi collecting material for his doctoral thesis on `Energy Efficiency in
Vernacular Architecture.’ He first noticed Rahel in the school library and then again, a
few days later in Khan Market. She was in jeans and a white T-shirt. Part of an old
patchwork bedspread was buttoned around her neck and trailed behind her like a cape.
Her wild hair was tied back to look straight, though it wasn’t. A tiny diamond gleamed in
one nostril. She had absurdly beautiful collarbones and a nice athletic run.
There goes a jazz tune, Larry McCaslin thought to himself, and followed her into a
bookshop, where neither of them looked at books.
Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an
airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense. She returned with him to Boston.
When Larry held his wife in his arms, her cheek against his heart, he was tall enough
to see the top of her head, the dark tumble of her hair. When he put his finger near the
corner of her mouth he could feel a tiny pulse. He loved its location. And that faint,
uncertain jumping, just under her skin. He would touch it, listening with his eyes, like an
expectant father feeling his unborn baby kick inside its mother’s womb.
He held her as though she was a gift. Given to him in love. Something still and small.
But when they made love he was offended by her eyes. They behaved as though they
belonged to someone else. Someone watching. Looking out of the window at the sea. At
a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat.
He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it
somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like
the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And
that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened
when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling,
driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled
like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private
and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the
confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent Nothing
mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It
was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that
she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse
Things kept happening.
So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in
shorts. 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
What Larry McCaslin saw in Rahel’s eyes was not despair at all, but a sort of enforced
optimism. And a hollow where Estha’s words had been. He couldn’t be expected to
understand that. That the emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness in
the other. That the two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers’
After they were divorced, Rahel worked for a few months as a waitress in an Indian
restaurant in New York. And then for several years as a night clerk in a bullet-proof
cabin at a gas station outside Washington, where drunks occasionally vomited into the
till, and pimps propositioned her with more lucrative job offers. Twice she saw men
being shot through their car windows. And once a man who had been stabbed, ejected
from a moving car with a knife in his back.
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