“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy105
film called Chemmeen.
It was the story of a poor girl who is forced to marry a fisherman from a neighboring
beach, though she loves someone else. When the fisherman finds out about his new
wife’s old lover, he sets out to sea in his little boat though he knows that a storm is
brewing. It’s dark, and the wind rises. A whirlpool spins up from the ocean bed.
There is storm-music, and the fisherman drowns, sucked to the bottom of the sea in
the vortex of the whirlpool.
The lovers make a suicide pact, and are found the next morning, washed up on the
beach with their arms around each other. So everybody dies. The fisherman, his wife,
her lover, and a shark that has no part in the story, but dies anyway. The sea claims
In the blue cross-stitch darkness laced with edges of light, with cross-stitch roses on
her sleepy cheek, Ammu and her twins (one on either side of her) sang softly with the
tangerine radio. The song that fisherwomen sang to the sad young bride as they braided
her hair and prepared her for her wedding to a man she didn’t love.
Pandoru mukkuvan muthinupoyi,
(Once a fisherman went to sea,)
Padinjaran katarbu mungipoyi,
(The west wind blew and swallowed his boat,)
An Airport-Fairy frock stood on the floor, supported by its own froth and stiffness.
Outside in the mittam, crisp saris lay in rows and crispened in the sun. Off-white and
gold. Small pebbles nestled in their starched creases and had to be shaken out before
the saris were folded and taken in to be ironed.
Arayathi pennu pizhachu poyi,
(His wife on the shore went astray,)
The electrocuted elephant (not Kochu Thomban) in Ettumanoor was cremated. A giant
burning ghat was erected on the highway. The engineers of the concerned municipality
sawed off the tusks and shared them unofficially. Unequally. Eighty tins of pure ghee
were poured over the elephant to feed the fire. The smoke rose in dense fumes and
arranged itself in complex patterns against the sky. People crowded around at a safe
distance, read meanings into them.
There were lots of flies.
Kadalamma avaney kondu poyi.
(So Mother Ocean rose and took him away.)
Pariah kites dropped into nearby trees, to supervise the supervision of the last rites of
the dead elephant. They hoped, not without reason, for pickings of giant innards. An
enormous gallbladder, perhaps. Or a charred, gigantic spleen.
They weren’t disappointed. Nor wholly satisfied.
Ammu noticed that both her children were covered in a fine dust. Like two pieces of
lightly sugar-dusted, unidentical cake. Rahel had a blond curl lodged among her black
ones. A curl from Velutha’s backyard. Ammu picked it out.
“I’ve told you before,” she said. “I don’t want you going to his house. It will only cause
What trouble, she didn’t say. She didn’t know.
Somehow, by not mentioning his name, she knew that she had drawn him into the
tousled intimacy of that blue cross-stitch afternoon and the song from the tangerine
transistor. By not mentioning his name, she sensed that a pact had been forged
between her Dream and the World. And that the midwives of that pact were, or would
be, her sawdust-coated two-egg twins.
She knew who he was—the God of Loss, the God of Small Things. Of coarse she did.
She switched off the tangerine radio. In the afternoon silence (laced with edges of
light), her children curled into the warmth of her. The smell of her. They covered their
heads with her hair. They sensed somehow that in her sleep she had traveled away
from them. They summoned her back now with the palms of their small hands laid flat
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy106
against the bare skin of her midriff. Between her petticoat and her blouse. They loved
the fact that the brown of the backs of their hands was the exact brown of their mother’s
“Estha, look,” Rahel said, plucking at the line of soft down that led southwards from
Ammu’s belly button.
“Here’s where we kicked you.” Estha traced a wandering silver stretchmark with his
“Was it in the bus, Ammu?”
“On the winding estate road?”
“When Baba had to hold your tummy?”
“Did you have to buy tickets?”
“Did we hurt you?”
And then, keeping her voice casual, Rahel’s question: “D’you think he may have lost
Just the hint of a pause in the rhythm of Ammu’s breathing made Estha touch Rahel’s
middle finger with his. And middle finger to middle finger, on their beautiful mother’s
midriff, they abandoned that line of questioning.
“That’s Estha’s kick, and that’s mine,” Rahel said. “…And that’s Estha’s and that’s
Between them they apportioned their mother’s seven silver stretch marks. Then Rahel
put her mouth on Ammu’s stomach and sucked at it, pulling the soft flesh into her mouth
and drawing her head back to admire the shining oval of spit and the faint red imprint of
her teeth on her mother’s skin.
Ammu wondered at the transparency of that kiss. It was a clear-as-glass kiss.
Unclouded by passion or desire—that pair of dogs that sleep so soundly inside children,
waiting for them to grow up. It was a kiss that demanded no kiss-back.
Not a cloudy kiss full of questions that wanted answers. Like the kisses of cheerful
one-armed men in dreams.
Ammu grew tired of their proprietary handling of her. She wanted her body back. It
was hers. She shrugged her children off the way a bitch shrugs off her pups when she’s
had enough of them. She sat up and twisted her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck.
Then she swung her legs off the bed, walked to the window and drew back the curtains.
Slanting afternoon light flooded the room and brightened two children on the bed.
The twins heard the lock turning in Ammu’s bathroom door.
Ammu looked at herself in the long mirror on the bathroom door and the specter of her
future appeared in it to mock her. Pickled. Gray. Rheumy-eyed. Cross-stitch roses on a
slack, sunken cheek.
Withered breasts that hung like weighted socks. Dry as a bone between her legs, the
hair feather-white. Spare. As brittle as a pressed fern.
Skin that flaked and shed like snow.
With that cold feeling on a hot afternoon that Life had been Lived. That her cup was
full of dust. That the air, the sky, the trees, the sun, the rain, the light and darkness were
all slowly turning to sand. That sand would fill her nostrils, her lungs, her mouth. Would
pull her down, leaving on the surface a spinning swirl like crabs leave when they burrow
downwards on a beach.
Ammu undressed and put a red toothbrush under a breast to see if it would stay. It
didn’t Where she touched herself her flesh was taut and smooth. Under her hands her
nipples wrinkled and hardened like dark nuts, pulling at the soft skin on her breasts. The
thin line of down from her belly button led over the gentle curve of the base of her belly,
to her dark triangle. Like an arrow directing a lost traveler. An inexperienced lover
She undid her hair and turned around to see how long it had grown. It fell, in waves
and curls and disobedient frizzy wisps—soft on the inside, coarser on the outside—to
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy107
just below where her small, strong waist began its curve out towards her hips. The
bathroom was hot. Small beads of sweat studded her skin like diamonds. Then they
broke and trickled down. Sweat ran down the recessed line of her spine. She looked a
little critically at her round, heavy behind. Not big in itself. Not big per se (as Chacko-of-
Oxford would no doubt have put it). Big only because the rest of her was so slender. It
belonged on another, more voluptuous body.
She had to admit that they would happily support a toothbrush apiece. Perhaps two.
She laughed out loud at the idea of walking naked down Ayemenem with an array of
colored toothbrushes sticking out from either cheek of her bottom. She silenced herself
quickly. She saw a wisp of madness escape from its bottle and caper triumphantly
around the bathroom.
Ammu worried about madness.
Mammachi said it ran in their family. That it came on people suddenly and caught
them unawares. There was Pathil Ammai, who at the age of sixty-five began to take her
clothes off and run naked along the river, singing to the fish. There was Thampi
Chachen, who searched his shit every morning with a knitting-needle for a gold tooth he
had swallowed years ago. And Dr. Muthachen, who had to be removed from his own
wedding in a sack. Would future generations say, “There was Ammu—Ammu Ipe.
Married a Bengali. Went quite mad. Died young. In a cheap lodge somewhere.”
Chacko said that the high incidence of insanity among Syrian Christians was the price
they paid for Inbreeding. Mammachi said it wasn’t.
Ammu gathered up her heavy hair, wrapped it around her face, and peered down the
road to Age and Death through its parted strands. Like a medieval executioner peering
through the tilted eye-slits of his peaked black hood at the executionee. A slender,
naked executioner with dark nipples and deep dimples when she smiled. With seven
silver stretchmarks from her two-egg twins, born to her by candlelight amid news of a
It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature
of the road itself. No milestones marked its progress. No trees grew along it. No dappled
shadows shaded it. No mists rolled over it. No birds circled it. No twists, no turns or
hairpin bends obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu
told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would
only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to
know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way
her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. And Ammu knew. Or thought she
knew, which was really just as bad (because if in a dream you’ve eaten fish, it means
you’ve eaten fish). And what Ammu knew (or thought she knew) smelled of the vapid,
vinegary fumes that rose from the cement vats—of Paradise Pickles. Fumes that
wrinkled youth and pickled futures.
Hooded in her own hair, Ammu leaned against herself in the bathroom mirror and tried
For the God of Small Things.
For the sugar-dusted twin midwives of her dream.
That afternoon—while in the bathroom the fates conspired to horribly alter the course
of their mysterious mother’s road, while in Velutha’s backyard an old boat waited for
them, while in a yellow church a young bat waited to be born—in their mother’s
bedroom, Estha stood on his head on Rahel’s bum.
The bedroom with blue curtains and yellow wasps that worried the windowpanes. The
bedroom whose walls would soon learn their harrowing secrets.
The bedroom into which Ammu would first be locked and then lock herself. Whose
door Chacko, crazed by grief, four days after Sophie Mol’s funeral, would batter down.
“Get out of my house before I break every bone in your body!”
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy108
My house. My pineapples. My pickle.
After that for years Rahel would dream this dream: a fat man, faceless, kneeling
beside a woman’s corpse. Hacking its hair off. Breaking every bone in its body.
Snapping even the little ones. The fingers. The ear bones cracked like twigs. Snapsnap
the soft sound of breaking bones. A pianist killing the piano keys. Even the black ones.
And Rahel (though years later, in the Electric Crematorium, she would use the
slipperiness of sweat to slither out of Chacko’s grasp) loved them both. The player and
The killer and the corpse.
As the door was slowly battered down, to control the trembling of her hands, Ammu
would hem the ends of Rahel’s ribbons that didn’t need hemming.
“Promise me you’ll always love each other,” she’d say, as she drew her children to
“Promise,” Estha and Rahel would say. Not finding words with which to tell her that for
them there was no Each, no Other.
Twin millstones and their mother. Numb millstones. What they had done would return
to empty them. But that would be Later.
Lay Ter. A deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery and furred like moth’s feet.
At the time, there would only be incoherence. As though meaning had slunk out of
things and left them fragmented. Disconnected. The glint of Ammu’s needle. The color
of a ribbon. The weave of the cross-stitch counterpane. A door slowly breaking. Isolated
things that didn’t mean anything. As though the intelligence that decodes life’s hidden
patterns—that connects reflections to images, glints to light, weaves to fabrics, needles
to thread, walls to rooms, love to fear to anger to remorse—was suddenly lost.
“Pack your things and go,” Chacko would say, stepping over the debris. Looming over
them. A chrome door handle in his hand. Suddenly strangely calm. Surprised at his own
strength. His bigness. His bullying power. The enormity of his own terrible grief.
Red the color of splintered doorwood.
Ammu, quiet outside, shaking inside, wouldn’t look up from her unnecessary
hemming. The tin of colored ribbons would lie open on her lap, in the room where she
had lost her Locusts Stand I.
The same room in which (after the Twin Expert from Hyderabad had replied) Ammu
would pack Estha’s little trunk and khaki holdall: 12 sleeveless cotton vests, 12 half-
sleeved cotton vests. Estha, here’s your name on them in ink. His socks. His drainpipe
trousers. His pointy-collared shirts. His beige and pointy shoes (from where the Angry
Feelings came). His Elvis records. His calcium tablets and Vydalin syrup. His Free
Giraffe (that came with the Vydalin). His Books of Knowledge Vols. 1-4. No, sweetheart,
there won’t be a river there to fish in. His white leather zip-up Bible with an Imperial
Entomologist’s amethyst cuff-link on the zip. His mug. His soap. His Advance Birthday
Present that he mustn’t open. Forty green inland letter forms. Look, Estha, I’ve written
look up at Ammu with a smile that broke her heart. Promise me you’ll write? Even when
you don’t have any news?
Promise, Estha would say. Not wholly cognizant of his situation. The sharp edge of his
apprehensions blunted by this sudden wealth of worldly possessions. They were His.
And had his name on them in ink. They were to be packed into the trunk (with his name
on it) that lay open on the bedroom floor.
The room to which, years later, Rahel would return and watch a silent stranger bathe.
And wash his clothes with crumbling bright blue soap.
Flatmuscled, and honey colored. Sea-secrets in his eyes. A silver raindrop on his ear.
Esthapappychachen Kutappen Peter Mon.
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy109
The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of
the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless,
holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in
the high white boundary wall.
Inside, everything was white-walled, moss-tiled and moonlit. Everything smelled of
recent rain. The thin priest was asleep on a mat on the raised stone verandah. A brass
platter of coins lay near his pillow like a comic-strip illustration of his dreams. The
compound was littered with moons, one in each mud puddle. Kochu Thomban had
finished his ceremonial rounds, and lay tethered to a wooden stake next to a steaming
mound of his own dung. He was asleep, his duty done, his bowels empty, one tusk
resting on the earth, the other pointed to the stars. Rahel approached quietly. She saw
that his skin was looser than she remembered. He wasn’t Kochu Thomban anymore.
His tusks had grown. He was Vellya Thomban now. The Big Tusker. She put the
coconut on the ground next to him. A leathery wrinkle parted to reveal a liquid glint of
elephant eye. Then it closed and long, sweeping lashes re-summoned sleep. A tusk
towards the stars.
June is low season for kathakali. But there are some temples that a troupe will not
pass by without performing in. The Ayemenem temple wasn’t one of them, but these
days, thanks to its geography, things had changed.
In Ayemenem they danced to jettison their humiliation in the Heart of Darkness. Their
truncated swimming-pool performances. Their turning to tourism to stave off starvation.
On their way back from the Heart of Darkness, they stopped at the temple to ask
pardon of their gods. To apologize for corrupting their stories. For encashing their
identities. Misappropriating their lives.
On these occasions, a human audience was welcome, but entirely incidental.
In the broad, covered corridor—the colonnaded kuthambalam abutting the heart of the
temple where the Blue God lived with his flute, the drummers drummed and the dancers
danced, their colors turning slowly in the night Rahel sat down cross-legged, resting her
back against the roundness of a white pillar. A tall canister of coconut oil gleamed in the
flickering light of the brass lamp. The oil replenished the light. The light lit the tin.
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that
the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the
ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and
inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t
smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In
the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.
In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet
you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.
To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown
up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They
are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he
would a child, of his own. He teases it He punishes it. He sends it up—like a bubble. He
wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can
fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf.
Or play with a sleeping monkey’s tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy110
into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty
ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to
spread. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive
mischief of Krishna’s smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains.
The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.
He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.
The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only
instrument. From the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down,
harnessed wholly to the task of storytelling. He has magic in him, this man within the
painted mask and swirling skins.
But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children
deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to
become clerks and bus conductors. Class IV nongazetted officers. With unions of their
But he himself, left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth, cannot do what
they do. He cannot slide down the aisles of buses, counting change and selling tickets.
He cannot answer bells that summon him. He cannot stoop behind trays of tea and
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 Flavor.
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. He collects his fee. He gets
drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the
Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the
Rahel (no Plans, no Locusts Stand I), her back against a pillar, watched Karna praying
on the banks of the Ganga. Karna, sheathed in his armor of light. Karna, melancholy
son of Surya, God of Day. Karna the Generous. Karna the abandoned child. Karna the
most revered warrior of them all.
That night Karna was stoned. His tattered skirt was darned, There were hollows in his
were cracked. Tough. He stubbed his joints out on them.
But if he had had a fleet of makeup men waiting in the wings, an agent, a contract, a
percentage of the profits—what then would he be? An impostor. A rich pretender. An
actor playing a part. Could he be Karna? Or would he be too safe inside his pod of
wealth? Would his money grow like a rind between himself and his story? Would he be
able to touch its heart, its hidden secrets, in the way that he can now?
This man tonight is dangerous. His despair complete. This story is the safety net
above which he swoops and dives like a brilliant clown in a bankrupt circus. It’s all he
has to keep him from crashing through the world like a falling stone. It is his color and
his light. It is the vessel into which he pours himself. It gives him shape. Structure. It
harnesses him. It contains him. His Love. His Madness. His Hope. His Infinnate joy.
Ironically, his struggle is the reverse of an actor’s struggle—he strives not to enter a part
but to escape it. But this is what he cannot do. In his abject defeat lies his supreme
triumph. He is Karna, whom the world has abandoned. Karna Alone. Condemned
goods. A prince raised in poverty. Born to die unfairly, unarmed and alone at the hands
of his brother. Majestic in his complete despair. Praying on the banks of the Ganga.
Stoned out of his skull.
Then Kunti appeared. She too was a man, but a man grown soft and womanly, a man
with breasts, from doing female parts for years. Her movements were fluid. Full of
woman. Kunti, too, was stoned. High on the same shared joints. She had come to tell
Karna a story
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