“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 36
Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchability. As added incentive they were
them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were
made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests. As a
Independence they found they were not entitled to any government benefits like job
reservations or bank loans at low interest rates, because officially, on paper, they were
Christians, and therefore casteless. It was a little like having to sweep away your
footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all.
It was Mammachi, on vacation from Delhi and Imperial Entomology who first noticed
little Velutha’s remarkable facility with his hands. Velutha was eleven then, about three
years younger than Ammu. He was like a little magician. He could make intricate toys-
tiny windmills, rattles, minute jewel boxes out of dried palm reeds; he could carve
perfect boats out of tapioca stems and figurines on cashew nuts. He would bring them
for Ammu, holding them out on his palm (as he had been taught) so she wouldn’t have
to touch him to take them. Though he was younger than she was, he called her
Ammukutty—Little Ammu. Mammachi persuaded Vellya Paapen to send him to the
Untouchables’ School that her father-in-law Punnyan Kunju had founded.
Velutha was fourteen when Johann Klein, a German carpenter from a carpenter’s
guild in Bavaria, came to Kottayam and spent three years with the Christian Mission
Society conducting a workshop with local carpenters. Every afternoon, after school,
Velutha caught a bus to Kottayam where he worked with Klein till dusk. By the time he
was sixteen, Velutha had finished high school and was an accomplished carpenter. He
had his own set of carpentry tools and a distinctly German design sensibility. He built
Mammachi a Bauhaus dining table with twelve dining chairs in rosewood and a
traditional Bavarian chaise longue in lighter jackwood. For Baby Kochamma’s annual
Nativity plays he made her a stack of wireframed angels’ wings that fitted onto children’s
backs like knapsacks, cardboard clouds for the Angel Gabriel to appear between, and a
manger for Christ to be born in. When her garden cherub’s silver arc dried up
inexplicably, it was Dr. Velutha who fixed its bladder for her.
Apart from his carpentry skills, Velutha had a way with machines. Mammachi (with
impenetrable Touchable logic) often said that if only he hadn’t been a Paravan, he might
have become an engineer. He mended radios, clocks, water pumps. He looked after the
plumbing and all the electrical gadgets in the house.
When Mammachi decided to enclose the back verandah, it was Velutha who designed
and built the sliding-folding door that later became all the rage in Ayemenem.
When Chacko resigned his job in Madras and returned to Ayemenem with a Bharat
bottle-sealing machine, it was Velutha who re-assembled it and set it up. It was Velutha
who maintained the new canning machine and the automatic pineapple slicer. Velutha
who oiled the water pump and the small diesel generator. Velutha who built the
aluminum sheet-lined, easy-to-clean cutting surfaces, and the ground-level furnaces for
Velutha’s father, Vellya Paapen, however, was an Old-World Paravan. He had seen
the Crawling Backwards Days and his gratitude to Mammachi and her family for all that
they had done for him was as wide and deep as a river in spate. When he had his
accident with the stone chip, Mammachi organized and paid for his glass eye. He hadn’t
worked off his debt yet, and though he knew he wasn’t expected to, that he wouldn’t
ever be able to, he felt that his eye was not his own. His gratitude widened his smile and
bent his back.
Vellya Paapen feared for his younger son. He couldn’t say what it was that frightened
him. It was nothing that he had said. Or done. It was not what he said, but the way he
said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it.
Perhaps it was just a lack of hesitation. An unwarranted assurance. In the way he
walked. The way he held his head. The quiet way he offered suggestions without being
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 37
asked. Or the quiet way in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel.
While these were qualities that were perfectly acceptable, perhaps even desirable, in
Touchables, Vellya Paapen thought that in a Paravan they could (and would, and
indeed, should) be construed as insolence.
Vellya Paapen tried to caution Velutha. But since he couldn’t put his finger on what it
was that bothered him, Velutha misunderstood his muddled concern. To him it appeared
as though his father grudged him his brief training and his natural skills. Vellya Paapen’s
good intentions quickly degenerated into nagging and bickering and a general air of
avoid going home. He worked late. He caught fish in the river and cooked it on an open
fire. He slept outdoors, on the banks of the river.
Then one day he disappeared. For four years nobody knew where he was. There was
a rumor that he was working on a building site for the Department of Welfare and
Housing in Trivandrum.
And more recently, the inevitable rumor that he had become a Naxalite. That he had
been to prison. Somebody said they had seen him in Quilon.
There was no way of reaching him when his mother, Chella, died of tuberculosis. Then
Kuttappen, his older brother, fell off a coconut tree and damaged his spine. He was
paralyzed and unable to work. Velutha heard of the accident a whole year after it
It had been five months since he returned to Ayemenem. He never talked about where
he had been, or what he had done.
Mammachi rehired Velutha as the factory carpenter and put him in charge of general
maintenance. It caused a great deal of resentment among the other Touchable factory
workers because, according to them, Paravans were not meant to be carpenters. And
certainly, prodigal Paravans were not meant to be rehired.
To keep the others happy, and since she knew that nobody else would hire him as a
carpenter, Mammachi paid Velutha less than she would a Touchable carpenter but more
than she would a Paravan. Mammachi didn’t encourage him to enter the house (except
when she needed something mended or installed). She thought that he ought to be
grateful that he was allowed on the factory premises at all, and allowed to touch things
that Touchables touched. She said that it was a big step for a Paravan.
When he returned to Ayemenem after his years away from home, Velutha still had
about him the same quickness. The sureness. And Vellya Paapen feared for him now
more than ever; But this time he held his peace. He said nothing.
At least not until the Terror took hold of him. Not until he saw, night after night, a little
boat being rowed across the river. Not until he saw it return at dawn. Not until he saw
what his Untouchable son had touched. More than touched.
When the Terror took hold of him, Vellya Paapen went to Mammachi. He stared
straight ahead with his mortgaged eye. He wept with his own one. One cheek glistened
with tears. The other stayed dry. He shook his own head from side to side to side till
Mammachi ordered him to stop. He trembled his own body like a man with malaria.
Mammachi ordered him to stop it but he couldn’t, because you can’t order fear around.
Not even a Paravan’s. Vellya Paapen told Mammachi what he had seen. He asked
God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own
bare hands. To destroy what he had created.
In the next room Baby Kochamma heard the noise and came to find out what it was all
about She saw Grief and Trouble ahead, and secretly, in her heart of hearts, she
She said (among other things), How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed,
they have a particular smell, these Paravans!
And she shuddered theatrically, like a child being force-fed spinach. She preferred an
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 38
Irish-Jesuit smell to a particular Paravan smell.
By far. By far.
Velutha, Vellya Paapen and Kuttappen lived in a little laterite hut, downriver from the
Ayemenem house. A three-minute run through the coconut trees for Esthappen and
Rahel. They had only just arrived in Ayemenem with Ammu and were too young to
remember Velutha when he left. But in the months since he had returned, they had
grown to be the best of friends. They were forbidden from visiting his house, but they
did. They would sit with him for hours, on their haunches—hunched punctuation marks
in a pool of wood shavings—and wonder how he always seemed to know what smooth
shapes waited inside the wood for him. They loved the way wood, in Velutha’s hands,
seemed to soften and become as pliable as Plasticine. He was teaching them to use a
planer. His house (on a good day) smelled of fresh wood shavings and the sun. Of red
fish curry cooked with black tamarind. The best fish curry, according to Estha, in the
It was Velutha who made Rahel her luckiest-ever fishing rod and taught her and Estha
And on that skyblue December day, it was him that she saw through her red
sunglasses, marching with a red flag at the level crossing outside Cochin.
Steelshrill police whistles pierced holes in the Noise Umbrella. Through the jagged
umbrella holes Rahel could see pieces of red sky. And in. the red sky, hot red kites
wheeled, looking for rats. In their hooded yellow eyes there was a road and redflags
marching. And a white shirt over a black back with a birthmark.
Terror, sweat, and talcum powder had blended into a mauve paste between Baby
Kochamma’s rings of neckfat. Spit coagulated into little white gobs at the corners of her
mouth. She imagined she saw a man in the procession who looked like the photograph
in the newspapers of the Naxalite called Rajan, who was rumored to have moved south
from Paighat. She imagined he had looked straight at her.
A man with a red flag and a face like a knot opened Rahel’s door because it wasn’t
locked. The doorway was full of men who’d stopped to stare.
“Feeling hot, baby?’ the man like a knot asked Rahel kindly in Malayalam.
Then, unkindly, “Ask your daddy to buy you an Air Condition!” and he hooted with
delight at his own wit and timing. Rahel smiled back at him, pleased to have Chacko
mistaken for her father. Like a normal family.
“Don’t answer!” Baby Kochamma whispered hoarsely. “Look down! Just look down!”
The man with the Rag turned his attention to her. She was looking down at the floor of
the car. Like a coy, frightened bride who had been married off to a stranger.
“Hello, sister,” the man said carefully in English. “What is your name please?”
When Baby Kochamma didn’t answer, he looked back at his cohecklers.
“She has no name.”
“What about Modalali Mariakutty?” someone suggested with a giggle. Modalali in
Malayalam means landlord.
“A, B, C, D, X, Y, Z,” somebody else said, irrelevantly.
More students crowded around. They all wore handkerchiefs or printed Bombay
Dyeing hand towels on their heads to stave off the sun. They looked like extras who had
wandered off the sets of the Malayalam version of Sinbad. The Last Voyage.
The man like a knot gave Baby Kochamma his red flag as a present.
“Here,” he said. “Hold it.”
Baby Kochamrna held it, still not looking at him.
“Wave it,” he ordered.
She had to wave it. She had no choice. It smelled of new cloth and a shop. Crisp and
She tried to wave it as though she wasn’t waving it.
“Now say “Inquilab Zindabad.”
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 39
“Inquilab Zindabad,” Baby Kochamma whispered.
The crowd roared with laughter.
A shrillwhistle blew.
“Okay then,” the man said to Baby Kochamma in English, as though they had
successfully concluded a business deal. “Bye-bye!”
He slammed the skyblue door shut Baby Kochamma wobbled. The crowd around the
car unclotted and went on with its march.
Baby Kochamma rolled the red flag up and put it on the ledge behind the backseat.
She put her rosary back into her blouse where she kept it with her melons. She busied
herself with this and that, trying to salvage some dignity
After the last few men walked past, Chacko said it was all right now to roll down the
“Are you sure it was him?’ Chacko asked Rahel.
`Who?” Rahel said, suddenly cautious.
“Are you sure it was Velutha?”
“Hmmm…?” Rahel said, playing for time, trying to decipher Estha’s frantic thought
“I said, are you sure that the man you saw was Velutha?” Chacko said for the third
“Mmm… nyes… m… m… almost,” Rahel said.
“You’re almost sure?” Chacko said.
“No… it was almost Vehitha,” Rahel said. “it almost looked like him…”
“So you’re not sure then?”
“Almost not.” Rahel slid a look at Estha for approval.
“It must have been him,” Baby Kochamma said. “It’s Trivandrum that’s done this to
him. They all go there and come back thinking they’re some great politicos.”
Nobody seemed particularly impressed by her insight.
“We should keep an eye on him,” Baby Kochamrna said. “If he starts this Union
business in the factory… I’ve noticed some signs, some rudeness, some ingratitude.
The other day I asked him to help me with the rocks for my scree bed and he—”
“I saw Velutha at home before we left,” Estha said brightly. “So how could it be him?”
“For his own sake,” Baby Kochamma said, darkly, “I hope it wasn’t. And next time,
Esthappen, don’t interrupt.”
She was annoyed that nobody asked her what a scree bed was.
In the days that followed, Baby Kochamma focused all her fury at her public
humiliation on Velutha. She sharpened it like a pencil. In her mind he grew to represent
the march. And the man who had forced her to wave the Marxist Party flag. And the
man who christened her Modalali Mariakutty. And all the men who had laughed at her.
She began to hate him.
From the way Ammu held her head, Rahel could tell that she was still angry. Rahel
looked at her watch. Ten to two. Still no train. She put her chin on the windowsill. She
could feel the gray gristle of the felt that cushioned the window glass pressing into her
chinskin. She took off her sunglasses to get a better look at the dead frog squashed on
the road. It was so dead and squashed so flat that it looked more like a frog-shaped
stain on the road than a frog. Rahel wondered if Miss Mitten had been squashed into a
Miss Mitten-shaped stain by the milk truck that killed her.
With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there
was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black cat-
shaped holes in the Universe.
There were so many stains on the road.
Squashed Miss Mitten-shaped stains in the Universe.
Squashed frog-shaped stains in the Universe.
Squashed crows that had tried to eat the squashed frog-shaped stains in the
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 40
Squashed dogs that ate the squashed crow-shaped stains in the Universe.
Feathers. Mangoes. Spit.
All the way to Cochin.
The sun shone through the Plymouth window directly down at Rahel. She closed her
eyes and shone back at it. Even behind her eyelids the light was bright and hot. The sky
was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping
to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud. A transparent spotted snake with a forked tongue
floated across the sky Then a transparent Roman soldier on a spotted horse. The
strange thing about Roman soldiers in the comics, according to Rahel, was the amount
of trouble they took over their armor and their helmets, and then, after all that, they left
their legs bare. It didn’t make any sense at all. Weatherwise or otherwise.
Ammu had told them the story of Julius Caesar and how he was stabbed by Brutus,
his best friend, in the Senate. And how he fell to the floor with knives in his back and
said, “Et tu, Brute? —then fall, Caesar.”
“It just goes to show;” Ammu said, “that you can’t trust anybody. Mother, father,
brother, husband, bestfriend. Nobody.”
With children, she said (when they asked), it remained to be seen. She said it was
entirely possible, for instance, that Estha could grow up to be a Male Chauvinist Pig.
At night, Estha would stand on his bed with his sheet wrapped around him and say
“‘Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar!’” and crash into bed without bending his knees, like a
stabbed corpse. Kochu Maria, who slept on the floor on a mat, said that she would
complain to Mammachi.
“Tell your mother to take you to your father’s house,” she said. “There you can break
Estha would rise from the dead, stand on his bed and say, “Et tu, Kochu Maria?—
Then fall, Estha!” and die again.
Kochu Maria was sure that Ettu was an obscenity in English and was waiting for a
suitable opportunity to complain about Estha to Mammachi.
The woman in the neighboring car had biscuit crumbs on her mouth. Her husband lit a
bent after-biscuit cigarette. He exhaled two tusks of smoke through his nostrils and for a
fleeting moment looked like a wild boar. Mrs. Boar asked Rahel her name in a Baby
Rahel ignored her and blew an inadvertent spit bubble.
Ammu hated them blowing spit bubbles. She said it reminded her of Baba. Their
father. She said that he used to blow spit bubbles and shiver his leg. According to
Ammu, only clerks behaved like that, not aristocrats.
Aristocrats were people who didn’t blow spit bubbles or shiver their legs. Or gobble.
Though Baba wasn’t a clerk, Ammu said he often behaved like one.
When they were alone, Estha and Rahel sometimes pretended that they were clerks.
They would blow spit bubbles and shiver their legs and gobble like turkeys. They
remembered their father whom they had known between wars. He once gave them puffs
from his cigarette and got annoyed because they had sucked it and wet the filter with
“It’s not a ruddy sweet!” he said, genuinely angry.
They remembered his anger. And Ammu’s. They remembered being pushed around a
room once, from Ammu to Baba to Ammu to Baba like billiard balls. Ammu pushing
Estha away. Here, you keep one of them. I can’t look after them both. Later, when Estha
In the only photograph they had seen of him (which Ammu allowed them to look at
once), he was wearing a white shirt and glasses. He looked like a handsome, studious
cricketer. With one arm he held Estha on his shoulders. Estha was smiling, with his chin
resting on his father’s head. Rahel was held against his body with his other arm. She
looked grumpy and bad-tempered, with her babylegs dangling. Someone had painted
rosy blobs onto their cheeks.
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