"Untouchables" in The God Of Small Things

Khurshid Alam M. Phil, Research Scholar, Punjab University

Arundhati Roys's Booker Prize winning novel deals with the ravages of caste system in South Indian state, Kerala. Roy presents both the miserable plight of untouchables and also the struggle of a woman trying to have fulfillment in life in a patriarchal society. Velutha, the God of Small Things, transgresses the established norms of society by having an affair with a woman of high caste. The ultimate outcome of this love affair is the tragic death of an "Untouchable" by the "Touchable Boots" of the state police, an event that makes a travesty of the idea of God. God is no more in control of "small things" rather the small things have an ultimate power over God, turning him to "The God of loss" (265).

The idea of untouchability is explored at two levels in the novel. Firstly, we have socially untouchables, or Parvan, who are never allowed basic human rights. Secondly, we have metaphoric untouchables in high castes. Here discrimination expresses itself in marginalizing the women in their personal and public life. In this paper, I would like to analyze the ways and means that a system adopts to depersonalize a woman.

A complete appreciation of The God of Small Things requires an awareness of three things -- the roles of (1) the Syrian Christian community, (2) Communism, and (3) the caste system in Kerala. Kerala stretches 360 miles along the Malabar Coast of India. Although it is just 15,000 square miles in area, its population makes up 3.71% Of India's. Kerala is remarkable for having the highest literacy rate (81.29%) in the whole of India. The state experiences heavy monsoons during June-September and September-December. Most of its rivers are fed by the monsoons, and it is during this season that Sophie Mole drowns.

The community represented in The God of Small Things is Syrian Christian. The Christians of Kerala are divided into five churches: Roman Catholic, Orthodox Syrian, Nestorian, Marthoma, and Anglican. Syrian Christians claim the Apostle Thomas as their founder. The term "Syrian" refers to the West Asian origins of the group's ancestors and to their use of Syriac as a liturgical language. For centuries, their spoken language has been Malayalam. Syrian Christians have a history that predates European rule. While the Jesuits made only limited alteration to community life in 1830s and 40s, the nineteenth-century British Colonial state played a significant role in undermining Syrian Christian-Hindu connections. The old Catholic-Jacobite division gave way to as many as fourteen competing Episcopal allegiances. One of the most significant splits took place in 1888 when the Travancore High Court ruled in favour of the Jacobites (Mar Dionysius vs Mar Thomas Athanasius). The losers formed a separate ecclesiastical body, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church (Bayly 241-320).

In the novel religious differences appear in the disagreements between Father Mulligan (who belongs to the Roman Catholic Church) and Reverend Ipe (who belongs to the Mar Thoma Church) as well as in Baby Kochamma's conversion to Catholicism and her consequent lack of suitors. The socio-political changes brought about by colonial rule led to upper-caste Hindus shunning the Syrian Christians. Between 1888 and 1892 every one of the main Syrian Christian denominations founded so-called Evangelical Societies that sought out low-caste converts and built schools and chapels and publicized mass baptisms (Bayly 314-320). The God of Small Things thus refers to the school for "Untouchables" built by the great-grandfather of the twins, Estha and Rahel. However, as Roy points out, even though a number of Paravas and members of other low castes converted to Christianity, they were made to have separate churches and thus continued to be treated as "Untouchables." After Independence, they were denied government benefits created for "Untouchables" because officially, on paper, they were Christians and therefore casteless (Roy 71).

The Paravas, who speak Malayalam and use the Malayalam script, settled in the Neyyattikera taluk of the Trivandrum district and also in Quilon, Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. According to the 1981 census, their population in Kerala is 42,884 (Singh 1062-64). The word caste is derived from the Portuguese casta, which means breed, race, or kind. Castes are ranked, named, endogamous groups, and membership in a particular caste comes through birth. According to the Hindu sacred texts of the Rig Veda, there were four main castes and each caste performed a function in sustaining social life. Brahmins were the priests; Kshatriyas, were warriors and rulers; Vaisyas were landowners and merchants; and Sudras were artisans and servants (Federal Research Division 267). According to the code of Manu a marriage between a Brahmin woman and a Sudra man would result in a "Candala," who is described as "the lowest of men" and shares many of the attributes of the contemporary "Untouchable" (Moffit 34). Michael Moffit writes that ancient textual sources from the South suggest the existence of similarly ranked human relations and stresses that many attributes of contemporary South Indian "Untouchables" were apparently present 1500 years ago in the Sangam period (37). "Untouchables" are generally associated with professions such as leather workers, butchers, launderers, and latrine cleaners (Federal Research Division 267).

Since 1935 Untouchables have been called "scheduled castes." They are also called Mahatma Ghandi's name for them "Harijan" (The children of God). More recently these group refer to themselves as Dalits, a Hindi word which means oppressed or downtrodden. Despite some improvements in certain aspects of Dalit life, 90% of them still live in rural areas, and more than 50% are landless labourers. In many parts of India, land is still held by the upper castes who use the ideology of the caste system to economically exploit low- ranking landless labourers" (Study Guide-South Asia Reading Series).

In 1957, under E. M. S. Namboodiripad, Kerala became the first Indian state to elect a communist government. Despite a damaging split in the party in 1964, there have been communist-led governments in Kerala more often than not. Roy writes that the reason behind the Communist Party's success in Kerala was that it "never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to" (64). This double standard is emphasized when Comrade Pillai incites the workers of Paradise Pickles and Preserves to strike against their owner, Chacko, but refers to the latter in theoretical terms.

He never referred to him by name, but always as 'the Management.' As though Chacko was many people. Apart from it being tactically the right thing to do, this disjunction between the man and his job helped Comrade Pillai to keep his conscience clear about his own private business dealings with Chacko. His contract for printing the Paradise Pickles labels gave him an income that he badly needed. He told himself that Chacko -- the client and Chacko-the Management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade. [115]

Pillai's double standards are also seen when despite his slogans of "caste is class," he deliberately distances himself from Velutha in order to maintain the support of Chacko's other workers who dislike working with a Paravan. Chacko himself appears to be an armchair Communist with no real understanding of the politics that surround him. Roy's representation of the Communist Party has met with much criticism from the Party. The late E. M. S. Namboodiripad criticized The God of Small Things for promoting sexual anarchy and bourgeois values (Deccan Herald 6) while the Marxist Chief Minister of Kerala, Mr. E. K. Nayanar, said that Roy had painted a "factually incorrect" picture of the social conditions in Kerala during the period 1950-70 and of the role played by Communists during that period (Deccan Herald 7).

It is within this social, political and religious context that we read the tragedy of the Koachammans. Shunned by the upper class Hindus, they are over conscious of their family's prestige. Roy deals with the classical material of tragedy in the modern context. The members of this family are introverts. Baby Kochamma, Ammu, Chako and Pappachi are unable to come to terms with their complexes. They struggle against the outer world, and the defeat renders them confused and frustrated. The sense of failure expresses itself in dehumanizing others around them.

The Kochamma family has a history of poor relations between its male and female members. Ammu's mother, Mammachi, for example, is severely beaten and abused by her. husband, and she becomes the victim of his anger and frustration whenever he faces a failure in the outside world. He leaves alittle room for Ammu to grow as an independent and confident individual. Her only objective in life is to find a "reasonable husband", depending upon him for the rest of her life. Her attitude also corresponds to the idea of a "good daughter" shared both by Hindus and Muslims. Chaco, the elder brother saves Mammachi, form his father's abusive attitude

In The God of Small Things the conflict exists at individual and societal levels. The novel graphically shows that how people are helpless to resolve these levels of friction. Velutha, the outcast, can never co exist peaceful with the "touchable" communities for so long as the stigma of untouchability attached to him and countless others like him. Velutha is "highly intelligent," an excellent carpenter with an engineer's mind, but he is also "The God of loss", "The God of Small Things" --He left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no images in mirrors" (265)

In contrast to Velutha , Chacko can get away with his debauchery -- or his "man's needs" as his mother terms it -- because he is a "touchable". Roy has justly put the issue when she says, "Change is one thing. Acceptance is another" (279). The society presented in the novel is patriarchal. On the one hand we have a group of characters, Mammachi, Baby Koachmma, and Kochu Maria the cook, who perpetuate the division of caste, race, and gender. On the other hand, Ammu and the twins, Rahel and Estha, consciously and unconsciously resist these hierarchies. Ammu, the biggest victim of the system, is an archetypal image of a daughter marginalized in a patriarchal society. "Perhaps Ammu, Estha and Rahel were the worst transgressors. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much" (31). Ammu, the central character of the novel, has only a marginal existence in the family structure. A traditional patriarchal society places little importance on women's education. Ammu's father Pappachi, does not like the idea of spending money on his daughter, and she is never encouraged to find her place in life. Marriage is the only justification of her survival.

Ammu finished her schooling the same year that her father retired from the job in Delhi and moved to Aymenem. Pappachi insisted that a college education was unnecessary expense for a girl so Ammu had no choice but to leave Delhi and move with him. There was little for a young girl to do in Aymenem other than to wait for marriage proposal. [38]

Ammu accepts the very first proposal after five days of courtship. In fact, Ammu had no choice other than accepting whatsoever life offers her. Unfortunately, her husband turns out to be a drunkard unable to support the family. He tries to force Ammu to "please the boss" but she refuses and the marriage ends in divorce. As a divorcee, she has to face ostracism by her society and family. Her female relatives sympathize with her in a way, making her conscious of the gravity of her crime she has committed in living separated from her husband.

Within first few months of her return to her parent's home; Ammu quickly learned to recognize and despise the ugly face of sympathy. Old female relations with their incipient beards and several wobbling chins made overnight trips to Aymenm to commiserate her about her divorce. She fought off the urge to slap them. [43]

A divorcee has no right to pursue for happiness in life. The only course open to her is to spend a static life, waiting for death. Any attempt on her part to see life independently threatens the existing order. She is at loggerheads with the society at large because she married outside her community and a divorcee to. It is visible at Sophie Mols funeral: "Hough Ammu, Estha and Rahel were allowed to attend the funeral, they were made to stand separately , not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them" (5). Estha's conflict within himself turns him into a silent creature. But in his inside "there is an uneasy octopus that lived-and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past" (12).

This injustice is perpetrated by a group of the characters who are themselves the victims of injustice. Mammachi, Ammu's mother, who endured her husband's abusive attitude, ignores Chako's sexual exploitation of the female workers, but she cannot tolerate her daughter's love affair with a Parvan. Baby Kochamma, the defender of the system, would go to any limit to save the so-called family honour. The novel shows the process of creating and labeling Parvans within the high class families -- the people who go beyond the unwritten laws of society in pursuit of happiness.

Velutha offers what is denied to Ammu, Estha and Rahel in society and family. In the daylight, he is the best companion of the children, who feel suffocated in Aymenm because of their divorced mother. The outer world is hostile, and only the few moments they spend with Velutha afford real happiness. Ammu meets him in darkness, along the river bank -- a symbol of division between the two classes. Baby Kochamma, spending a frozen life in her past, appears as the guardian of system. Velutha, "the Untouchable" is killed by the "Touchable Boots", of the state police. Ammu is banished and dies alone, only thirty one "a very viable diable age" (161).

The system also has a fatal influence on the twins, who cannot relate to anybody other than each other. Estha's marriage proves a failure, and she feels satisfied only with the twin brother Rahel, as it were coming back to the prenatal world of pure innocence. Velutha offers a release from the deterministic world of Aymenm. For a short while he provides an opportunity to live in consonance with one's own self. But the release is illusory. The system regards every effort for the personal fulfillment as a direct threat to its established code of values. Shulan Nishant observes:

Rahel and Estha, caught in the entanglements of adult corruption are punished for the sins of a world out of their control. They are struggling to secure a safe environment the unconditional love of a parent and the promise of a livable future. Their struggle to safe guard themselves and the childhood ends one day, a day after which futures are abandoned and recovery is impossible. [Shulan Nishant]

Roy presents a pessimistic picture of society. With the death of Velutha, the last ray of hope disappears. He is accused of kidnapping the twins, and Estha falsely confirms it. Estha becomes a silent creature whose incomprehensible "Yes" served to prove an innocent man guilty. Roy expresses her disillusionment with the social conditions of the postcolonial world in which the untouchables of the past still face a hostile society that does not let them live as free and independent individuals. Velutha, the God of small Things, the outcast can never co-exist peaceful with the "touchable" communities for as long as the stigma of untouchability is attached to him and countless others like him. Ammu, another "untouchable" within the "touchable" cannot pursue happiness because doing so threatens the existing order, and the society takes every possible step to stop change.

Works Cited

Arundhati, Roy. The God of Small Things. Penguin Books India, 2002

Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses, and Kings. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Singh, K.S The Schedule Castes: The People of India. National Series Volume 2 of the Anthropological Survey of India. Delhi: Oxford Up, 1993.

Federal Research Division. India: A Country Study. Eds. James Heitzman and Robert L. Warden. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP, 1995

Moffit, Michael. An Untouchabel Community In South India. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP, 1979.

Study Guide: South Asia Reading Series, Fall 1998

Nishant, Shulin. "Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things." The Postcolonial Web.

Rao, Jaya Lakshmi. "Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice-Candy-Man and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: Some Interesting Parallels." The Postcolonial Web.

Postcolonial Web India OV Roy

Last modified 17 January 2005