Credence and Reality: On the Said and the Implied in Postcolonial Narratives -- Roy's The God of Small Things

Prasenjit Maiti, Lecturer in Political Science, Burdwan University, India

Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, is an exercise in two histories, one official and the other interpretative, resulting from the writer's sensitization to the realities of everyday life. So for a given politics there is yet another corresponding politics, and for one particular narrative there exists a counter-narrative. This study, I should explain, was originally prompted by a rejoinder to the novel by the daughter of the late communist leader from Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who was irked at what she claimed were Roy's distortions of Kerala's Marxist history. So we propose to study Chapters 5, 14 and 18 of this novel.

But a clarification is required before anything else. Our assumption here is that there is a history present in Roy's text and there is yet another history someplace else, and these are mutually exclusive. We address these as literary and hegemonic histories respectively. The inquiry into exactly how these oppose or contradict each other comprises our area of research. Official history, which is informed by a certain complicity, tends to record only a particular version of events. We will, therefore, examine some generally accepted source materials to interrogate our notion of official history.

So our central objective is to discover, if possible, the different levels of fiction that allegedly distort the grand narrative of Kerala's history. We try to isolate the little stories of countercultures from the larger myths found in the political history of Kerala. This enterprise sounds bland only if the exciting possibility of the presence of intermeshed realities is ignored. But can we really pose a question about the innate structure of reality? Can we conscientiously allow notions of multiple realities -- that is, literary reality versus official reality -- to invade the relative autonomy of our research universe? Moreover, can we also conceive of a meaningful, evolving dialogue between a given reality and its doppelgänger? Convenient, ready-to-serve-obsequious answers may not always be available. Still, let us for the moment try to grapple with Roy's work as a readerly text, and attempt to undertake an exercise in recognizing thepatterns of history and counter-history that have informed the craftsmanship of this novel.

We shall not follow either the elitist model or the subaltern one while trying to reinterpret India's not-so-recent colonial history. All we shall attempt in this paper is to move away further from the critique of the subaltern theorists and try to build up an argument of our own. Although we are not quite convinced by the treatment of history as a mere collection of certain so-called grand narratives, we are also not entirely in agreement with the politics-from-below that tends to examine history as an absolute discourse in terms of black and white. What we mean is we cannot possibly afford to discuss our categories of analysis in straitjacketed terms like either the subaltern or the elite. We do not feel very comfortable with such drastic units and would rather prefer to interrogate these in order to explore other in-between areas of research as a more viable probability.

For these reasons we do not want to look at the subaltern as something that was without any further 'paraphernalia' of identity. There must have been intra-subaltern strife and tension, problems of sustaining a workable stock of social capital within the subaltern classes themselves. Moreover, can we at all afford to look at the subaltern as a class or rather as an actor as located in the little games for power and hegemony and legitimacy within the formidable framework of India's freedom struggle?

To answer these questions, let us examine Roy's Chapter 5, 'God's Own Country' and begin by decoding a few vignettes:

Downriver, a saltwater barrage had been built, in exchange for votes from the influential paddy-farmer lobby ... Comrade EM S Namboodiripad, 'Kerala's Mao-Tse-tung'...History and Literature enlisted by commerce. Kurtz and Karl Marx joining palms to greet rich guests ... smash the windscreen of a car that dared to venture out on the day of an Opposition bandh ... Comrade K N M Pillai's son, order to allay any fears his [Lenin's] clients might have about his political leanings, he had altered his name slightly ... 'Oower, oower, oower. In Amayrica now, isn't it.' It wasn't a question. It was sheer admiration...It occurred to Comrade Pillai that this generation was perhaps paying for itsforefathers' bourgeois decadence ... Perhaps this was the real revolution. The Christian bourgeoisie had begun to self-destruct ... It was curious how politics lurked in what children chose to stuff up their noses.

The passage above exemplifies the kind of narrative we can reasonably anticipate while intercepting the deep text (or the politics of everyday life?) of Chapters 14 and 18. Roy's portrayal of Kerala's communist weltanschauung would apparently convince us of the different networks of patron-client relationships and the civil society's humdrum and pretentious ideological moorings. Half-baked children of a revolution that never did happen due toatime lag (!) or otherwise in the unlikely wake of an imperfectly mobilized politicalsocialization, we may even venture to add.

As against such an engaging backdrop, let us return to mainstream (academic) literatures to find out what these have in store for our research. Nagi Reddy, himself a communist radical, has written about a custody death during the

benign rule of Achuta Menon, the chief of Kerala Communist Party (Revisionist)...the Revisionist-led government, as all other governments of other states, condoned this savagery. [1978: 357]

Nossiter has described Kerala as 'India's problem state' but, has also argued that

Probably the most lasting contribution made by the communist movement in Kerala is its politicisation and mobilisation of the propertyless and underprivileged. The 1957-59 government in particular did much to liberate the poor and free the society from the tyranny of caste and communalism...At the same time it must be conceded that the beneficiaries of communist rule have been the peasants (in part by design) not the labourers and (unintentionally) the government employees not the workers in the traditional cottage industry sector such as coir, whose condition has changed little since 1945. [1982: 371-72]

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out (1982: 9-38 passim) that There are numerous instances in Indian history, recent and not so recent, of peasant communities acting autonomously against the formally organised state, its agents, or functionaries ... The language of organised politics often characterises such forms of mobilisation as an alliance of various classes or strata within the peasantry, but ideologically the notion of the alliance is hardly ever relevant in collective actions of this kind; it is always the concept of the community as a collective whole, a form of authority incapable of being broken down into constituent parts, which shapes and directs peasant politics vis-a-vis the state. The perceptual distance of the state and the absence of organic links with the everyday world of peasant life also provides the analytical ground for explaining the sudden and unanticipated swings in popular opinion about the 'sarkar'. Indeed, it is precisely this perceptual distance which, when favourable structural conditions prevail in the organised world of struggle between sections of the ruling classes, creates room for the manipulative operations of populist politics and charismatic politicians.

But whatever the variations in the specific social constitution of a peasant community, and hence of the specific set of cultural symbols and beliefs surrounding the relations of the community with feudal or bureaucratic state authority, when a community acts collectively the fundamental political characteristics are the same everywhere ... It is the nature of the linkage of peasant-communal politics of this kind with the structure of organised politics which designates one movement as 'Gandhian', the other 'terrorist' and still another 'communalist' (emphases in the original).

Chatterjee, therefore, apparently treats a given actor as being quite (corporate and) monolithic in its personality make-up. This is not to suggest, however, that the battle lines between this particular actor and the state apparatus are quite well-defined. There is almost nothing about this confrontational relationship that suggests any ideas in absolute terms. But movements acquire their various ascriptive statuses, according to Chatterjee, by virtue of an inner dynamic of cohesion; this reminds me of the process of identity formation that is so very important in thecontext of organizing and mobilizing social movements. We find Partha Chatterjee's 'perceptual distance' quite interesting since it draws us to the inevitable conclusion that the Indian crowds before and at independence were merely the other that was not at all hospitably incorporated into the principal format of the elite-dominated Indian national liberal movement or even the process of building the Indian State Nation. This distance was both real in terms of everyday politics as well as perceived in the sense of being deprived, even marginalised, from the momentous process of decision-making that eventually shaped the future of Indian polity. It is true that without a sense of identity a popular movement cannot even begin properly, let alone sustain itself over time. Such an identity is like a reference point that decides the level of efficacy of any particular movement. We would argue here that whenever the Indian crowds tried to identify themselves with any issue or institution, they were generally manipulated by their elite leaders and diversified into channels of an abhorrent otherness.

Paul R. Brass, who also confirms some of Nossiter's findings, observes that

When they [the landless low castes] attempt to mobilise for political agitations for higher wages against the landed castes, however, they generally meet strong resistance and their movements usually fail, except in ... Kerala ... at times when the ruling Communist parties there support their demands. [1992: 308]

Namboodiripad was convinced that the ruling Left and Democratic Front was an arrangement of leftist, democratic, secular and federal political forces. The nuances of Roy's text would appear problematic in such a composite context that is almost like a chiaroscuro background structured both by academic as well as activist source materials. Such a reality happens to informour present odyssey. However, we can revisit the text once more to read Chapter 14, 'Work is Struggle':

Struggle is Work...a framed photograph of Comrade Pillai garlanding Comrade E MS Namboodiripad ... A Jeep with a loudspeaker drove past, blaring a Marxist Party song whose theme was Unemployment ... The more people that were seen waiting to meet him [Comrade Pillai], the busier he would appear, the better the impression he would make...his straitened circumstances...gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match. He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko's head... Questions signified a vulgar display of ignorance...'Until then, struggle must continue' ... trying to speak in the same idiom...'Party worker'...sly, misguided collusion ... 'these caste issues are very deep-rooted' ... It is a conditioning they [people belonging to the caste of Paravans] have from birth ... for Masses it is something different ... 'it is a shameful matter for them [the workers] not to be unionised and join the Party Struggle'...'They must launch their own struggle' ... 'Revolution is not a dinner party' ... he [Comrade Pillai] deftly banished Chacko from the fighting the treacherous ranks ... Comic book adversaries in a still-to-come war ... ('Caste is Class, comrades') ... the People's War joined the racks of broken airplanes ... 'Party was not constituted to support workers' indiscipline in their private life.'

Arundhati Roy permeates her text with sarcasm, and this aspect of her craftsmanship characterises this narrative's inner identity of imagination. Whenever she employs the term comrade for E.M.S. or Pillai and the like, what she actually intends is derision that is packaged in an idiom symptomatic of the politics of language. Roy would also like us to think that Chacko 'believed' in politics while Pillai 'used' it; only then are we allowed to draw our own inferences regarding these characters, keeping in mind the different 'days and works' of men.

Roy's terms of discourse, therefore, may well clarify those analytical categories we need to appreciate in this paper. These categories may facilitate our rather open-ended examination of multiple histories and plural times. Such a disquieting flux of possibilities has already reminded us of the complications of art (and its expressions) as noticed in either the surrealist or even the stream of consciousness schools. The politics of knowledge, and the resultant empowerment in real terms, is yet another concern of this chapter. This is, however, not often reflected in Kerala's achievement in education or literacy. Nossiter (1988: 57) has found that By 1981 the general literacy rate (including babies) was 70 per cent, almost exactly twice the all-India figure. Still more striking was the general female literacy rate of 66 per cent as compared to 25 per cent for India. Excluding those five years of age, the effective literacy rates become: 87 per cent for males; 76 per cent for females; and 81 per cent overall. Nossiter, however, confirms Roy's perceptions regarding the problem of unemployment. We arealso reminded of the Marxian notion of false consciousness while reading about caste ascriptions in Roy. The distant reference to 'a still-to-come war' is pretty unnerving as history and speculation get fused here in quite an intriguing manner. We would now finally examine Chapter 18:

The toy histories that rich tourists came to play with ... A History hole ... the Touchable future ... It was human history, masquerading as God's Purpose ... History in live performance ... abandoned by God and History, by Marx ...

Roy's rendition of history and the kind of historiography we find in non-literary sources are not quite mutually exclusive. Perhaps that is all that can be observed about the different episodic treatments of 'time' we are concerned with in this section of the paper. To illustrate: how best can we reconcile Manoranjan Mohanty's analysis (1986: 256) with the memories of Rahel as an insecure child belonging to a religious minority in Kerala?

A sense of disenchantment appears in Chapter 2, 'Pappachi's Moth', that outlines the beginning and the end of an euphoria attending 'the first ever democratically elected communist government in the world' (1957). We almost have the feeling of reading official history in the pages that follow in this chapter. An additional item of information is also interesting: we read about a demand 'that Untouchables no longer be addressed by their caste names'. This trend continues even in Chapter 4, 'Abhilash Talkies', where Roy writes about the naxalites. Some more interesting phrases are also noticed in Chapter 14:

History's waiting glove ... his blind date with history ... Spring-thunder.

So our analysis would occasionally lead us into a labyrinth of conflicting or even skewed ideas. It is as if we have been overwhelmed by a history hole, a wormhole in time and space that is both unrelenting and inexorable in its personal odyssey, pursuing the vistas of an ulterior reality. Our initial assumption regarding a couple of quite different histories appears to get vindicated here. But this is not to suggest, however, that E.M.S.' daughter was entirely justified in her ire provoked by Roy's novel. So it can be concluded that the reality of historiography and the reality of textuality are different in nature and scope. Still, we can afford to intellectually co-habit and make peace with the notion of intermeshed realities in the following sense: realities or renditions of a particular reality. This sounds puzzling enough, but the problem may soon be resolved if the narratology of Roy's text is discerned exclusively via the central character of Rahel. As it is, Rahel is engaged in a journey back to her roots. Chapter 1, 'Paradise Pickles & Preserves' states that:

It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem.

The inchoate mosaic of history and counter-history, all the versions that can and cannot be reconciled within the little and the metanarratives can finally be ignored when both space and time drop into an insignificant nothingness. So far we have been up against Roy's humor, passion and cynicism; but now she also looks back in anger (!) and desperate helplessness to write:

A band of children followed Rahel on her walk ... twenty-five years too late ... Then someone threw a small stone at her, and her childhood fled, flailing its thin arms.

We addressed the problematique of binary histories in this paper, and tried to explore the deep text of reality from within these different renderings. It is difficult to pinpoint any given account of facts as the hegemonic version as perhaps each and every exercise in historiography is informed by the choice of the write (Spivak, 1995: 24-8):

This is indeed the problem of 'the permission to narrate' discussed by Said (1984) ... Within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effected. The question is not of female participation in insurgency, or the ground rules of the sexual division of labour, for both of which there is 'evidence'. It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.

But we are finally presented with a readerly text in a postmodern context where it is fashionable to assume that the author is dead, and what is available is only the reader's interface with the text. So we have to necessarily analyse the inner narratives from within the text if we are to catch up anywhere near with reality that, however, has its own flux and logic.


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Last modified 4 June 2001