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The God of Small Things | Context

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The God of Small Things has been labeled semi-autobiographical fiction because its setting is so obviously reminiscent of Arundhati Roy's childhood home, and the events take place in the time frame of her own life. She does not deny this characterization, although she refutes any claims that the major events described are based on real-life experiences. However, Roy does write with rich detail about the India she knows. Reading the novel may be enriched by an understanding of the country's geography, government, and politics, and by an awareness of some of the specific cultural norms and celebrations she references.

The Kerala Coast

The setting for The God of Small Things is the small village of Ayemenem, in the Indian state of Kerala on the west coast of India. Roy grew up there in a village with a name very close to her fictitious village: Aymanam. The name of the river beside that village, Minachil, must have also influenced her choice for the name of the important river in the novel: Meenachal. Roy did not disguise other names of places where some events take place—the cities of Kottayam and Cochin (now known as Kochi)—and her detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, buildings, climate, and so forth are based on fact.

Kerala is a very popular tourist destination, often described as a tropical paradise. Its western beaches stretch along the Arabian Sea, with southern beaches along the Indian Ocean, and the mountain range known as the Western Ghats forms the eastern border. The state animal is the elephant, and the state tree is the coconut. Vegetation abounds, with groves of coconut palms, aromatic spices and flowers, and agricultural products growing everywhere. Many rivers flow through the state, and houseboats called kettuvallams are often seen on rivers and lakes. In The God of Small Things, the author vividly describes this lush landscape.

Indian Government and Politics

Since 1947 India has been an independent republic with a two-house parliamentary system of government headed by a prime minister. The nation is made up of 28 states and seven territories.

Kerala is a politically significant state, due to high education levels and relative wealth among its residents. So when the Communist Party of India (CPI) took power in the state in 1957, it was notable. It was the first government within India not to stay true to the traditional Congress Party. The leader of the Kerala Communists at this time was E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who is mentioned several times in The God of Small Things. Under his leadership, several reforms were introduced in the next few years, but there were violent protests against them, also seen in The God of Small Things. General dissatisfaction within the party led the CPI to split into two factions, the Communist Party (Marxist) and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist). Namboodiripad went with the Marxists and continued to focus on a peaceful transition to socialism, whereas the more radical Marxist-Leninists, particularly a branch known as Naxalites, took a more violent approach. References are also made to Naxalites in the novel.

The Caste System

The social stratification system known as the caste system has existed in India for around 3,000 years, although the Indian constitution (adopted in 1950) banned the use of the system as discriminatory. The caste system divides people into groups, or castes, according to their work and religion. In India the traditional groupings are as follows:

  • Brahmins are at the top. They are intellectuals, usually priests or scholars.
  • Kshatriyas are just below Brahmins. They are rulers and warriors.
  • Next come Vaishyas, who hold professional jobs such as bankers, traders, and merchants.
  • The lowest group is the Shudras, who are unskilled laborers, servants, and peasants.

Outside of these groupings is a large class of people known as the Untouchables. These people are thought to be unclean, mostly due to the jobs they do such as garbage collection and the cremating of dead bodies. Now referring to themselves as Dalits ("the oppressed"), the group formerly treated with such disdain and all but excluded from associating with the rest of society is working to overcome oppression and stigma. In The God of Small Things, the caste system is still in force, and people are expected to adhere to the rules: marrying within one's own caste, staying with the work acceptable to the caste into which you are born, refusing to share food or water with lower castes, never touching Untouchables, and openly repressing those in castes below you.

Kathakali

Derived from sacred rituals performed in Hindu temples in Kerala, Kathakali is a dramatic dance performance. Without speaking, male actors in heavy makeup and elaborate costumes act out ancient stories, accompanied by singing, drumming, and the playing of cymbals. The stories are epics originally written in Sanskrit (the ancient language of Hindu Indians), so the performances are quite long.

Traditionally, a Kathakali performance began at sundown and ended just before sunrise. Audiences knew what to expect, as the performances follow a certain pattern. Drumming signals the beginning, calling the gods to come. A satin curtain hides the stage as the actors begin to arrive. They are moving from the earthly world to the gods' world and usually pray behind the curtain while still out of sight. Next, singers join the drums, with the musicians showing their greatest skills to inspire the audience for what is to come. As the curtain falls, the action begins and the story unfolds hour after hour, with the climactic death of the evil character occurring just before dawn. The audience joins those presenting Kathakali to dance, eat, and celebrate the victory of good over evil.

This is the type of traditional performance Roy portrays in The God of Small Things. The story featured is particularly relevant to the novel. It is a traditional tale of an illegitimate son of a queen who is raised by a chariot driver. Despite his royal blood, he suffers from the type of discrimination experienced by the Untouchables in the Indian caste system. His anger makes him a great warrior.

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