The God of Small Things | Study Guide

Arundhati Roy

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The God of Small Things | Plot Summary

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Summary

Structure and Settings

Arundhati Roy does not present a sequential narrative in The God of Small Things. Rather, the chapters move about in time and place, reflecting memories, reactions to current happenings, and thoughts about the future, often from different viewpoints, some childlike and some adult. This is how people mentally process life's events, after all, with memories of the past influencing the response to the present—and both creating ideas about the future. In thinking about one's life story, the mind bounces around instead of following a linear path, and perceptions of reality can change radically from childhood to adulthood.

Reading the novel is not unlike eating an orange; piece by piece the central events are revealed and digested until the whole is understood and appreciated. What is helpful to know from the beginning, however, is that there are two general time frames in which the major events occur: the past and the present. The past is December 1969. The present is 1992. In the past the twins Rahel and Estha are seven years old and experience many traumatic events, ending with their separation. In the present they are both alive and finally together again. In both the past and the present, they are based at the family home in Ayemenem. Generally, chapters alternate between the past and the present.

Rahel's Return

The novel opens in the present. Thirty-one-year-old Rahel has just returned to Ayemenem after a long absence. It is the beginning of monsoon season, and returning to the muggy climate and the family home brings back Rahel's memories of childhood, including stories of her and Estha's birth, the funeral of their nine-year-old cousin Sophie Mol, a visit to the police station, and the twins' separation when Estha was sent to live with his father. The only living relative still at the family home is 83-year-old Baby Kochamma, the twins' grandfather's younger sister, who lives in the house with a surly cook named Kochu Maria. Estha is also back and no longer speaks, spending most of his days on long walks. Rahel's life since losing Estha is quickly outlined: schooling, marriage and divorce, jobs. Baby Kochamma's life is also quickly reviewed, allowing readers to learn about her, her parents, and life at the family home in the past and present, including some of the history of the family's factory, Paradise Pickles & Preserves.

As the opening chapter draws to a close, there are hints that Sophie Mol's death is at the core of the unraveling of the twins. Equally important is what Roy terms "the Love Laws ... that lay down who should be loved, and how." A tragic romance follows.

Car Trip to Cochin

The novel's setting then goes backward in time, to a car ride in December 1969. The twins, their mother (Ammu), their uncle (Chacko), and Baby Kochamma are traveling to the city of Cochin to see The Sound of Music movie, spend the night, and then pick up Sophie Mol and her mother at the airport. Sophie Mol is Chacko's daughter, and her mother is his ex-wife (Margaret Kochamma). Details about the characters reveal their looks, personalities, and some key events in each person's life. Ammu's wedding, marriage, and the birth of the twins are explored. The twins' father (Baba) is a violent alcoholic, which is why Ammu leaves him and brings the children to Ayemenem, feeling that her life is over. No one approves of her actions, and Baby Kochamma is especially unhappy.

The car they ride in is a rolling advertisement for the Paradise Pickles & Preserves business, with a billboard on top, so details are also provided about how the business began and about Ammu's parents (Pappachi and Mammachi). The travelers experience delays on the trip when the billboard must be secured, a train crossing is blocked, and the Communist Party stages a protest march among the cars stalled while waiting for the train to pass. Because Velutha is part of the march—although the adults in the car deny the truth of Rahel's sighting of him—Velutha, an important character, is introduced, with details about how the life of this Untouchable has become entwined with the family's existence.

Broken Connection

The next chapter returns again to the present time, to the house at Ayemenem. As Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria engage in their full-time hobby—watching television—in the filthy house, Rahel secretly observes Estha bathing and washing his clothes after his usual long walk. She longs to feel the connection they had as children. She touches him, but he does not respond.

Molestation

Then readers are returned to the trip to the movies, just as the family arrives at the theater. Chacko drops them off and goes to check on their lodging arrangements. The movie has started, but it doesn't really matter since they have seen it before and know the plot and all the songs. When Estha can't help but sing along, he goes to the lobby so that he will not annoy the audience. There, the man who runs the refreshments stand molests him, luring him with a soft drink. Estha returns to the theater, but then feels like he will vomit, so Ammu takes him to the restroom. He never tells anyone what has happened. Ammu decides he is ill and they must leave, so they take a taxi to the hotel. As Rahel recalls spending the night in Chacko's room so Estha can be with Ammu, the details of Chacko's marriage, divorce, and the death of Margaret's second husband are given, along with background information about the current state of the family factory in light of the communist movement in Kerala.

Sophie Mol

Again the novel shifts to the present, as Rahel muses about how much Ayemenem has both changed and remained the same. As she walks, she encounters the local communist leader, Comrade K.N.M. Pillai. As they catch up on their lives, Rahel remembers his son, Lenin, and a shared doctor's visit. Pillai pulls out old photographs, and Rahel sees one of her and Estha with Lenin and Sophie Mol shortly before she died. This memory returns the narrative to the past, to the day after the movies, when the family picks up Sophie Mol and her mother from the airport.

Everyone is dressed in fancy clothes for the meeting. The initial encounter is quite awkward, and none of the three children behave as coached and expected. Ammu is very angry with the twins. Nevertheless, the children begin to get to know each other in their own way.

Death of Ammu

Back in the present, Rahel is trying to reach Estha in a different way. Remembering that she hid things in Pappachi's study as a child, she finds the cache. With her treasures she finds something Ammu must have placed there, notebooks the twins wrote lessons in so long ago. As she reads it aloud to Estha, Rahel thinks of her mother and the sad state she was in as she approached her death: "Wild. Sick. Sad." Ammu was the same age the twins now are when she died. Rahel recalls the last time she saw her mother alive, glad that Estha never saw her that way. She remembers the trip to the crematorium. Finishing her memories and her reading, she sees that Estha has left; she still has not reached him.

Fatal Romance

The narrative returns to the day Sophie Mol and her mother arrive, to a choreographed scene at the then-impressive family home, designed to welcome the visitors in fine style. Mammachi's jealous feelings toward her ex-daughter-in-law are revealed as her violin playing for the homecoming is described. Kochu Maria prepares a huge cake, and all of the factory workers line up to greet the travelers. As the scene unfolds, Rahel spots her favorite person (Velutha) and goes to him. As Ammu watches Velutha and Rahel, she feels an intense physical attraction. This attraction becomes the fatal romance at the core of the story.

Past, Present, and Future

Returning to the present time, the narrative features Rahel sitting in the untended garden at the house as twilight comes. She is thinking about what her future might hold as she remembers how she and Estha and Sophie Mol steadily grew closer from the time they met until her death just days later—and how they enjoyed doing things with Velutha. From where she sits she can see Estha in his room, and she acknowledges the terrible burden they have carried since those days of their childhood, the days leading up to a terrible event ("The Terror") that took not just Sophie Mol but also Velutha and Ammu. She stays in the garden for hours until she hears the sounds of a kathakali performance, coming from the nearby temple, and decides to go to it.

A Tiny Boat

But the next chapter is again set in the past, on the day Sophie Mol is welcomed to Ayemenem. Estha has gone to the factory to get away from the scene and to think. He is worried that the man who molested him at the theater knows how to find him and might come for him. He decides that he needs to have a getaway plan, that a boat would be a good way to escape across the river. There is an abandoned house, called the History House, on the other side that would be a good hiding place. When Rahel finds him, Estha announces that they need to go visit that place, and she makes a plan to pretend to take her afternoon nap and then sneak away when Ammu falls asleep.

When the twins meet as agreed on the riverbank, they find a long-forgotten tiny boat, a wooden vallom, just the thing Estha had been thinking of. However, when they put it in the water, it sinks. Nevertheless, they work to wash it and then carry it to the hut where Velutha lives with his paralyzed brother, Kuttappen, and their father, Vellya Paapen. Only Kuttappen is home, so the twins show him the boat and ask him if it can be repaired. He advises them that it's a matter of simply finding the leaks and plugging them. Velutha arrives before long, and he confirms that he can probably fix it. However, both brothers warn the children that the river is dangerous and if they have the boat to use, they must always be careful. Then Velutha, Estha, and Rahel begin sandpapering the boat, working for an hour until Rahel suddenly remembers she must run back to the house before Ammu awakens.

Ammu has been sleeping deeply and dreaming. When Estha and Rahel waken her, the three of them lay together, listening to music and singing, until Ammu gets up to go to the bathroom. There she examines her body while the twins play in the bedroom. Foreshadowing is used to suggest that soon that room will be a prison for Ammu, until the door is knocked down and she is told to leave. It is where she will pack Estha's things into a trunk because he, too, will be sent away.

Echoes of Family Tragedy

The next chapter picks up the narrative of the present, and Rahel has arrived at the temple for the kathakali. Details about these traditional performances and the specific story being acted out are described. The story has marked similarities to Rahel's own family tragedy. Rahel soon becomes aware that Estha has arrived. They watch the whole performance, silently, together and walk home as dawn arrives.

Sophie Mol's Death

The narrative returns to the past, to the afternoon of Sophie Mol's arrival at the Ayemenem house. She is napping with her mother in Chacko's room. (He has moved to Pappachi's study for their visit.) However, she is not asleep, just watching her mother sleep and looking around the room. As Sophie Mol studies a photograph of the wedding of her mother and Chacko, details about the two and their relationship are provided for the reader. They met when Chacko came to the café in Oxford where Margaret Kochamma was a waitress. He was a Rhodes Scholar, and the two married as soon as he finished his studies. The marriage did not last long, and Margaret left Chacko for Joe, who became her second husband, soon after Sophie Mol was born. Chacko returned home to India. Mammachi was thrilled to have her adored son back.

Margaret Kochamma and Chacko stayed in close touch by letter, since it was the only way he could remain informed about his daughter. So when Joe is suddenly and tragically killed, it is natural that Chacko would invite his ex-wife and daughter to India for Christmas and for a much-needed change of scenery. This is how Sophie Mol came to be in that bedroom. Later, in a tragic accident, her body will be found floating in the Meenachal River.

This is where the narrative picks up. It is morning when the body is found. Ammu has been locked in her bedroom, and Rahel and Estha are missing. The day before, Velutha's father had arrived at the house. Vellya Paapen was drunk and demanded to talk to Mammachi. Granted an audience, he tells of seeing Velutha and Ammu crossing the river night after night, joining their bodies as lovers at the History House. Baby Kochamma hears the conversation and immediately begins plotting how to handle the situation, how to prevent the ruining of the family's reputation with this forbidden love. She and Mammachi lock Ammu in her room and send for Velutha. When Sophie Mol's body is found, Baby Kochamma goes to the police department and tells a story she has woven, of Velutha trying to rape Ammu and then threatening the family when they told him he must leave. She suggests that Velutha was behind this death and the disappearance of Estha and Rahel.

Meanwhile, Chacko and Margaret Kochamma have arrived back at the house from their trip to check on the airline tickets to find Sophie Mol's lifeless body on a chaise lounge. The shock is huge.

After learning all of these details, the reader is returned to the room where Sophie Mol is still not sleeping on the first day of her visit. She finds the presents she brought for Estha and Rahel and leaves the room to take the gifts to them and tries to become their friend. Meanwhile, Chacko is going to visit Comrade Pillai, to request that he design and print labels for a new product from the Paradise Pickles & Preserves line. However, his underlying purpose is to see how the communist movement is going and how it might affect the factory. He also wants to learn more about Velutha's involvement. Comrade Pillai warns him that Velutha is going to be a problem for the family. His Untouchable status is an ongoing issue, especially given his prominent role as "practically run(ning) the factory." The other workers resent that.

This section ends with foreshadowing of what is to come. Comrade Pillai will be the last person Velutha visits. With Sophie Mol's death will come the death of the factory, due to Chacko's grief and inability to run it effectively. Land will be sold to pay the bills, and Chacko will move to Canada. Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria will be forced to live off of a small amount of rent and whatever money they can get from the coconut harvest.

Family Betrayal

The narrative then focuses on Velutha on the day his father betrays him to Mammachi. He has been in the city to get parts needed to fix a factory machine. A factory worker at the bus stop tells him he must go see Mammachi, so he goes directly to the house. She meets him with a violent fit of temper, cursing him, spitting on him, and threatening to kill him if he does not leave forever.

Velutha responds by going to Comrade Pillai's house, thinking the man will help to protect him. But Comrade Pillai refuses to get involved. So Velutha goes to the river and swims across to the History House. A few hours later Estha, Rahel, and Sophie Mol set out in their boat to cross the river to the same place. The twins' mother, locked in her room, has screamed at them that it is all their fault. So they are running to the place of safety that they have been stocking since Estha announced after being molested that they should have a secret escape. Sophie Mol is joining them so she will not be questioned about their whereabouts. Halfway across the river, the boat tips over and Sophie Mol is lost forever. The twins make it to the History House, unaware that Velutha is also there, asleep in the darkness.

Legacy of the History House

The narrative returns to the present day, to Estha sitting alone in his room on a rainy night. Kochu Maria is asleep in front of the television, and Baby Kochamma is in her own room, filling out mail-in rebates and remembering a long-ago romance. She is also listening for sounds of movement by Rahel and Estha, suspicious that they have sometimes been out all night together.

On this night Rahel comes to Estha's room after Baby Kochamma has fallen asleep. Looking at her, Estha remembers the day he had to say goodbye to her and Ammu at the train station, when he was sent away to live with his father. He also remembers how he and Rahel had witnessed the brutal beating of Velutha by the posse of police officers who descended on the History House where Velutha, Estha, and Rahel had gone to hide. When the police officers found the twins, they took them to the police station and emptied the house of all the supplies. The officers knew that would not fit with the story that Velutha had kidnapped them.

What happened at the police station is narrated in the next chapter. As Inspector Matthew learns about the well-stocked History House, he figures out that Baby Kochamma's tale is not true. He calls her to the station and explains that she has set him up to kill an innocent man and he can file criminal charges against her. The only way this situation is to be avoided is for Ammu to file a rape charge against Velutha, or for the children to say that Velutha did indeed kidnap them.

So Baby Kochamma bullies and tricks the children into making the false claim. She tells them that only they can save their mother from going to jail. When Estha and Rahel agree to the scheme, the inspector takes Estha to where Velutha lies dying and asks him the question. Estha says one word, "Yes." Then Baby Kochamma takes the children home. The next morning, Ammu hears their story and goes to the police station to try to set things right. However, the inspector shuts her down. And Baby Kochamma completes her scheme by urging Chacko to throw Ammu out of the house and send Estha to his father.

End of Everything

The next chapter then opens by focusing again on Estha's departure by train as a child. As this painful memory leaves him, he returns his attention to his beautiful sister. The twins perform a forbidden act on this night, brother and sister making love, united by their lifetime of shared grief. This scene leads into the first night long ago that Ammu also participated in forbidden love, with Velutha. It was the first of 13 blissful nights that led to the end of everything.

The God of Small Things Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Ammu moves back to Ayemenem with twins Rahel and Estha.

Rising Action

2 Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma arrive in Ayemenem.

3 Ammu and Velutha begin having an illicit love affair.

4 The affair is discovered.

5 Ammu is locked in her room.

6 Velutha is told to leave forever.

7 Ammu screams at the twins that they should leave.

8 Sophie Mol and the twins try to cross the river.

Climax

9 Sophie Mol drowns.

Falling Action

10 Kottayam police find Velutha and beat him to death.

11 Chacko throws Ammu out, and Estha is sent to Baba's.

Resolution

12 Rahel and Estha reunite in Ayemenem 23 years later.

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