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The God of Small Things | Themes

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Obligations

In the world of Ayemenem, people are expected to follow the rules, characterized in the novel as "the Love Laws." Some of the rules are written down, but others are simply known and should not need to be spoken. Some of the rules are outdated and can be very damaging on the individual, familial, and societal levels, but people are far from ready to let them go.

In the Ipe family, the main rule is that you must never embarrass other family members by your behavior. If you ignore this obligation, you will be punished. This rule holds true whether you are a child or an adult. So when Estha and Rahel disrespect their mother in public, as they do on the trip to pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma at the airport, they know they will be punished. Ammu's punishment can be emotional, with her threats of withdrawing love from her children or sending them away, or the punishment might be physical. Certainly physical punishment is something that occurs in the family at the slightest breach of the rules. For example, Pappachi beats his wife and children regularly when he feels even slightly disrespected. When Chacko makes him stop, he turns to emotional punishment, never speaking to Mammachi again.

If the embarrassment comes at the expense of the prized social standing of the Ipe family, Baby Kochamma in particular will make sure that the person suffers. Ammu is banished from the family, separated from her children, for daring to have the affair with Velutha. Baby does not care how much this damages Estha and Rahel; the rules must be followed or else the family will lose its status.

Even an Untouchable family such as Velutha's follows the rules. When Vellya Paapen betrays his own son and says he would kill him himself, he is acting out of his obligation to the Ipe family for what they have done for him and his son. He simply cannot believe that Velutha will not follow the rules of society, and his own family honor requires that he take this action to prevent further damage from being done.

Administrative leaders like Inspector Thomas Mathew and Comrade Pillai also understand that the rules must be followed. They feel the social obligation to keep their world from completely turning inside out, and they put this obligation before conscience, empathy, or justice. They do what it takes to keep themselves in their positions of power.

Small Things

The small things of the novel's title are those things that make up the fabric of day-to-day life. Love and other emotions, the beauty of nature, the proper use of one's gifts and talents—these are the small things that make life meaningful to each person. This is in contrast to the big things—politics, cultural norms, status, money—which are sadly what many people get caught up in and fixated on. Especially in the Ipe family, the big things are viewed as important, but it is the small things that lead to tragedy.

Velutha, on the other hand, is called the God of Small Things. Because he is an Untouchable, he is mostly invisible. He does not leave ripples or footprints in his wake. He can notice the tiny things of beauty in the natural world, and he can take the time to craft perfectly made tiny things. He can spend joyful hours with children, being with them in their world, while the other adults in the novel stay too wrapped up in the big things to even notice. Velutha can love.

As children Estha and Rahel still appreciate the small things, but that is taken from them when they experience the Terror. When they reunite as adults, they try to reclaim the beauty and importance of the small things. It is not asking too much to be allowed to appreciate nature, to feel love, to find some happiness. If they can have the small things again, they might finally begin to heal.

Class Divisions

Even though the caste system was outlawed in India at the time the novel is set, it is far from gone in Ayemenem. The ancient acts of segregation, prejudice, and discrimination are still in plain view. The people at the top tiers of the system, like the Ipes, have too much to lose if things become more equally distributed. They fear for their status, their wealth, their business ownership. These fears are not unfounded, as the Communist Party swoops in to urge the disgruntled lower castes to rebel and demand change.

It is the breach of the divisions that brings about the tragedy of the novel. Velutha and Ammu dare to engage in an illicit affair, and everything is lost. The family is split apart; the factory will not survive the revolt that follows. Even though the killing of Velutha is a crime, that crime will never be acknowledged. The powers that be simply do not want to disrupt the class divisions any further.

And 23 years later, things still haven't changed that much. The Ipes are still in their family home. Comrade Pillai is still keeping his secrets. The History House presents artifacts of India long ago as if it were an ideal society. Arundhati Roy seems to be saying that this division between the "haves" and the "have nots" is part of the human condition, something that no amount of tragedy can ever completely eliminate.

Love

Love is a powerful force in the novel, yet it is not easy to come by. In the Ipe family, love is withheld as a means of getting others to conform to your will, as is the case of Ammu's love for her children. Or as revealed by Pappachi's personality, love is warped and turned into something that produces only violence and fear.

In contrast love is given freely to Sophie Mol, a fact that confuses adults and children alike. What makes someone so deserving of love? The "Love Laws," society's rules for who can love who and how, don't explain it. Out of this confusion arises Ammu's willingness to give in to her love for Velutha, grabbing at her only chance to live fully. Yet the outcome is far from life, and Rahel and Estha are condemned to an inability to love. In losing any opportunity for love, they also lose the chance to feel joy, pleasure, or hope. Only in rediscovering their love for each other do they have the chance for redemption.

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