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Why should you read “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy? - Laura Wright

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Set in a small town in India, “The God of Small Things” revolves around fraternal twins Rahel and Estha, who are separated for 23 years after the fateful hours in which their cousin drowns, their mother’s affair is revealed, and her lover is murdered. The book is set at the point of the twins’ reunion and confronts the social mores of India. Laura Wright dives into Arundhati Roy’s masterful storytelling.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Laura Wright
  • Director Martina Meštrović
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Animator Martina Meštrović
  • Editor Martina Meštrović
  • Character Designer Martina Meštrović
  • Layout Artist Martina Meštrović
  • Sound Designer Ivailo Stefanov
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more
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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Indian author Arundhati Roy’s first novel The God of Small Things won the prestigious Booker
Prize for literature in 1997 and has remained an important text in postcolonial studies, as it
engages with the impacts of British colonization as well as the nature of the caste system in
India. The narrative moves back and forth in time, from 1969 when protagonist Rahel and her
twin brother Estha are separated from each other at the age of eight, to the “present” of 1992,
when they are reunited at age 31. But the novel’s primary focus is on the lifelong impact of a
two-week period in 1969 when the twin’s cousin Sophie Mol visits from England and drowns in
the Meenachil River, and their mother, Ammu, has an affair with a Paravan – or Untouchable –
man, Velutha. The portrayal of such a relationship was so scandalous, that Roy was brought up
on obscenity charges in Kerala, her home state and the setting of The God of Small Things. Learn more about Roy's story.

Colonization of India by Britain
Although British colonization ended in India in 1947, its impact over the course of roughly 200
years ensures that the legacy of colonization remains a palpable presence in Roy’s novel. The
twins’ uncle Chacko – Sophie Mol’s father – tells the twins that “they were a family of
Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to
retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away” (51), effectively explaining
how the British colonial project was one of physical and psychological control. Further, because
the British ruled via a “divide and conquer” strategy, they sought to pit religious groups in India
against each other by empowering Hindus and marginalizing Muslims. As a result, along with
independence for India in 1947 came the bloody partition of India into the secular country of
India and the Muslim country of Pakistan. The divisive legacy of colonization and its aftermath
serves as a backdrop to the various other divisions that shape the relationships between
characters in the novel – the tension between men and women, between touchable and
untouchable caste members, and between the natural world in Kerala as depicted in 1969 and the
industrialization that lays the river to waste in 1992: "Civilization's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of the powerless" (292). For a timeline of Indian history, see here. For more information about partition, why it happened, and its enduring legacy, see here.

Caste System
The caste system dates back to 1200 BCE and is an important aspect of Hindu culture. Despite
being officially outlawed in India in 1950, the observation of caste based dictates remain very
much intact in India. A person’s caste – or placement in the social order – determines the kinds
of work one can do, one’s diet, as well as acceptable and unacceptable interactions between
members of different castes. There are four basic “varnas” within the caste system: Brahmins
(priests), Kshatryas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (laborers). But within the varnas,
there are some 3000 distinct castes – and 25,000 subcastes. The “Untouchables,” called
“Paravans” in Roy’s novel and “Dalits” generally, make up around 16 percent of India’s total
population. Untouchability is believed to be punishment for misdeeds in a former life. The
Untouchable Velutha in Roy’s novel is not a “good, safe Paravan” (197) like his disabled brother
Kuttappen; Velutha joins the Communist Party, works in Ammu’s family’s pickle factory, and
befriends the twins. When he and Ammu have an affair, they break the ancient “love laws,” “the
laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much” (31), and for this
transgression, he is killed and Ammu is expelled from Kerala. Learn more about the caste system.

Environmentalism
One of the main themes that appears throughout The God of Small Things is the fact that nature
refuses to recognize boundaries, as evidenced by the fact that Ammu and Velutha – as well as
Rahel and Estha – break various “love laws” designed to place limits on intimacy. On the first
page of the novel, we see nature bursting through artificial constraints: in June in Ayemenem
“the country turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom.
Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through
laterite banks and spill across flooded roads” (3). Later, when the twins return to Kerala as
adults, the narrator comments that the Meenachil River has shrunk as a product of damming --
and what remains of it teems with pesticides “bought with World Bank loans” (14). The
boundaries imposed on rivers in India due to damming and the pollution of them as a result of
the Green Revolution are, to Arundhati Roy, unforgivable crimes. In Aradhana Seth’s2002 documentary Dam/Age, Roy’s campaign against the Narmada Dam project and her
imprisonment as a result of it.


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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Laura Wright
  • Director Martina Meštrović
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Animator Martina Meštrović
  • Editor Martina Meštrović
  • Character Designer Martina Meštrović
  • Layout Artist Martina Meštrović
  • Sound Designer Ivailo Stefanov
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more