If Ayemenem were really as lush, magical, and dreamlike as some reviewers of The God of Small Things would have us believe, it would have to give up its name.
Because Ayemenem, unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo or William Faulkner’s Yoknapa-tawpha County, is a real place. The peculiarities of life there that inspired Arundhati Roy will continue well after the clamour around her novel dies down – witness the obscenity charges pending in another tiny Kerala town.
It would be easy to dismiss the lawsuit as another plot twist in Ms Roy’s Cinderella story. But this complaint does accomplish one thing: it brings The God of Small Things back to the place that lives in its pages, and in doing so, forces readers to look beyond the tired categories they have been using to think about South Asian English literature.
The lawyer who brought the suit may be extreme in condemning the book as obscene, but he is not alone in judging it according to a different set of standards from those used in the drawing rooms of Delhi and New York. For millions of Malayalis, it doesn’t matter that The God of Small Things is the hottest new South Asian novel. What does matter is that it smashes a large hole in the wall protecting their culture from the rest of the world.
The Malayalis who left Kerala in the late 1960s and early 1970s built miniature Ayemenems in every corner of the globe, and this book is being passed around them with the urgency of village gossip. Unlike Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, Ms Roy uses Kerala as more than just a setting. Its recitation of leave-taking and return, its tracing of the intricate patterns of propriety, and its evocation of scandal – the Malayali Angel of Death – resonate deeply for people from Kerala.
This sense of place is missing from most of the mainstream criticism of the book. In the West, the reviews follow certain conventions for writing about South Asian literature. First, The Rushdie Test: how does this writer’s wordplay, fantastical scenes and multiculti-pop culture references compare to Salman? Then, what does this novel “say about India”? Whatever the specific time and place of a novel, critics reliably draw some neat conclusions about the sorry state of caste/class/gender/communal relations from the plot of a South Asian novel.
This formula allows for praise that is empty of understanding. Alice Truax, writing in The New York Times Book Review, offered a particularly egregious howler. Mistaking the kinship term “kochamma” for a surname (from Rahel’s grandaunt Baby Kochamma), she writes, “Even as the Kochamma family seems to be withering before our eyes, the story of the family is flourishing.” Peter Popham, in the Independent of London, finds in literature a reason (finally!) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence: “Indian English goes from strength to strength. It has risen to the challenge of evoking the phantasmagoria of India.”
The New Yorker, for its part, chose to mark the anniversary with a special fiction issue. Charlie Rose, an influential American talk show host, was to celebrate the day with Roy, Rushdie, and Gita Mehta for good measure. Raving about books, it seems, has become a substitute for thinking about everything else that happens in South Asia.
While the critical response back in India has been more varied and less shallow, an acceptance of the categories imposed by Western publishers is poisoning the discourse about South Asian literature in English. The Subcontinentals may not be seduced by any so-called exoticism, but they may be quick to react against metaphor as too rich, too vivid. They may not make facile comparisons of one South Asian writer to another, but they will keep careful tally sheets of the advances. They may not presume that one novel speaks for an ‘Indian’ experience, but they may also be unwilling to admit how little South Asians from different parts of the region actually know about each other.
The eager reaction of Malayalis to the book has given rise to some unlikely alternative critical voices. A doctor from Toronto, P.K. John, posted an informal review on the Web noting that “Arundhathi is known as Susi Mol in family circles. Susi Mol’s book uses some American innovations to get attention or break the rules.” He then describes the scene of Estha’s molestation and a bawdy song about a monkey with a red bum. However, he praises the love scene between Ammu and Velutha as “handled with great care and tenderness”.
Similarly, a review by the Malayali author Manorama Mathai begins with an assertion of familiarity, a mention that he knows the author’s family, and continues with a touch of condescension: “I thought the incest scene at the end was unnecessary but probably, it was one of the things that people look for nowadays.”
These ‘local reviews’ have their own problems, particularly their proprietary air over the author and her story, and they certainly do not represent any Malayali consensus about Ms Roy’s work. However, they do at least offer some new ideas. Mr Mathai criticises the use of a child as narrator; Mr John notes the importance of the servant-mistress relationship.
Outside the mainstream press, the possibilities open up for many interpretations. What would happen, for example, if one began to think about this book as one written, specifically, by a woman? Ms Roy articulates, through the character of Baby Kochamma, how women are both the enforcers and the victims of social norms. Or by a mother? The tender intimacy and sensuality of Ammu and Velutha’s affair is matched only by the passionate closeness of the relationship between Ammu and the twins.
Of course, the various aspects of a writer’s consciousness, as a woman, as a Malayali, as an Indian, as a South Asian, as a member of the English-speaking elite, never exert themselves in isolation. In the best literature, these arbitrary allegiances are present on every page and challenge the reader to separate one from the other. Whatever one thinks of The God of Small Things, this book and its attending bluster has proven the necessity of discarding another set of Laws, the ones that tell us what should be read, and how. And how much.