Discovering the Kerala of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”
I first came across Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things as a well-read but little-travelled teenager, growing up in a small village in the south of England. At that time, my experience of Indian culture extended little further than the sub-par Indian take-away restaurant in the nearest town and the few documentaries I had seen on the country, so Roy’s tale of “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how” set in her native Kerala immediately felt different and strange.
The plot itself was gripping – and at times, shocking – but it was Roy’s descriptions of this tropical pocket at the southern tip of the country that left a lasting impression. Here was an exotic world of steaming rivers, verdant landscapes and dramatic monsoon showers.
Below you will find a selection of my favourite descriptive passages from the book alongside a collection of images that I took during my trip through the south of India, which I feel somehow recall the India Roy describes in her novel. Passing through such landscapes for the first time allowed her writing to jump from the page – they felt exotic yet somehow familiar.
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun…
…But by early June the south-west monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.
It hadn’t changed, the June Rain. Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the piggless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-coloured puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-coloured minds. The grass looked wet, green and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent.
The sun shone through the Plymouth window directly down at Rahel. She closed her eyes and shone back at it. Even behind her eyelids the light was bright and hot. The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud.
A carbreeze blew. Greentrees and telephone poles flew past the windows. Still birds slid by on moving wires, like unclaimed baggage at the airport. A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man.
Outside, the rain had stopped. The grey sky curdled and the clouds resolved themselves into little lumps, like substandard mattress-stuffing. Esthappen appeared at the kitchen door, wet (and wiser than he really was). Behind him the long grass sparkled… raindrops slid across the curved bottom of the rusted gutter on the edge of the roof, like shining beads on an abacus.
They dreamed of their river. Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
It was warm, the water. Greygreen. Like rippled silk.
With fish in it.
With the sky and trees in it.
And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.
In the evenings (for that Regional Flavour) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances ('Small attention spans,' the Hotel People explained to the dancers). So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos.
It was a grand old house, the Ayemenem House, but aloof-looking. As though it had little to do with the people that lived in it. Like an old man with rheumy eyes watching children play, seeing only transience in their shrill elation and their whole-hearted commitment to life.
The steep, tiled roof had grown dark and mossy with age and rain. The triangular wooden frames fitted into the gables were intricately carved, the light that slanted through them and fell in patterns on the floor was full of secrets. Wolves. Flowers. Iguanas. Changing shape as the sun moved through the sky. Dying punctually, at dusk.
The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless, holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in the high white boundary wall.
Inside, everything was white-walled, moss-tiled and moonlit. Everything smelled of recent rain. The thin priest was asleep on a mat in the raised stone verandah. A brass platter of coins lay near his pillow like a comic strip illustration of his dreams. The compound was littered with moons, one in each mud puddle.
In the broad, covered corridor – the colonnaded kuthambalam abutting the heart of the temple where the Blue God lived with his flute, the drummers drummed and the dancers danced, their colours turning slowly in the night. Rahel sat down cross-legged, resting her back against the roundness of a white pillar. A tall canister of coconut oil gleamed in the flickering light of the brass lamp. The oil replenished the light. The light lit the tin.
It is early morning and it is time to go. Ramesh, the driver is waiting for us, his spotless car smelling of incense offered to the deity...
Narrative • South India
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