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Breaking Bounds in Arundhati Roy’s « The God of Small Things »

Par Catherine Pesso-Miquel : Professeur - Université Lyon 2
Publié par Clifford Armion le 13/05/2011

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This article on Arundhati Roy's novel focuses more particularly on the idea of dividing lines, turned into parodied, ridiculous devices, and on their transgression. Analysing in particular the love scenes between the two lovers and the incest scene between the two twins, it attempts to define the differences rather than the similarities between such scenes, asking the question: is transgression necessarily linked with progression? The article will show that Roy, like other Indo-Anglian novelists such as Salman Rushdie, goes to war with the sacrosanct notion of purity, celebrating instead mixing, hybridizing, and the blurring of boundaries.

Ever since the tragic events linked to India's accession to independence, Indian literature has been obsessed with the horror of Partition, and haunted by images of division and demarcation, materialised by clearly drawn separating lines. Rohinton Mistry notes that Indian authors keep "repeating the same catalogue of horrors", adding nevertheless: "What choice was there, except to speak about [the Partition], again and again, and yet again?" (Mistry 2003, 151). The horrors of Partition and the trauma of deliberately arbitrary dividing lines survive bitterly in Kashmir, which Salman Rushdie sees as a place that used to be a Paradise of tolerance and fusion before the British whipped up the antagonisms between Muslims and Hindus.

Although Arundhati Roy chose to situate her only novel in Kerala, in the south of India, far away from the line of Partition, her book is also deeply informed by a rhetoric of separation and demarcation, where boundaries are "patrolled", policed, and piously preserved, and where transgression is efficiently repressed. Indeed transgression is one of the most important elements in The God of Small Things, in theme as well as in method and style. Just as public school pupils deliberately choose to go to places that are "out of bounds", just as soldiers "break bounds", refusing to obey the limitations on their freedom ordered as a punishment, some of Roy's characters refuse to let themselves be imprisoned within the laws and rules established by a deeply conservative society. To transgress (from the Latin root transgredi) literally means "to step across", to walk over to the other side of a separating limit. However, to "step across" does not necessarily imply a "stepping forwards", a movement towards an improved state, which is the meaning of the word progress (in Latin, progredi). On the contrary, disobedience and rebellion, the fact of disregarding established rules, can imply a backwards movement, a reverting to an earlier, less perfect state of things, in other words a regression, a step taken backwards (regredi). To what extent can the transgressions dramatised in Roy's novel, the acts consisting in "crossing into forbidden territory" (Roy, 1997, 31) be said to fall into the first or the second category? Does Roy equate all transgressions with progress, with a sense of liberation from binding, restrictive traditions?

1. Crossing lines

Arundhati Roy ridicules the signs that symbolise and materialise separations and discriminations of all kinds, such as the barrier which, in Cochin airport, separates "the Meeters from the Met, and the Greeters from the Gret" (Roy, 1997, 142). This symmetrical utterance in itself constitutes a humorous transgression of the established lexical and grammatical rules of standard English. This materialised, tangible line separating the travellers from their families recalls the provocative title of Salman Rushdie's latest collection of essays, Step Across This Line, which offers an ironic counterpart to the stern notices that greet travellers coming into an airport from a foreign country, "Do not step across the line". As Rushdie remarks:

At the frontier our liberty is stripped away [...] and we enter the universe of control. Even the freest of free societies are unfree at the edge. [...] These people, guarding these lines, must tell us who we are. We must be passive, docile. [...] We stand at what Graham Greene thought of as the dangerous edge of things. (Rushdie, 2002, 354).

Roy also makes fun of the repressive forces charged with enforcing separations of all kinds, especially when they are based on "differences" that remain imaginary: "Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits" are compared to "a team of trolls", "short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End" (Roy, 1997, 3).

Simultaneously, the text pokes fun at different segregating devices. Ammu's father, Pappachi, devoted his life to the deadly work of entomology, which crucifies insects the better to distinguish and classify them. This habit of taxonomy can be read as a metaphor of the Indian desire to uphold rigid social stratifications in spite of the national Constitution. Nevertheless, through a process of poetic justice in the novel, Pappachi's "Bible", The Insect Wealth of India, has become with the passing of years a crumbling ruin, "buckl[ing] like corrugated asbestos", and the information it contains, with the classification it defends, is slowly disintegrating: "Silverfish tunnelled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organised information into yellow lace" (155). In other words, the result of years of work by distinguished entomologists, eager to partition and compartmentalize, is now being unceremoniously destroyed by primitive, wingless insects of the genus Lepisma, whose common name, "silverfish", evokes ichthyology more than entomology, introducing an ironical hybridity into the realm of rigid classifications.

The blurring of boundaries programmatically announced in chapter 1 ("boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom", (1) can also be noticed in the numerous intertextual allusions present in this dense novel. Joseph Conrad's influence is explicitly acknowledged in the reference to Kari Saipu, the Englisman who went native, and who represents the cultural and ideological heritage of Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness. Yet the text suggests that this inheritance also concerns the Anglophile Indian uncle, Chacko, who likes to enumerate his belongings: "My factory, my pineapples, my pickles", exclaims Chacko (57, original italics), blithely dismissing the fact that in the factory his sister does as much work as he does. Chacko thus parrots Kurtz, about whom Marlowe relates derisively: "You should have heard [Kurtz] say, 'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my...' everything belonged to him" (Conrad 1988, 49). Chacko loves to remind his sister that she, "as a daughter, [has] no claim to the property", and he rubs the message in with unsubtle brutality: "What's yours is mine and what's mine is also mine" (Roy, 1997, 57). Chacko, like Kari Saipu, has become "Ayemenem's own Kurz" (52); and Ayemenem will indeed become "a private Heart of Darkness" (52) for more than one character in the novel. In other words, two dividing lines cross each other here, that between east and west and that between the feminine and the masculine.

2. Purity and endogamy

Ammu's love affair with a Paravan, an Untouchable, breaks the rigid boundaries set up between "Caste Christians" that are comically labelled "Touchable" by the narrative voice (73), and "Rice-Christians" (74), most emphatically Untouchable. As the narrative voice explains didactically, the two categories of Christians were made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests(74), and this insistent repetition of the adjective "separate" recalls the hypocrisy of the language of racial segregation in the South of the USA (the "separate but equal" slogan).

Like the Christians, the Communists perpetuate Castes and reject outcastes. Pillai, like Pilate, washes his hands of Velutha, and when Inspector Thomas Mathew takes the precaution of having Pillai fetched in order to consult him, they soon finish their conversation; which is "brief, cryptic, to the point"; both of them feel that "no explanation seem[s] necessary": Velutha has to be sacrificed. This easy collusion can be explained by the fact that "they were both men whom childhood had abandoned without a trace", and who did not wonder how the world worked, because "they worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine" (262). Pillai's betrayal of Velutha is expressed hypocritically in the midst of a jumble of slogans, a rhetoric that begins with sentences, and then lamely disintegrates into unconvincing phrases and words. The narrative voice concludes resignedly that "there it was again", "Another edifice constructed by the human mind, decimated by human nature" (287). Just as Christians maintained racial divisions and separate churches in social systems of segregation and apartheid, Indian Christians and Indian Muslims ignored the hope of escaping from a cruel system which animated recent converts from Hinduism, and decided to keep Untouchables at a safe distance. So did the Kerala Communists:

The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to. They offered a cocktail revolution. A heady mix of Eastern Marxism and orthodox Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy (66-67).

The metaphor of the cocktail (which evokes the shaking up of various ingredients into a smooth, homogeneous new whole) is quite ironic here, since the "cocktail revolution" precisely denies change and mixture, leaving the Untouchables at the mercy of "the traditional values of a caste-ridden [...] community" (66). After Velutha's death, the newspapers will show "the Official Version", about "the 'police Encounter' with a Paravan charged with kidnapping and murder", and will show Pillai playing the part that is expected of him, the role of a Communist leader blaming the Management for "implicat[ing] the Paravan in a false police case" (303). The newspapers will not be told by Pillai or anybody else that Ammu denied the rape charges and that crucial evidence, incriminating for the police (toys, mats and various pots and pans, implying that this was not the first time the children had come here, of their own free will), had promptly been destroyed by the diligent "cartoonplatoon". Evidence like the inflatable goose which they burst with a cigarette before burying the rubber scraps: "Yooseless goose. Too recognizable" (312). Those scraps of rubber are a sinister echo of another dominant, brutal, tyrannical male character taking advantage of his physical superiority over women: they recall the "sea of twisting, rubber snakes" that resulted from the cutting up of Ammu's beloved gum boots by her father (181).

Therefore the transgression of Ammu and Velutha breaks a tacit rule that has been left unchanged and unchallenged in spite of the fact that the Constitution of India, adopted on November 26, 1949, wished to abrogate the caste system, guaranteeing the right of all citizens to justice, liberty, equality, and dignity. In India, marriages are most of the time endogamous, and arranged. By choosing freely to marry a Bengali Hindu, Ammu (like Arundhati Roy's mother) had broken that implicit rule. By divorcing, she had entered a state of symbolic sati, as if she had been a widow, expected by her family to lead a quiet, selfless and sexless life.

Ammu's Christian family (like many other Christian families in India) has integrated the Hindu idea that widows are ritually inauspicious, and should eschew coloured saris and ornaments, and the hope of getting married again. Baby Kochamma resents Ammu for quarrelling with "a fate that she [...] herself felt she had graciously accepted. The fate of the wretched Man-less woman" (45). The fact that Ammu is back in her parents' home deprives her of any social position or prestige, of any right, and Baby Kochamma's quivering, silent outrage efficiently dramatises Roy's depiction of the ritual impurity and inauspiciousness attached to someone who, in a society still very much in favour of arranged, endogamous marriages, happens to be "a divorced daughter from a intercommunity love marriage" (45-46).

Getting married again would have been perceived as a defiant rebellion by her family and her society; by having an illicit affair with a Paravan she becomes unpardonable, and makes herself vulnerable to the deliberate humiliation to which she is subjected by the police Inspector, who bullies her and calls her a veshya, a prostitute, in all impunity, knowing very well "whom he could pick on and whom he couldn't" (8). Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas (2002, 94), following the demonstrations of Subaltern Studies, devotes a chapter of her book to the "gagging" of women.

Ammu's mother feels a deep repulsion at picture that she creates in her own mind, in lurid, graphic detail, of her daughter "coupling in the mud" with "a filthy coolie". Her disgust feeds on Velutha's colour, on "his coarse black hand" and his "black hips jerking between her parted legs", as well as on his "particular Paravan smell" (Roy 1997, 257). The logic is precisely the same as in racist societies that fear miscegenation: the body of the "pure" woman has to be preserved like a sacred Temple. (This instinctive fear is very much present in William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, in which the raped heroine is called Temple and her tormentor, even if technically white, is often associated with the colour black). Defilement by the impure is simply unthinkable, and hence the pure woman's body has to be guarded like a vulnerable treasure. Potentially unfaithful wives, potentially seduced daughters, have to be guarded by dint of ideology or, failing that, have to be locked up and oppressed, for fear of contamination, miscegenation, bastardy.

The purity of lineage has to be protected at all costs. Inspector Matthews knows it only too well; he has "a Touchable wife, two Touchable daughters - whole Touchable generations waiting in their Touchable wombs..." (259). His way of treating Ammu is not "spontaneous brutishness" but cold-blooded ideology: his gesture was "calculated to humiliate and terrorize her"; it was "an attempt to instil order into a world gone wrong" (260). The punishment meted out to Velutha recalls the treatment reserved for Black men accused of raping a white woman. Women are the most ferocious in such cases: the vocabulary of lynching is to be found in Mammachi's mouth (284) and Kalyani's ("He's lucky they haven't had him sprung from the nearest tree", 288). Baby Kochamma, sharing their sense of mission, of crusade, their sense of being in charge of the Purity of the future generations, acted swiftly and ruthlessly against Ammu and Velutha. "Anoint[ing] her thoughts with unctuous oils", she decided to resort to lies and perjury, fully convinced of her self-righteousness: she "set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin" (257).

Roy is ironical about the behaviour of the Police posse, which acted "with economy, not frenzy". "[U]nlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot", "they didn't hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth", the narrative voice goes on (309), only to conclude: "After all, they were not battling an epidemic. They were merely inoculating a community against an outbreak". In other words, they were discouraging any further cross-caste affairs, teaching once again to the people the lesson they ought never to forget. The feelings that impel the policemen are "born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear - civilization's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of powerlessness" (308).

3. Double standards

Nevertheless, Arundhati Roy is constantly careful to remind her readers that there is a blind spot in the ideological discourse of Castism. Some exogamous marriages are more desirable than others. Baby Kochamma despises Ammu's husband for being Bengali and Hindu, and cruelly dislikes the twins for being "Half-Hindu Hybrids whom no self-respecting Syrian Christian would ever marry" (45), but, following the warped logic of her "Anglophile", colonized mind, she admires Chacko for having married an English woman and for having fathered a "beach-coloured" little angel (179). Ammu is condemned, Chacko condoned, for exactly the same "crime" of exogamy followed by divorce, and Chacko is aware of this double standard, he who proudly leads his ex-wife and child into the house "like a pair of tennis trophies". As for Mammachi, though she despises Margaret for her lack of social standing, and has filed her in her mind under the category "shopkeeper's daughter" (with no doubt the author's wink here at that other Margaret, Mrs Thatcher), she nevertheless treats her grandchildren differently. The twins are devalued currency in her eyes, while she acknowledges the sterling quality of her "English" granddaughter, whom she "read[s] like a cheque" and "check[s] like a bank note" (174), and whose physical appearance almost comes up to her Anglophile expectations, since she has "Nalmost blond" hair and "Nnnn...almost rosy" cheeks (174).

Likewise, there is a double standard towards illicit affairs. Mammachi grows hysterical at the idea of Ammu in Velutha's arms, whereas she does everything she can to pander to Chacko's "Man's Needs" (168, 238). Some "Touchable" Men have no aversion to "touching" Untouchable women, just as white men in racist, segregated countries forced themselves on black women, leaving them with litters of bastard children who were considered "Coloured" in their turn. In his novel Untouchable, published in 1935, Mulk Raj Anand describes the vengeful fury of a Brahmin priest whose sexual advances to the pretty Sohini, an Untouchable, have been repulsed. There is hypocrisy at work here, "purity" and "untouchability" become a variable, relative set of values, not an absolute one. And since the priest cannot enjoy her, he takes revenge on her by accusing her of having defiled him:

[Sohini's brother] could see the little man with a drooping moustache whom he knew to be a priest of the temple, racing up the courtyard, trembling, stumbling, tottering, falling, with his arms lifted in the air, and in his mouth the hushed cry 'polluted, polluted, polluted.' (Anand 1986, 61)

4. Progression and regression

When Baneth-Nouailhetas discusses Roy's treatment of "the theme of sexual transgression", she argues that Roy "insists, through semantic repetition, on the kinship between the two forms of transgression, one universal [the taboo of incest], the other local" (cross-caste relations) (Baneth-Nouailhetas 143-144). According to her, this "conflation between rules of caste and universal social laws (...) inevitably questions the validity of both", which is "undeniably striking and disturbing" for the reader (144). In other words, she argues that Roy chose to interrogate "the origins of the Law", in a deliberate celebration of transgression per se.

My contention however is that in spite of the undeniable similarities and verbal parallels, in spite of sentences repeated like a poetic burden in both love scenes ("it was a little cold. A little wet. A little quiet. The Air. / But what was there to say?" (Roy 299, 328, 338), Roy is spelling out the differences much more than she is identifying the two transgressions. "[I]t would be easier" writes Baneth-Nouailhetas "to dismiss the scene as a metaphorical, slightly excessive representation of fraternal, geminate love" (2002, 144). I believe the metaphor is different, and that the breaching of the incest taboo is meant to embody the final logic of endogamy, of the refusal of exogamy. Endogamy does not only lead to the tragic ending of a drama (what Baneth-Nouailhetas calls "the facility of - the all in all familiar story - a 'star-crossed' love", 144); more practically, this incestuous union becomes an ironical metaphor for an excessive "purity" which leads to a genetic dead-end, and to the end of lineage and life; in other words, to the "Inbreeding" denounced by Chacko, who praises the "indecently healthy" appearance of his daughter and his nephew and niece: "He said it was because they didn't suffer from Inbreeding like most Syrian Christians. And Parsees" (Roy 1997, 61).

Rohinton Mistry, an Indian expatriate now living in Canada, treated the same theme of Inbreeding in his novel Family Matters, set in Bombay, in which a Parsi father reproaches his son for loving a non Parsi. He is a Gujarati Parsi, she is an impure outsider, a "Maharastrian" whose behaviour would put a Parsi girl to shame, the father thinks, and if his son married her he would taint and betray his "pure Persian race" (Mistry 2003, 482). In a similar vein of protest, Nadeem Aslam, a British writer who emigrated from Pakistan at the age of fourteen, denounced forced arranged marriages between first cousins in his beautiful, lyrical novel Maps for Lost Lovers. Often such inbred marriages result in the birth of malformed offspring (Aslam 2004, 189).

Conversely, in his novel Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie celebrates the tolerance for which the Kashmiris were famous, and depicts a hero who scorns the very ideas of purity and endogamy:

The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story, [Noman] told himself. In the valley these words were merely descriptions, not divisions. The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred. This was how things had to be. This was Kashmir. (Rushdie 2005, 57).

But the incestuous relationship between the twins is more than just an excessive, sarcastic metaphor pointing inexorably towards the warped logic of "purists"; it is also a metaphor for a futureless life, a life that has turned into a blind alley, pushing the twins into a regressive desire for safety and the pacifying of pain, at all costs. Like the characters in Graham Swift's Waterland, "whose lives have stopped though they must go on living" (Swift 102), the adult twins have no prospects, no hope, no desire, and exist only in the protracted anguish of an eternal present. The incest scene begins with verbs in the present tense, like "she whispers", "she moves her mouth" (Roy 1997, 327), whereas the love scene between Velutha and Ammu is narrated in the tense of myth and story-telling, the preterit. The emphasis on the symbolical death-in-life of the twins explains the frequent recurrence of the ironical, ambiguous jingle, "viable/ die-able", which reminds us that in the diegetic, chronological time of the story they will be thirty-one years old in a few months, in November of 1993, and therefore will be as old as their mother was when she died, "Not old. Not young. But a viable, die-able age" (3, 92, 161, 327).

Rahel's body language betrays her wish for self erasure, and the fact that her life is at a standstill; Baby Kochamma notices that the twins share the same "eerie stealth", the same "ability to keep very still and very quiet" (29). Very symbolically, when she interrogates Rahel on her "plans", her niece opens the window, as if gasping for air, but Baby Kochamma's response unequivocally maintains Rahel pressed up against a metaphorical wall, depriving her of any space in which to manoeuvre and exist: "'Shut [the window] when you've finished with it,' Baby Kochamma said, and closed her face like a cupboard" (29). She, whose immature, self-centred mind gloats childishly on her "maroon diary which came with its own pen" (297), had once told the children that "some things come with their own punishments" (115). This is glossed by the narrative voice: "like bed-room with built-in cupboards" (115). So Baby Kochamma's cupboard-like closed face belongs to the same pattern of imagery as the punishments-like-built-in-cupboards in which, since the age of seven, the twins have been imprisoned, "wandering through dark shelving" (115), "wandering through [a] maze of shelves" (326). The "trapped", broken balsam planes, "broken butterflies with imploring eyes", "a wicked king's wooden wives" (239), crammed into the glass-paned cupboard in Chacko's bedroom, also belong to the same web of imagery, even if this time they are seen from Sophie's point of view.

Her mother, Sophie thinks, was the only one to escape, but there will be no way for the twins to get out of their own stifling cupboard; Pectin, Hectin and Abednego may build an ark, "like Noah's sons", in order to save "animals queued up in pairs, Girlboy. Girlboy. Girlboy" (195), but Estha and Rahel will not be part of the voyage: on this ark, "Twins were not allowed" (196). Nor will they have a God to bring them unscathed out of the fiery furnace, as did Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego (cf. Book of Daniel, chapters 1 to 3).

The love scenes between Estha and Rahel on the one hand, Velutha and Ammu on the other are in fact far from "similar", they are altogether different. The two lovers live an intense, oxymoronic parenthesis of threatened wonder, agonised delight, disbelieving bliss, whereas the two twins do not share happiness, but "hideous grief" (328). The twins have become allegories of dull, empty-minded absence, of aborted potentialities that will never be fulfilled: they embody "Quietness and Emptiness, frozen two-egg fossils" (236, italics mine). Separated from mother and sister, Estha fell silent, and his quietness created in Rahel "a hollow where [his] words had been", a dark hole of withdrawal and reticence that always puzzled her husband during their short-loved marriage:

He couldn't be expected to understand that. That the emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness in the other. That the two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers' bodies. (20)

When the incest scene begins, in chapter 17, Rahel is "lovely" to Estha, because she has "grown into their mother's skin" and has "a beautiful, hurt mouth", "their mother's beautiful mouth" (300). This vision cuts through the "swampy arms", the "stealthy, suckered tentacles" (11) that had allowed Estha to survive, withdrawn from the world. The kind octopus had "squirted its inky tranquillizer on his past" (12). Now, "Re-Returned", and reunited with his sister, he hears the "nagging sound" of pain start up again in his head, and relives all the agony and fear of his departure on the Madras Mail, twenty-three years before, all the things he had taken such pains to repress and forget. Which is why this scene is narrated from Estha's point of view ("He could see her"; "Estha thought", 300).

The lovemaking between Estha and Rahel is not at all, as it is in Ammu's and Velutha's case, a deliberate, willful Transgression of the Law, quite the contrary: it is a blind, groping desire to regress to the warmth and security, the freedom from pain, the apartness from the cruelty of life and the world, that the maternal womb provides. When Rahel discovers "the silver bowl that Baby Kochamma had installed on the roof", she imagines herself there with Estha, in a half humorous, half wistful longing for the foetal state: "If they slept there, she and Estha, curled together like foetuses in a shallow steel womb, what would Hulk Hogan and Bam Bam Bigelow do?" (188). As for Estha, the octopus of Quietness soothed him, because it "rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, foetal heartbeat" (11, italics mine). This constant need to flee from trauma is poignantly present in the  paradoxical comfort that Rahel draws from a mad woman in New York, because "it drew her closer into New York's deranged womb. Away from the other, more terrible thing that haunted her" (72, italics mine).

5. Biology

Incest can be interpreted as Roy's way of demonstrating, through an absurd example, how warped the logic of endogamy and "purity" is. If left to their own devices, animals, including the human species, will tend to feel attracted towards animals of the opposite sex that will best increase the genetic pool, thus ensuring genetic diversity; whereas racist or ideological considerations about the "purity" of the "blood" or the "race" are much more likely to lead to degeneration. Hence the idea that it is not only romantic "elective affinities", as Goethe would say, which make Ammu suddenly notice that Velutha's "flatmuscled boy's body" has suddenly turned into a "contoured and hard" man's body (175). That deep seated, "biological" seed of desire is then nursed by grafting onto it romantic ideas about soul and character:

Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him Rahel saw in the march. She hoped it had been him that had raised his flag and knotted arm in anger. She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness, he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against. (175-176).

Ammu's rage and "effrontery" (180) have not been acquired at university or in books: "she was just that sort of animal" (180). Ammu is made and programmed to refuse the docile, submissive, quiet role models of ideal Indian womanhood, the role models of Sita or Parvati. Like Kalyani, Pillai's wife. Or like Deven's wife in Anita Desai's In Custody. The songs Ammu listens to on her little tangerine radio turn her into a "witch" and make her "walk out of her world" "to a better, happier place" (44, 332). One of those Bollywood filmi songs is from the film called Chemmeen, well suited to push Ammu to rebellion since it is the tragic story of a forced arranged marriage which crosses the true love of two lovers and ends with everybody dying (218-219). At such moments, there is "something restless and untamed about her", and the "infinite tenderness of motherhood" becomes "an unmixable mix", mixed up as it is with "the reckless rage of a suicide bomber" (44). Rahel and Estha, before the Terror, share her daring, rebellious mood; they refuse to obey the law that they should stay away from the house of the Paravans "because it will only cause trouble" (220). They refuse to be cowed, and Miss Mitten thinks they have "Satan in their eyes" (60). Ammu refuses to stay on the right side of the dividing, forbidden line: "she sets herself on the Unsage Edge" (44). Yet the Terror finally breaks up their spirits, turning Ammu into a broken, prematurely old woman, linked by the motif of phlegm to the mad old woman that Rahel sees on the New York subway, and turning the twins into numb zombies, the victims of an indelible trauma.

The order of the narrative places the description of the truly transgressing love scenes between Ammu and Velutha at the very end of the novel, although in the chronological order of events the incest scene should have come last. This is of course deliberate, and the last word, "Tomorrow", though it echoes sadly since the reader knows the two lovers have no future to look forward to, nevertheless expresses a hope in a more distant future, when future generations will at last have managed to do away with stultifying fantasies of purity, imposing in their place hybridity, and the limitless potentialities of "bastardy".

We can answer our initial question by asserting that if Roy celebrates the deliberate, free transgression of the Caste boundary by Velutha and Ammu, her depiction of the transgression of the taboo incest is depicted as the blind regressive desire for tranquillity of two broken beings, not as a wilful transgression. The latter, far from constituting a social progress, can be felt as the monstrous ultimate aim of phantasms of purity, while the former points towards a longing for a better, happier future. Far from being similarly two transgressions which betray a nostalgia for a "pre-social" edenic golden time of prelapsarian innocence, "an equally childish and mythical conception of life "before" the Law", as Baneth-Nouailhetas (145) argues, the two types of love scene show that Roy is not interested in a purely abstract questioning of the origins and validity of the Law, and especially of the universal taboo against incest. On the contrary she is very committed to seeing a change in the enduring injustices and the sheer waste of human potential linked to caste prejudice, therefore she is committed simply to social progress. However Roy, ever the militant, warns us that this progress will not come from the west or from a globalised economy:

There is a notion gaining credence that the free market breaks down national barriers, and that corporate globalization's ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live together happily inside a John Lennon song (Imagine there's no country...). This is a canard. (Roy 2003, 72)

"Tomorrow", "les lendemains qui chantent", as the French say, will not come from liberalism but from those free souls who have rage and anger enough within them, and courage enough, to place themselves "on the dangerous edge of things", to recall again the resonant phrase borrowed by Rushdie from Graham Greene's autobiography A Sort of Life, and which Greene had originally taken from Browning's poem "Bishop Blougram's Apology". Progress will come from those courageous souls, helped and encouraged by the potent voice of literature. Arundhati Roy is one of them, both a brave, committed activist who is never afraid of breaking unjust bounds, and a delicate, gifted literary artist.


ASLAM, Nadeem. 2004. Maps for Lost Lovers. London: Faber and Faber.

BANETH-NOUAILHETAS. 2002. The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy. Paris: Armand Colin,

CONRAD, Joseph. 1988 (1899). Heart of Darkness. New York and London : Norton.

MISTRY, Rohinton. 2003 (2002). Family Matters. London: Faber and Faber.

ROY, Arundhati. 1997. The God of Small Things. London: Flamingo.

2003. War Talk. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.

RUSHDIE, Salman. 2002. Step Across This Line. New York: Random House.

2005. Shalimar the Clown. London: Jonathan Cape.

SWIFT, Graham. 1984 (1983). Waterland. London: Pan Books Picador.

Going further

DURIX, Carole et Jean-Pierre (eds.). 2002. Reading Arundhati Roy's The God of All Things. Dijon: Editions Universitaires de Dijon.

GALLIX, François (éd). 2002. The God of All Things, L'hybridité célébrée. Paris: Mallard (coll. Angloscopies).

MULLANEY, Julie. 2002. Arundhati Roy's The God of All Things. New York, Continuum Contemporaries.

ROY, Arundhati. 1999.The Cost of Living. London : Flamingo.

2001. Power Politics. Cambridge, Mass. : South End Press.

2004. The Chequebook and the Cruise-missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy by David Barsamian. London: Harper Perennial.

Arundhati Roy official website:


The Caste system among Indian Christians:



Pour citer cette ressource :

Catherine Pesso-Miquel, "Breaking Bounds in Arundhati Roy’s « The God of Small Things »", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2011. Consulté le 22/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/dossier-the-god-of-small-things/breaking-bounds-in-arundhati-roy-s-the-god-of-small-things