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Reading Arundhati Roy politically

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-


Reproduction of Aijaz Ahmad’s article published in Frontline dated August 8, 1997.

INThe God of Small Things , Arundhati may well have written the most accomplished, the most moving novel by an Indian author in English. The Moor’s Last Sigh , which Rushdie published after 20 years of practising the art, compares credibly, and the ending in the two novels goes wrong equally. Hers is possibly the more distinguished first novel. The earlier half of Midnight’s Children comes to mind but not the latter, and she gains in compactness and intensity what she shuns by way of scale. For anything truly comparable, one would have to go to a different Indian language, a different set of formal conventions, different sets of social and political convictions, a time zone earlier and different than this, the disastrous closing decade of our 20th century.

That is very high praise indeed. It is a difficult novel to write about, though, thanks to a curious mixture of matchless achievement and quite drastic failings. We shall first offer some detailed comment on the problematic aspects of the book. Later, then, we shall return to the more difficult question of how it is that, despite such consequential problems in the book, one can nevertheless safely think of it as possibly the most polished novel we have had in the language so far.

All novels have failings. This one has three that matter. The easiest to ignore is that for a novel in which form and language are for the most part so expertly controlled, far too much is anxiously written, and therefore overwritten. There are , as some reviews have said, far too many capitalisations! Her overwriting does not produce the effects so familiar from so much Indian fiction in English: stilted style, in the manner of composition classes, or, more damagingly, the kind of exoticism that is quite common in so much Indo-Anglian literature, even at times Rushdie’s, because the non-Indian audience is so much on the writer’s mind. Of the quaint, the cute, the exotic, she is free. But she can sometimes lose the battle, with herself, over sentimentality.

Indeed, the work is so charged with emotion, is so very much about bad faith and emotional integrity, that it often seems to be a battle to educate oneself out of one’s own sentimentalities. This battle she usually wins but sometimes loses, and the sign of losing usually is in the repetitions. Not that all her repetitions are sentimental! In most cases she has a flawless ear, and she basically knows how to draw the reader into intricate webs woven with little fragments of ordinary language that begin to sing in our ears as they gather, with each repetition, the whole emotional charge of the narrative. That, alas, does not always happen. Far too much of the prose in the middle sections, and some toward the end, tends to be, alternately, repetitive or monotonous or purplish.

That is still a minor flaw and one mentions it only because so much of the achievement is really in the formal construction. The relatively more serious failing is in the way the book panders to the prevailing anti-Communist sentiment, which damages it both ideologically and formally. A key strength of Arundhati Roy is that she has written a novel that has learned all that there is to be learned from modernism, magic realism, cinematic cutting and montage and other such developments of narrative technique in the 20th century, but a novel that nevertheless remains Realist in all its essential features. She knows what Realist fiction always knows: love, grief, remembrance, the absolute indispensability of verisimilitude in depiction of time, place and character, so exact that we who know it to be fiction can nevertheless read it as the closest possible kin of fact. She succeeds so long as she is telling the tale of private life in the form of what is basically a miniaturised family saga. But the limits of private experience seem also to be the limits of her Realism. Her ideological opposition to Communism is not in itself surprising; it is very much a sign of the times, in the sense that hostility toward the Communist movement is now fairly common among radical sections of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, in India and abroad. The peculiarity is that, judging from the novel, she has neither a feel for Communist politics nor perhaps rudimentary knowledge of it.

This is all the more surprising from someone who hails from Kerala and has such a fine feel for so much else there, from the landscape to modes of oppression or diffidence or intimacy; and one who is young enough to have lived more or less all her life since E.M.S. Namboodiripad, whom she merely lampoons, was first elected as Chief Minister of that State. This affective distance from the world of Communism cannot be because she lacks intelligence or imagination; of these she seems to have plenty for all else in the book. It is perhaps the settled ideological hostility which leads to an inherent incapacity to affectively imagine what she so passionately despises.

As an artist, though, she has paid dearly for a hostility so implacable. In three ways. First, there is the breakdown of Realism itself, which is the main formal virtue of the book. The only place where class conflict is portrayed with any real feeling for the situation is in chapter two, when the family car is stranded in the midst of a Communist demonstration. Significantly what she can depict imaginatively and with affect in this scene is the terror felt by the women inside the car; the other side of this conflict, the striking workers, remains for her an indistinct mass, except for the figure of Velutha whom Rahel fleetingly recognises. So indistinct is this mass that the reader is given to understand both that the demonstration has been organised by the ruling CPI(M) for the workers to demand only very pitiful little reforms and that the “passion” that is swirling around is ‘Naxalite’, something of an all-purpose term in Roy’s fiction.

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The same ambiguity is there about Velutha himself. We are told that he is a cardholding comrade of Pillai and thus a member of the CPI(M), which the book portrays as a party of traitors, more or less; but when Rahel tells Ammu of having seen him in that CPI(M)-led demonstration, the latter hopes that the child is right and that Velutha is a ‘Naxalite’ and thus a true revolutionary—a “rumour” that Baby Kochamma also presents to the police officer, but with opposite sentiment. This breakdown of realism in depicting the Communist world, and the attendant rhetoric of sheer condemnation, takes peculiar shapes. The depiction of Comrade Pillai, presumably a fictional character who symbolises the corruptions of the CPI(M) and is complicit in the murderous assault on Velutha, borders on the burlesque. References to Namboodiripad, an actual historical figure and a towering presence in Kerala and beyond, belong straight in the realm of libel and defamation. It is simply not true that his ancestral home exists anywhere near Kottayam; or that it has been turned into a tourist hotel where Communists serve as waiters. Naming an actual historical figure and then ascribing to him degradations that bear no resemblance to actuality has nothing to do with artistic licence. It is spite, pure and simple.

These ways of depicting the world of Communism are of relevance to people on the Left. The anti-Communist radicals among the cosmopolitan intelligentsia no longer care for any line of demarcation between what can and should be criticised in the conduct of the Left parties, on the one hand, and on the other, that which is spiteful fabrication. What should be of concern to them as well, however, is that the virtue of good Realist literature is that it strives to portray the world realistically, so that the literary product can rise above the ideological prejudices of the author. In Arundhati Roy’s case the opposite has happened. Her ideological prejudice masters and makes nonsense of the Realist’s commitment to verisimilitude. It is significant that this is the only area where the commitment so dramatically falters.

Accurate depiction of Communists is in any case not a concern of either the author or her primary readership, here or abroad. From that perspective, the third major failing of the book, which has to do with the way it depicts and resolves issues of caste and sexuality, especially female sexuality, is the more damaging, since the novel does stake its transgressive and radical claim precisely on issues of caste and bodily love. It appears that an upright gentleman in Kerala has taken Roy to court on the charge that she has authored a pornographic book. Little does this citizen know that the problem with Arundhati Roy’s handling of sexuality is not that it is pornographic but that it is so thoroughly conventional as not even to surprise anyone who reads English fiction with any degree of regularity.

The intermeshing of caste and sexuality is indeed the ideological centre of the book, and it is precisely the transgressive claim in this domain that will account for much of the popularity of the book. That inter-caste sex is neither a forbidden nor an entirely uncommon topic in Indian fiction in other languages is probably not known or relevant to the book’s primary readership. What should detain us somewhat is the question of the well-known conventions of European fiction on which Arundhati Roy’s seemingly transgressive treatment of this theme relies almost entirely.

European modernity generally and more especially the post-Freudian world has seen an immense proliferation of discourses about sexuality as the final realm of both Pleasure and of Truth—as that zone of experience where human beings discover what they truly are. That is why sexuality has been a central preoccupation of much Euro-American fiction, especially since about the second decade of this century, with increasing degrees of frankness. This frankness has been identified as gain in artistic courage, realism, authentic experience, transgression of oppressive social fetters and so on. Key aspects of this preoccupation with sexuality Roy inherits.

There is, first, the theme of the privatisation of both pleasure and politics, which leads then to sheer aggrandisement of the erotic relation in human life, as a utopic moment of private transgression and pleasure so intense that it transcends all social conflicts of class, caste and race. Second, however, this aggrandisement of the sexual encounter as a zone of transcendent human authenticity is usually accompanied, as Lukacs was the first to note, with an enormous “reduction of affective and erotic relations to the pre-eminence of phallic sexuality”, with its attendant theme of woman as a Sleeping Beauty waiting for Prince Charming to come and awaken her repressed sexuality. Third, this phallocentric utopia is of course all the more pleasurable if partners in it transgress such boundaries as those of class and caste, but in its deep structure this discourse of Pleasure is also profoundly political, precisely in the sense that in depicting the erotic as Truth it also dismisses the actually constituted field of politics as either irrelevant or a zone of bad faith.

In the tradition of such fictions Lady Chatterley’s Lover is central, not because it was banned for so long on charges of pornography but because it brings together so many of the essential elements of the genre. There is Lady Chatterley herself, the upper-class woman with repressed sexuality; Mellors, the lower-class gamekeeper and keeper of phallocentric drives; the moment of encounter and awakening coming to them not as decision but as sudden explosion; the remarkable lack of intelligent speech between them as being absolutely essential to building the erotic utopia across class lines; the happy ending in which the Lady becomes a commoner and prepares to settle down to domesticity and erotic bliss. That novel is canonical but by no means unique. Variations are myriad. E.M. Forster, so well-known to us as author of A Passage to India, left behind him a novel, Maurice, made recently into a successful film, which replays a variation of that plot of cross-class erotic utopia for the world of the homosexual. Hanif Kureishi’s famous film, My Beautiful Laundrette, takes up all that but then, in the familiar triumphalist mode, depicts the homosexual utopia as the zone where social conflicts between black immigrants and white, racist skinheads are simply evaporated. These are random examples from British fiction and countless such examples could be given from American fiction as well, where inter-racial sex plays the same generic role.

Novels of this kind come to an end in one of two ways. The more pervasive in modern fiction is the characteristically 20th century, optimistic and ideologically permissive Conclusion in which the lovers walk away into the sunset, or at least find in each other the solace that the external world of social relations denies them. Cinema, from Hollywood to Bombay, is full of such endings, in which love conquers all and easy personal solutions are offered for intractable social conflicts. But fictions of transgression, especially sexual transgression, also end in another way, very familiar since the 19th century novel, in which the wages of sin are death and the individual is helpless against the overwhelming weight of social hypocrisy. Anna Karenina is the classic of this genre but much Victorian fiction ends this way, and the convention survives to this day. The same story can be told, in other words, in either the triumphalist or the tragic mode. Part of the reason why critics and readers who are steeped in conventions of modern fiction find The God of Small Things so very satisfying is that Arundhati Roy provides both of these possible endings, in ways at once compact and emphatic.

The novel has a tight thematic unity, condensed in those wonderfully sparse sentences that come at the end of the first chapter but then haunt the whole novel, and which tell us that the book is really about certain oppressive social structures that “actually began thousands of years ago... in the days when Love Laws were made. The Laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” These Laws rest on some taboos, the most ancient, the most universal and, according to Freud, the most pre-eminent of which is the taboo against incest. And, in the specific practices of the Indian ‘Love Laws’, prohibitions rest equally on ideas of purity and pollution, lineage and miscegenation, that constitute caste society. The novel’s main claim to transgression is that it ends by violating both these taboos, but in ways that gives up parallel endings to a single story.

For, within the unity of a family chronicle, there are in fact two plot outlines: one that narrates the growing up of Rahel and the stunting of Estha, and the other which brings their mother so fatally close to Velutha. The parallel unfolding of these two strands of the story gives to Arundhati Roy the opportunity to end the novel not once but twice. In the plot line that is centred on Rahel, the growing girl goes out into the world, from her little village in Kerala to Delhi and into—then out of—a marriage with an American. The leaving of the family home and the sowing of the wild oats endows her with the autonomous self that would have been denied to her, as it was denied to her mother, in the stifling world of the provincial, caste-bound gentility of her family. Traumatised into silence by the horror of a childhood guilt, caused by a fatally false witness extracted from him in a police station, Estha meanwhile languishes in his poignant dumbness and immobility until Rahel returns, wiser and surer of herself, takes him into her arms and reaches out to heal his psychic wounds through the bereaved solace of incest. That coupling of twins, transgressive of the oldest taboo (the ‘Love Laws’ of who and how much), is thus depicted not only as the final end of a childhood shared earlier in some other ways, but also as private balm for emotional injuries once caused by various brutalities in the public domain.

Whether or not the balm makes Estha more capable of confronting that public domain we are not told. This particular line of the plot simply ends at that eroticisation of sisterly mercy.

The greater is the pity. Some of the most assured, most nuanced prose in the novel is to be found in precisely the depiction of the childhood that is thus left behind. It is a very great pity that a tale so masterfully told should end with the author succumbing to the conventional idea of the erotic as that private transgression through which one transcends public injuries. In the larger scheme of the novel, though, this ending is probably the lesser flaw compared with the parallel ending that brings the story of Velutha and Ammu, mother of Estha and Rahel, to a close and in which sexuality is tied up with both caste and death.

Velutha is the Untouchable carpenter, the maker of little wonders in carved wood and thus “the god of small things”, whose tempestuous sexual encounter with Ammu, the upper-caste woman, toward the end of the story violates all the Love Laws laid down by caste boundaries and ideas of propriety as to who will love whom, and how. The wages of such sin are death, but the problem with that ending is not that Velutha is in return beaten to pulp by the police that is drawn from and serves the “Touchables”. That is entirely likely. So is the idea that even some Communists drawn from the upper castes would find such a relationship intolerable, though it is quite implausible that a Communist trade union leader would actively conspire in a murderous assault on a well-respected member of his own union so as to uphold caste purity. This bit of anti-Communism notwithstanding, the real problem with that ending, in the terms set by the author herself, lies elsewhere.

The problem is that in order to construct eroticism as that transcendence which takes individuals beyond history and society, straight into the real truth of their beings, Arundhati Roy in fact reduces the human complexity of the characters she herself has created and whom she wishes to affirm and even celebrate, albeit in the tragic mode. Until then Ammu has been a woman who has fought hard to keep her dignity, to maintain reserve and calm contempt for her family’s hypocrisies, to create an autonomous self in her own way, against all odds. Velutha has been affectionate in a variety of ways, humorous in conversation, intelligent, creative, a fighter in the political domain. All of that falls off as an inexorable sexual attraction overcomes them almost literally as a mystery; without a word spoken or any other indication passing between them, both arrive, in the thickness of the night, at the spot where they are to meet, as if by predestination. Night after night they return to the same spot, for a series of unions brief and utopic and so self-sufficient that the pasts simply fall away and the future is at once feared and ignored with all the terrors of the Romantic Sublime. They become pure embodiments of desire, and, significantly, not a word of intelligent conversation passes between them. They seem consumed by helplessness, twice over: before their own bodily desires, and in relation to the world that surrounds them and about which they appear to wish to do nothing.

What is most striking about that final, phallic encounter between Ammu and Velutha is how little it has to do with decision and how much it takes the shape of what the title of a recent movie calls fatal attraction. Now, the difference between decision and fatal attraction is that whereas decision, even the decision to accept suffering and/or death, is anchored in praxis, in history, in social relationships chosen and lived in a complex interplay of necessities and freedoms, fatal attractions can never cope with such complexities and must be acted out simply in terms of a libidinal drive. What we get, in other words, is a closed, fatalistic world at the heart of individual choice: deaths foretold, as the obverse of phallic ecstasy. One sins, and then one waits for the wages of sin, which is death.

While Velutha’s fate is entirely credible and even ordained in the very scheme of things, the nullity that sets into Ammu’s existence after his death and after a brief flicker of her own belligerence in the police station, which then culminates in her wasting herself away into an unnecessary death, is utterly contrived by the author. Ammu had been all through her adult life a woman of great grit, and this grit is what makes it possible for her to take the initiative in breaking the Love Llaws, even as Velutha hesitates. That she would not be able to face the consequences of her own grit is an odd decision that the author makes on her behalf, more or less arbitrarily. One reason is probably generic; it is one of the oldest conventions in fiction that women who live impermissibly must also die horribly. But there is something else as well. If Ammu were to live on, she would have to face the fact that the erotic is very rarely a sufficient mode for overcoming real social oppressions; one has to make some other, more complex choices in which the erotic may be an element but hardly the only one. For that, Arundhati Roy would have had to give Ammu a second chance, a grit beyond the fatal attraction, and thus shift the ideological centre of the novel as such. It is really quite astonishing how much fiction is littered with the corpses of characters who die quickly because authors do not know how to let them go on living.

How, then, does one say that The God of Small Things may well be the most accomplished novel written by an Indian author in English?

Fictions can only be read within the conditions of their own possibility which are historical, ideological and formal. Once the Revolution divided the French between republicans and royalists, what is surprising about Balzac, Marx noted, is not that he was a royalist but that he could, despite his royalism and thanks to his commitment to Realism, give us accurate and enduring analyses of post-Revolutionary France. Anna Karenina is a great novel, Lenin claimed, not because we approve of its ideologies of Christian piety, rural romanticism and social conservatism but because of Tolstoy’s accurate and elaborate understanding of the dominant ideologies of his time in which he himself was wholly complicit. To expect that literature would somehow transcend the conditions of its own possibility is to romanticise literary activity beyond measure. Within the possibilities available in Indo-Anglian literature at the present moment, Arundhati Roy is exceptional in the use of language and form as these have evolved so far in this literature, and she accurately and powerfully reflects the themes and ideologies that are currently dominant in the social fraction within which she seems to be located and which is in any case the primary readership for her fiction.

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For all the claims that are made these days for Indo-Anglian writing, partly under pressures of the global market, this literature has until recently lived a peripheral and precarious existence. In the first, quite prolonged phase virtually all English writers in India—including the most prominent, such as Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai—wrote in English what could easily have been written in another Indian language, and they did so simply because they lacked either the competence or the inclination to write in any other language. Even Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy belongs essentially within this tendency, hence Rushdie’s well-known contempt for it. Starting from my childhood, I read Mulk Raj Anand in Urdu for some 20 years before finding out that he wrote in English. Ahmed Ali made his literary debut as a writer of short stories in Urdu. Then he published Twilight in Delhi—with the ambition of making a mark in England, his critics say. The novel reads much better in the Urdu translation that was published some 30 years later, under his wife’s signature; it is possible that the English is the translation and the Urdu the real original which the author withheld for so long, for reasons of ambition and eccentricity. Even the title, Dilli Ki Sham, reads better in Urdu, as its colloquial ordinariness comes trippingly off, the tongue and as the preposition ki—which could mean ‘of’ or ‘in’ or ‘from’, depending on the usage—gives to the phrase a different resonance.

The formal originality of Midnight’s Children was that it was the first novel written by an Indian writer which was in its sensibility, its linguistic competence, its formal construction, distant enough from other Indian languages to have been possible only in English. Rushdie’s was so original a style precisely because he raised to high literary excellence the language of a very particular social fraction: those who could perhaps speak, undoubtedly understand the original language of their family but whose training in elite public schools had given them great inwardness toward English, which they inhabited the way one slips into one’s favourite clothes. Hence the hybrid character of the style, where so much of the ingenuity reads like the translation of an absent text. If Conrad was preoccupied with leaving his Polishness behind and writinge an English more proper than the British themselves, Rushdie forged an English whose energy came precisely from his confidence that the language was so much his own that he could invent a high cosmopolitan style by bringing into it a whole range of resources from elsewhere.

In this line of evolution, Arundhati is an original. She knows about language and form what Rushdie knows. But with English she has even a greater inwardness and naturalness; the novel is actually felt in English. If Rushdie’s prose signifies the ironical fact that cosmopolitan intellectuals among Midnight’s Children were to be located in English far more briskly than was the case during the colonial period, Arundhati Roy’s prose signifies that the culture that the public schools create is now, some years later, more widespread, more confident of itself, more constitutively a part of the very structure of feeling for this fraction. Roy’s prose is not only superb but also representative. She is the first Indian writer in English where a marvellous stylistic resource becomes available for provincial, vernacular culture without any effect of exoticism or estrangement, and without the book reading as a translation. English is here to stay, much like Christianity, of which Roy writes that it "arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from teabag".

We can turn, finally, to issues of affect and ideology. First, the ideology of form! She has written a Realist novel but not like Vikram Seth; her Realism folds into itself all the plenitude of narrative techniques that the 20th century has spawned. And she is too deeply committed to Realism to take flight into magic Realism; Rushdie has never written of vernacular culture with such assuredness of touch. In its affective structure, The God of Small Things is heartbreakingly tied to love, loss and remembrance; Midnight’s Children and especially. Shame are, by contrast, remarkable for their lovelessness, quite at par with Naipaul’s fictions. Her novel is, as such novels usually are, about the need to take leave but she knows, as few novelists do, the ache and the vertigo of love for precisely that which must be left behind. This Realism, and the accompanying refusal to partake of either the sentimentality so common in Indo-Anglian literature or the cynicism that is characteristic of so much modernism, makes it possible for her, then, to depict a whole range of relationships and characters with extraordinary emotional depth.

The love between Rahel and Estha, the twins who do not look alike but who dream each other’s dreams, is so complete and so self-evident to both that it is often experienced not as love of one being for another but as the identity of a single existence, as if they had forgotten to evolve separate selves after being born merely 18 minutes apart. Rarely has a childhood, so favourite a theme of Realist fiction, been re-imagined so lyrically, with such ingenuity, power and precision. In a completely different register is the comedy of Chacko’s absurd, priggish existence which finally knows its moment of assertion only in impotent rage against Ammu, in defence of caste purity and family honour; yet, however impotent the actual rage, it is made invincible through the power of property which he owns, against a divorced, defenseless defenceless sister who lacks rights of proprietorship in the home of her natal family. Or Baby Kochamma, whose girlhood was once marked by an unrequited infatuation and who lives a sterile, spinsterish existence, full of a malignity that is often motiveless but always conventional, caste-ridden and cruel. In the hands of a lesser writer, such characters, so well known from so much Realist fiction, could have become merely stereotypical. Instead, Arundhati Roy’s flawless ear, her genius for the individuating detail, and the chiselled edge of her prose make them altogether memorable. If she can write about even the weather and vegetation of Kerala with such evocative force, she can also observe with devastating precision the malignant and manipulative inventiveness of Baby Kochamma as her will twists and turns in the police station, changing her tactics from one minute to next, until she gets what she wants. The range of registers in Roy’s prose are by any standards impressive.

The ideology of form is her strength. The matter of political ideology is more complicated. The anti-Communism of the novel’s political ideology is disconcerting but not surprising; in this too, Arundhati Roy appears to be representative of the social fraction whose particular kind of radicalism she represents. And she is a representative intellectual of this particular moment in India in her preoccupation with the tie between caste and sexuality; in her portrayal of the erotic as the real zone of rebellion and Truth; in her sense that resistance can only be individual and fragile; in her sense that the personal is the only arena of the political, and therefore her sense of the inevitability of nullity and death. About caste she writes with devastating precision; about class she seems not to be particularly concerned with those aspects which are not tied to caste. In this too, she is representative of these times. (“Just forget mother-tongue and social class”, Salman Rushdie advises us in India Today of July 14, 1997.)

Some of this ideology one can take; much of it one may leave aside. But that her fiction gives us much insight into her world—the world she depicts in her novel, and the world she inhabits as author—is undeniable. This is Literature’s central ideological vocation.

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