The God of Small Things: A Microcosm of Gender and Social Inequality in India

Sunday, May 2, 2010
By Suzanne Kurdli

Arundhati Roy, the acclaimed Indian novelist and activist, won the Man Booker Prize for her first novel The God of Small Things in 1997 [1]. In addition to writing fiction, Roy has also taken on the responsibility of trumpeting injustices in her works of non-fiction. She has written on myriad subjects such as social justice, human rights, gender issues, and international politics. According to Roy, “there is an intricate web of morality, rigor, and responsibility that art, that writing itself, imposes on a writer” [2]. In these lines from Power Politics, Roy avidly defends the writer’s freedom of expression and his/her obligation to point out issues of social injustice [2]. In The God of Small Things, Roy skillfully fulfils both the duties of the writer and the social activist. By narrating the story of an Indian family which represents the broader Indian macrocosm, she manages to weave a literary piece together with a critique of the various inequalities suffered by the Indian people with a special focus on gender and class inequalities.

The novel unfolds with a description of a hot May in Ayemenem, and the first character, Rahel, is introduced to the readers [3]. Rahel, the twin sister of Estha, is constantly socially displaced whether she is at her hometown or, later, in the US with her husband. Rahel is an epitome of the silent observant female character who falls victim of a dysfunctional family and a confining society. In spite of her vigilance and conscientiousness, Rahel fails to connect with the people around her and never realizes her full potential. Rahel’s mother, Ammu, is another interesting female character. She is deprived of the academic opportunity her brother enjoyed because she is a female for whom education is unnecessary according to her father [3]. She is looked down upon by her own family after courageously seeking divorce from her abusive husband. Ammu is portrayed as a smart daring person who oftentimes outwits her Oxford-educated brother, Chacko, even though she never had the same opportunities of traveling and studying abroad as he did. Eventually, Ammu is also shunned by her own Syrian Christian Church because of her audacity. A third female character worth examination is Mammachi, Ammu and Chacko’s mother. Mammachi is a successful entrepreneur who starts a pickle factory, but is constantly hindered by the male figures in her life, namely her husband and son. Her husband constantly beats her every evening for no apparent reason, and her son causes the deterioration of the factory when he tries to “modernize” the business [3]. Mammachi is also very skillful in playing the violin, which is but another talent that her husband hinders probably due to his fear of being out-succeeded by his wife. In spite of all that, she is a conformist in her views of class and gender relations, never questioning the conditions of her life and of those around her.

All the characters in The God of Small Things are trapped within a rigidly predetermined social niche, but the female characters seem to suffer twice the plight since their gender functions as a second handcuff in addition to social class. While the female characters are portrayed as resourceful, smart, and capable of social change, they never fully mature to be strong matriarchs or “agents of social change” as Sen might call them because of the rigid social structure that deprives them of every promising opportunity. Even though Rahel, Ammu, and Mammachi belong to an affluent property-owning class in Ayemenem, they are still deprived of fully realizing their capabilities. The Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, argues that such cases mark the difference between focusing on women’s “well-being”, i.e. passive recipients of welfare, as opposed to their “agency”, i.e. active participants in society [4]. According to Sen, it is the active role of an “agent” of social change that eventually leads to women’s enjoyment of the broader concepts associated with “well-being” not vice versa. Studies have shown that women are fully capable of playing prominent political, social, and economic roles in their communities leading to holistic development outcomes that eventually benefit all members of society [4].

In addition to economic theories, on-the-ground experiences of development workers have proved that women are quite capable of assuming leadership roles for the purpose of realizing much-needed social change. According to Bishakha Datta, women have successfully assumed leadership positions at local self-governments, called Panchayats, in a number of villages in India [5]. In the study by Datta, women Panchayats were able to introduce electricity, irrigation systems, roads, and other infrastructure needed for the development of the villages. Clearly, women do not lack the potential once the proper opportunity is introduced. Women and society, however, need to be constantly reminded of this fact.

Through her masterpiece, Roy adds her voice as a writer and social activist to the chorus of the economist and the development worker to challenge the history-old injustices done to women first of all because of their gender and second because of class discrimination. In The God of Small Things she skillfuly reminds us once again of the grave effects of neglecting the potential of half our societies.

Reference:

[1] The Man Booker Prize, 2010. Arundhati Roy. [Online] Available at:  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/authors/37

[Accessed: 26 March 2010]

[2] Roy, Arundhati, 2001. Power Politics.  2nd Edition. Cambridge: South End Press.

[3] Roy, Arundhati, 1997. The God of Small Things. 1st Edition. London: Harper Collins.

[4] Sen, Amartya, 1999. Development as Freedom. 1st Edition. New York: Oxford.

[5] Bishakha Datta, 2001. And Who Will Make the Chapatis? Calcutta: Street Publications.

© 2010, Suzanne Kurdli. All rights reserved.

8 Responses to “The God of Small Things: A Microcosm of Gender and Social Inequality in India”

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