The country where worst things happen

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy Flamingo pounds 15.99

"The Secret of the Great Stories", so The God of Small Things tells us, "is that they have no secrets ... They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't."

It's not a bad description of Arundhati Roy's eagerly anticipated first novel, which tells at the very outset of the death of nine-year-old Sophie Mol (a half-English girl on holiday in India), then gradually fills in the tale of when and why she died, and who took the blame, and how her death affected the ones who survived.

The story is simple enough, as great stories are supposed to be, but slow to reveal itself front-on. At its centre are the twins Estha and Rahel, who have returned as adults to their childhood home, Ayemenem in Kerala, southern India, scene of the accident that befell their English cousin. Boy and girl, born 18 minutes apart, non-identical yet with a "single Siamese soul", the twins have been separated ever since the tragedy. Sent away, Estha has become strange, solitary and utterly silent; kept behind until her mother's death, Rahel, too, has drifted, in and out of a loveless marriage and a series of dead-end jobs. They are like a pair of shells, Quietness and Emptiness. But as they rub up against each other's presence, the sigh of an ancient secret begins to reverberate between them.

This eerie present alternates with a second time-frame, that tense, noisy, profuse summer 23 years earlier, the summer of 1969. The key events are condensed into a handful of brilliant set-pieces occurring in the space of 48 hours: a drive to Cochin, en route to which the sky-blue Plymouth containing the twins, their mother Ammu and uncle Chacko is held up at a level crossing while a march of workers campaigning for better wages goes angrily past; a visit to see The Sound of Music at the cinema, during which Estha is sexually molested by the man selling drinks in the foyer; a trip next morning to the airport, where they collect Sophie Mol and her mother (Chacko's ex-wife) and take them back to Ayemenem; an evening call which Uncle Chacko pays on Comrade Pillai, the local union man, to discuss working arrangements at his factory, Paradise Pickles & Preserves; and the discovery of an old wooden boat, which the twins hope to use on the river.

The twins' great-aunt, the obese, malevolent Baby Kochamma, can sense trouble coming. A recurrent image is that of the moth in the twins' grandfather's collection, which becomes the heart fluttering in their chests as events spin out of control, as well as their mother's helpless flight towards self-destruction. Nemesis comes in the form of a carpenter, Velutha, to whom Estha and Rahel turn in order to get the boat repaired, and in whom their clever, yearning mother (who combines "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber") looks for something more. Velutha is black, a Paravan, and therefore Untouchable. The end involves the river and a house called The Heart of Darkness. Its cost is terrible: "Two lives. Two children's childhoods. And a history lesson for future offenders."

Part of the novel's thesis is "that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes." But at another level this is a story "that began long before Christianity arrived and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag, [that] began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much." It's both a family tragedy, involving a handful of headstrong spirits who break laws, and cross into forbidden territory; and, it's implied, an Indian tragedy, the worst happening in a country where "Worst Things kept happening".

The British traditionally look to Indian novels to provide something exotic yet familiar, and The God of Small Things, which features a family of larger-than-life Anglophiles "trapped outside their own history", doesn't disappoint. The landscape is so lush, so teeming with insect and reptile life (ants, caterpillars, "a beige gecko the colour of an undercooked biscuit"), so palpably there, that it's likely the novel will do for Kerala's already burgeoning tourist industry what John Berendts's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has done for Savannah's. Above all there's the verve and perkiness of the language, ranging from the Joyceanly run-together ("greenmossing", "wetgreen and pleased", "thunderdarkness") to the Nonsensy (the twins have a habit of saying things backwards, and it's noted that Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, is itself a palindrome).

Such history and politics as are here - for instance, a digression on why the Communist Party should have taken root in Kerala - are worn lightly. As the plot thickens, the style becomes more clipped, with some passages reading like extracts from a screenplay (unavoidably, the novel has "soon to be a major motion picture" written all over it), and others, more lyrical, aspiring to poetry ("It was warm, the water. Grey green like rippled silk. / With fish in it. / With the sky and the trees in it. / And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.") The sensuousness of the description makes up for the book's structural wobbles: at times Arundhati Roy seems uncertain whether the story should be told from Rahel's point of view, or by an omniscient narrator.

Echoes of contemporaries occasionally suggest themselves, but the novel I found myself thinking of is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, published in 1935, which E M Forster championed for its critique of what he called "this wicked rubbish about untouchability". The older characters in The God of Small Things can remember the days when Paravans were expected to cover their mouths when they talked, and to walk backwards sweeping their footprints away, lest Brahmins should be defiled. The lingering prejudices of that caste system were still strong enough in 1969, when Arundhati Roy was a child, indeed are prevalent enough still, to produce the tragedy she describes here.

But a closer parallel might not be with an Indian novel at all, but with To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the American south, which also recreates a childhood world in order to tell of racial injustice and sexual transgression. "She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man." Harper Lee's words could equally well be Arundhati Roy's, whose fine novel might begin among the spices and pickles of Midnight's Children but ends in the tradition of the romantic popular classic.

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