Arundhati Roy's novel, a bestseller in dozens of countries, is finally to be published in her home state. Peter Popham discovers how `The God of Small Things' could change Kerala
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THE TAJ Garden Retreat at Kumarakom in Kerala has one of the prettiest outlooks of any hotel in the world. From the verandah with its Doric columns, beyond the sloping lawn, there is a private lagoon, thrush-egg blue under a clear blue sky, hemmed about by tall spindly coconut palms, leaning like groggy guardsmen. The hipped gable roof of the big house, built 120 years ago by a missionary from Essex, is steep, plain, dignified. The ceilings in the guest rooms are gapingly high, made of broad teak planks, as are the floors. Brass lamps faintly illuminate only the room's corners.

What could be more serene, more sedating? But I can't sleep. There is a persistent tapping in the wall, as of someone immured there. I tap back crossly. It stops, then starts again, stops and starts again. In the early hours the air conditioner begins whistling like a tornado. Loud creakings come from behind the wardrobe.

Exhausted, I oversleep in the morning, and have a vivid dream. I am roaming the streets of south London in a van with my editor. We are on a mission to steal furniture. We park and I am propelled through the van's door to do my bit, to fill my bag with swag. But I arrive at once in a house full of sorry, kneeling children. Grieving adults pass back and forth. I am overcome with guilt and remorse about my mission. There, on the floor, is the coffin of a child.

The Taj Garden Retreat is substantially what Arundhati Roy in her novel The God of Small Things calls the "History House". In the book, terrible things happen in the History House, but even before they happen the house is haunted by its former owner, an Englishman, whom people have heard asking politely for a cigar. The God of Small Things centres on, or more accurately circles around, the death by drowning and the funeral of a young girl. The reason I am here, metaphorically speaking, is to steal the furniture.

I am not the first to come here with plunder in mind. People have already started calling this gorgeous part of south-west India, where the coconut palms on the long thin slips of land between waterways seem suspended in blue air, "Arundhati Country". It has become India's most seductive tourist destination, outshining the camel fairs and palaces of dusty Rajasthan. Arundhati Roy's evocation of the rampant fecundity of the place - "Black crows gorge on mangoes in still, dust-green trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst" - finds a cliched echo in every travel programme and tourist guide.

But Arundhati Country, if it means anything, means far more than bursting jackfruits. The Kerala of Roy's imagination is a place where lush sensuality is continuously belied by social rules - the "love laws" she calls them - of crippling rigidity; a caste system which required members of the numerous untouchable castes and sub-castes, treated as non-humans by caste Hindus, to obey grotesque rules to avoid "defiling" their superiors: to wear spittoons on their chests so none of their polluting saliva should touch the ground, to keep at least 100ft away from a Brahmin to avoid defiling his field of vision.

The caste system's most shocking manifestations were done away with, but its "love laws" still prevail in Kerala. And in The God of Small Things, they are more than merely background. Roy's story tells how the lives of people who defy caste restrictions are mangled and destroyed in its cruel machinery. On one level, The God of Small Things is a poignant family saga; on another, more readily grasped inside India than outside, it is intensely political, a bitter denunciation of the cruelty of caste.

Now Arundhati Roy has proved herself true to the cause of the "Untouchables". Although The God of Small Things has been a bestseller all over the world, translated into dozens of languages, and its English edition has been the most successful novel ever published in India, it has yet to be published in any Indian vernacular tongue. That is about to change, though, and the first local edition of the book will be in Malayalam, the language of Kerala itself - Arundhati Roy's mother tongue. The translator, Josie Jacob, a professor of English in the state and an old friend of the Roy family, is already at work.

But Arundhati Roy will gain no financial benefit from sales of the Malayalam edition of her book, no matter how well it does. Instead, all royalties will flow to an obscure and politically extreme south Indian organisation, the Dalit Sahitya Akademy - the Academy of Untouchable Literature. ("Dalit", which means simply "oppressed", is the name by which those who used to be known as Untouchables now prefer to be called.) The Akademy is allied to another small, obscure, extreme organisation called the Dalit Panthers, who model themselves on America's Black Panthers. Both the Akademy and the Panthers declare that they are preparing to wage a war to bring down India's caste system.

THE CLUE to Arundhati Roy's radicalism lies in her own family story. The God of Small Things is not unvarnished autobiography by any means, but she herself has called it "semi-autobiographical".

The action of the novel takes place in the backwater town of Ayemenem. In real life the name is spelt Aymanam, and it is here that Roy's mother's family, like that of the mother of the novel's seven-year-old twins, Rahel and Esthappen, have lived for generations. They come from the top drawer of Kerala society, the so-called "Syrian Christians", who trace the genesis of their faith to the evangelism of the doubting disciple St Thomas in Kerala nearly 2,000 years ago.

The closest physical link between the novel and real-life Aymanam is an old Victorian school, long, narrow, whitewashed, with a steep tile roof, on the main road that runs through the town. The school appears fleetingly in the novel as "the village school that [the twins'] great- grandfather built for the Untouchable children". In reality, it is the village school that Arundhati Roy's great-grandfather built for the Untouchable children.

There, in a single fact, is the high-caste Kerala Christian tradition from which Roy springs and from which she recoils: good works for the lowly, yoked to immense pride in blood and lineage, and a stubborn resolve to keep the blood pure. But Arundhati and her brother Lalith (not her twin but 18 months her senior) were shut out of this comfortable dispensation because their mother, Mary, who is the model for the twins' mother, Ammu, broke the "love laws". First she married a Bengali Hindu (as Ammu does in the book), trampling the rules of caste endogamy. Then (also like Ammu) she left him because he turned out to be a violent drunk, bringing her two children back to the family home in Aymanam.

Arundhati and her brother, like the twins in the book, thus grew up doubly handicapped: by being the product of an unwise and infra-dig cross-caste marriage; and by being without a father. It rendered them doubly vulnerable: to social sneers (Arundhati was constantly being told that "no nice Syrian Christian boy" would want to marry her), but also to the threat of being thrown out of the house, as people with no solid claim on it. She felt, Arundhati has said, that they were there on sufferance.

In The God of Small Things, Ammu dies a pitiful death, having been expelled from the family home by her brother. Nothing could be more different from the fate of her real-life progenitor, Mary Roy, who fought back against the social barbs to open a progressive school that is one of the best in India, and who became one of the most celebrated women in Kerala when she successfully waged a legal campaign to end discrimination against Syrian Christian women under the state's inheritance laws.

It is not Mary Roy's defiant achievements, but her earlier vulnerability, that inspires her daughter's novel: thanks to which the barbarities visited on the Untouchables are not abstract wrongs, but hurts which Arundhati Roy feels on her own body.

CASTE MATTERS: that is the root reality of The God of Small Things. As the organising principle of Indian society, it has been under assault for so long that it is difficult for an outsider to get a clear picture of it. The president of India, for example, KR Narayanan, is a Dalit from Kerala; the governor of Kerala is likewise an Untouchable. But if that leads one to suppose that the caste system has either been abolished or turned upside down, think again.

In the northern state of Bihar, a fierce war rages between castes. In Bihar, the feudalistic land ownership laws have never been reformed and a state administration racked by corruption and cynical populism has virtually thrown in the towel. Now the armed militias of the high-caste feudal landlords and the ultra-left militias which are the self-appointed guardians of the Dalits trade massacres. In the worst ever case, on 1 December 1997, 63 Dalits in the village of Lakshmanpur-Bathe were murdered by gunmen of a group called Ranbir Sena, a terrorist militia sponsored by high-caste landlords. In January of this year, on the eve of Republic Day, another 22 were killed by the same group, in February another 12. Last month, the Maoist Communist Centre got their revenge when they slaughtered 35 upper-caste Bumihars in the village of Senari.

In almost every respect the situation in Kerala is very much better. To British eyes, for example, the Untouchables' school founded by Arundhati Roy's great-grandfather appears drastically Victorian; nothing much can have changed in 100 years, and the wooden benches, the mud floor, the gloom, the dusty mounds of books in corners, all belong in a Dickens illustration. But compared to schools available to Dalit children in Bihar and other states in the north, Kompanal School is a sort of paradise. It has walls, a stout roof, glazed windows, blackboards and chalk, teachers who teach. There are few states in which the poorest children can take even these rudimentary facilities for granted.

But in the Kerala of the late Sixties, as today, the caste system was all-important, and the underlying theme of The God of Small Things is its dehumanising consequences.

The Untouchable hero of the novel, who has no direct counterpart in real life, is called Velutha. He is a carpenter and handyman in the home and the pickle factory of the twins' family. His attainment of that role is in itself a measure of how the caste system's rigidities have been softened and mitigated. For, as the author writes, "Velutha wasn't supposed to be a carpenter. He was called Velutha - which means white in Malayalayam - because he was so black. His father, Vellya Paapen, was a Paravan. A toddy tapper."

Pappachi, stern grandfather of Rahel and Esthappen, the twins in the novel, "would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Mammachi [the twins' grandmother] told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time ... when Paravans were expected to crawl backward with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan's footprint. In Mammachi's time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk in public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed."

But all that was long ago - long before Gandhi re- named the Untouchables Harijan, Children of God (a name whose patronising whiff they now dislike), and demanded their liberation; before a man called Babasaheb Ambedkar, Gandhi's contemporary, arose from within the Untouchables' ranks, gained degrees in Europe and America, and fought for his community's dignity and emancipation. Velutha in Roy's novel is living proof of the success of that project. Under the tutelage of a visiting German he becomes a master carpenter; he also proves to have a genius for fixing machinery. Nor is he just a rude mechanical: Velutha is conscious, too. He is a member of the Communist Party.

But Velutha's story is a ghastly fable with the moral that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Proud of having escaped the cringing shadow of his father, he lives the semblance of a normal life. He enters his employer's house when required to. He touches what the touchables touch. He plays with the twins, who love him. He participates in communist agitation. But all the time he is walking on thin ice. Every step he takes away from his caste's former condition is resented by those who outrank him. And when he begins a love affair with Ammu, in a drastic breach of the ancient taboos, his flimsy new world collapses.

Here in the History House, the Taj Garden Retreat, the whole thing started to crumble. It was here, in the wreckage of the abandoned house, that Velutha sought refuge when he understood that the forces of caste were mustering against him. Here, where plump, high-caste honeymooners sit at tables by candlelight while the moon gleams in the lagoon and eat light, layered Kerala paratha with local sweetwater fish curry, naked Velutha swam the Meenachal, came ashore and lay down to sleep in the shadows. In the morning the honeymooners ponder their options: to cruise the backwaters in a converted Kettuvallam, a roofed-over rice barge, to pad through the bird sanctuary, or simply to recline under the touch of an ayurvedic masseur. But here, where a nice old English ghost asks pleasantly for a cigar, a platoon of Kottayam police found Velutha asleep in the early morning, and kicked him three-quarters to death.

Velutha was paying for his temerity, and the caste system made it simple for the police to extort payment. "If they hurt Velutha more than they intended," Roy comments, "it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow-creature, had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear."

It seems incredible, 50 years after independence, 70 years after Gandhi's and Ambedkar's anti-caste campaigns, that this archaic principle should still hold sway. A stroll around real-life Aymanam, however, indicates that scepticism is misplaced. Hoping to get permission to look around the Untouchables' school founded by Roy's great-grandfather, I visit the office of the Church Missionary Society which runs it. The official is smilingly dismissive of the idea that the school might still be for Untouchables. Of course, he says, all CMS schools are socially integrated these days - no such thing as a school for Dalits.

At the school, though, the truth is readily acknowledged: it remains what it always was, a school for children of the local Dalits - toddy- tappers, rubber-plantation workers, painters, farm labourers. The parents are literate - everyone in Kerala, pretty well, is literate. But the likely destiny of these children remains what it always has been. "It's very rare for them to get white collar jobs," one of the teachers says. "Those who do very well might get a government job - they might become a teacher, for example. But most will end up in menial jobs."

In Kerala, news of Arundhati Roy's book struck a very raw nerve. Some complained that it was physically impossible for a Syrian Christian woman and a Paravan to couple. A small-town lawyer in the state named Sabu Thomas took such exception to the - veiled, tender - sex scenes between Ammu and Velutha that he sued the author for obscenity. The case is meandering through the courts.

And a walk around the backwaters where the book is set makes everything clear. In a setting that no travel agent could resist calling idyllic, the social realities are plain to see. Here are the big, old, handsome houses of the Syrian Christians, houses with private moorings on the river, houses with deep eaves to admit cooling drafts, where you could sit out a monsoon downpour in comfort. Here are the families with complexions of ivory or olive, with long upper lips and proud, pernickety expressions, whose immaculately tended bloodlines stretch back, immaculately documented, rigorously endogamous, for centuries. Down river a little way, and round a bend, "a three-minute run through the coconut trees", are the homes of the fictional Velutha and family and their real-life kinfolk: "A low hut with walls ... plastered with mud and a thatched roof [which] nestled close to the ground."

KERALA IS different to other parts of India because it has been open to outside influences for more than 2,000 years. Christianity has been here for almost two millennia; as one Syrian Christian put it, "My ancestors were practising Christians when your ancestors were painted savages, dancing on the cliffs of Dover." The Syrian Christian pride is of caste as well as antiquity: according to their tradition, their earliest Christian ancestors were converted Namboodiri Brahmins, the highest and purest of Kerala Brahmins.

This is the Malabar spice coast, and the appetite for its pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg have lured wave after wave of merchants across the Arabian Sea. Vasco da Gama first set foot on Asian soil at Calicut 500 years ago, inaugurating the era of colonisation. The British arrived in Kerala not long after the start of their Indian adventure. The Taj Garden Retreat, Arundhati Roy's History House, was built by a missionary called George Baker in 1877, but his ancestors first washed up on this coast in 1737.

Such a history has given Kerala a very different temper from the interior of India: it has long been in the vanguard of social reform. In 1957, Kerala's Communist Party became the first such party anywhere in the world to win power through the ballot box. It speedily introduced an ordinance to limit the amount of land a family could own - a fundamental reform whose absence has been disastrous for places such as Bihar. Likewise it committed itself, as few other places in India did, to making the masses literate.

Thus Kerala set a course to become the most advanced and forward-looking state in the Union; and that, if you speak to a middle-class person in the state who has a job, is what it has become. Kerala fairly oozes self- satisfaction.

But to tell the truth, its success has been limited. The bulk of the population is educated (or at least can read and write), the workforce is unionised and acutely aware of its rights. But the economy is stagnant, and well down the list of Indian states in terms of income and productivity. Were it not for the millions of Malayalis who find well-paid jobs in the Gulf states across the water, and who send remittances home, the state's position would be parlous. As it is, strikes, unemployment, suicides and overcrowding are among modern Kerala's most distinctive attributes.

This is not an Indian state transformed; it is an Indian state with knobs on. Flag down an autorickshaw in the city of Calicut. Compared to the bare, dirty, ramshackle machine you find in Delhi, this one is quaint. It's equipped with a curtain, a first-aid box, a grille to protect the driver, a calendar, and licensing information in tiny script. The driver is a woman - a thing unheard of elsewhere in India - and she declines to take a tip. All this is fine - but how much does it matter? The vehicle itself is the same rackety, fume-spitting little monster you find all over the country.

And for all its reforming zeal, Kerala has funked the great challenge. Marx said of India's "hereditary divisions of labour", its castes, that they were the "decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power". In Kerala they remain intact. Paravans no longer have to crawl backwards, sweeping away their footprints; Paravan women are permitted these days to cover their breasts. In the old days, an Untouchable who wanted to drink tea had to throw his coins through the teashop window, then cup his hands while the man in the shop poured the tea down to him through a bamboo tube. Such sights cannot readily be seen today. But in 1999 a Paravan is still a Paravan, a Namboodiri is a Namboodiri. The twain are as far apart as ever.

The reason is that the communists maintained that the war to be fought in Kerala was a class war, as in other countries; caste was irrelevant. And the Kerala Communist Party replicated the caste system in its internal hierarchy: its legendary leader, who died last year, widely known as "Kerala's Mao Tse-Tung", was a man called EMS Namboodiripad, a Brahmin aristocrat, one of the "purest of the pure", son of a Sanskrit scholar. He dominated the state's political life for half a century. In The God of Small Things, Roy calls him "the flamboyant Brahmin high priest of Marxism in Kerala". His party, she writes, "never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. 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."

Their "revolution" left Kerala's social structure intact; and many of their Untouchable supporters feeling a keen sense of betrayal.

IN AN OFFICE somewhat roomier than a filing cabinet in a house the size of a toolshed in the city of Calicut, a tall, stooping, toothy man with greying woolly hair and gentle eyes is not mincing his words.

"Everything is allowed in this country except thinking," he says. "This barbaric racism. This sacred apartheid."

"We consider caste Hindus to be alien elements who intruded into this country," he says. "In our country, slaves are made to enjoy slavery in the name of God. They are given to understand that they are slaves because they are paying for all the suffering they inflicted on Brahmins in an earlier life."

I am sitting with Varaprath Prabhakaran in the local head office of the Dalit Sahitya Akademy - the Academy of Untouchable Literature. The office is in his house. His pretty young daughter, Veena, who has wide, smiling eyes, brings coconut milk and a plate piled with slices of watermelon.

Prabhakaran has a secure job in Calicut city council. For 18 years, since he was 32, he has devoted all his free time to the struggle for Dalit liberation. It is a hard, uphill grind, in the teeth of the scorn, hatred, apathy and disdain of mainstream Indian society. The Dalit community itself is broken into dozens of feuding factions, reflecting the myriad sub-castes within it, each rejoicing in their superiority to others even more miserably base in the hierarchy.

Prabhakaran and his colleagues in the Akademy are trying to prepare the ground in Kerala for a real revolution. As far as orthodox caste Hindus are concerned, Prabhakaran is a dangerous extremist. For 18 years he has been attempting to get a passport; for 18 years he has been denied one. He has given himself to a struggle which, given the entrenched nature of caste, seems hopeless.

But out of a clear blue sky, the Akademy had a stroke of luck, when Arundhati Roy announced that she would give them the Malayalam rights to her book.

The contact was initiated by Prabhakaran and his colleagues because of their admiration for The God of Small Things. "For the first time," Prabhakaran tells me, "a Dalit has been portrayed as an embodiment of virtue. The book touched our hearts. Arundhati Roy is a great writer. She shows a type of courage and intellectual honesty rare in India."

So strongly did they feel that they flew to Delhi to meet her and convey their sentiments. The promised 10-minute meeting stretched to an hour and a half. The author agreed to come to Calicut for a welcoming reception - an honour that the state has conspicuously failed to extend to its most successful daughter.

She arrived in Calicut on 15 January. The hall was packed. "I know that you share the anger and outrage which lie at the heart of The God of Small Things," Roy told the audience in Malayalam. "It is an anger that the `modern' metropolitan world, the Other India (the one in which I now live), tends to overlook, because for them it is something distant, something unreal, something exotic. But you better than anyone else know that there is nothing unreal about barbarism."

Then she sprung her surprise. The Dalit struggle for justice and equality, she went on, "is going to be, and indeed ought to be, the biggest challenge that India will face in the coming century." This war, she said, "will be waged in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of people ... I'm here to enlist."

The crowd stood and whooped. What she had come to offer, she said, was "a part of the most precious thing that I possess" - her book. "I would be honoured if you will publish it in Malayalayam. I hope you will publish it and sell it, and use the royalties ... to help Dalit writers to tell their stories to the world. I give you my book in memory of Velutha."

IN AYMANAM, a few yards from the Untouchable school, stands one of several houses that served as models for the family house, the "Ayemenem house", in the book. It is at the end of a short lane, and stands on a grassy rise amid generous grounds. On the far side, out of sight, the lawn stretches down to the river. The house is a Victorian bungalow with a verandah and Doric columns.

But I cannot, as one might wish, prowl around: the gate is chained and padlocked, and the caretaker, who comes to see what I want, is unyielding. We get into conversation through the bars, via my interpreter. Yes, the house does indeed belong to Arundhati Roy's relatives, but it has been standing empty for 20 years. The lady owner is living abroad. He is the third generation to have worked in the house. His grandfather, named Kealan, was a handyman.

Here is a direct link to the Paravans, the crawling backwards, sweeping away footprints, the proffering of objects on the flat of the palm so they can be taken without contact of the flesh ... I have stumbled on a real-life counterpart of Velutha. He can read and write? Yes, of course - but not English. He has heard of The God of Small Things, he knows what it is all about? Yes, yes. Does he know that it will soon be available in translation in his own tongue? No, he hadn't heard about that. But he is glad. When it appears, he will certainly read it.

The God of Small Things has made its author rich and famous. It is not fanciful to think that it might also nudge Kerala in the direction of real social transformation, provided that enough Dalits read and digest it. As the fearful Indian proverb has it, "A Dalit with knowledge is more dangerous than a lusty elephant." 1