God of Small Things Book Review/Reflection

Over the summer as a part of my book club, I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. A book that is evidently critically acclaimed and full of passages of lyrically vivid descriptions. The visual and auditory imagines are so strong that you can actually experience Ayemenem, in Kerala, India with its myriad of characters that are so realistic that you feel you live with them. But, to be brutally honest I have a grouse against the book and couldn’t agree with its theme. As the title of the book indicates, the novel holds up an alternate reality –  a world that is in the protection of the “God of Small Things”. So, there is a mainstream society which lays down the rules and binds the people to their everyday routine lives and there is the alternate society which exists only perhaps in the imagination of some of the characters which allow human beings to be themselves, to do what they are meant to do. But, my grouse is that it is too negative of a portrayal of mainstream society, specifically of Estha and Rahel’s childhood which is meant to be a time of innocence and fulfilment and also its too much of a “halfway story” which does not really tell me if the alternate world really holds out a promise of happiness. 

 

Throughout the book, there is evidence of the two worlds that plague the imagination of Estha and Rahel. Initially, they are too innocent to understand that the society in which they place their trust will eventually let them down. So, in chapter 1 Estha thinks “that if they were killed on a zebra crossing the Government would pay for their funerals”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the society which lays down restrictive laws with the implication that if you follow the laws, you’ll be safe, just like walking on a zebra crossing. Only, unfortunately, the same society does not extend protection to you when something goes wrong. So eventually though society forces you to walk the long straight line, there is no comfort provided if things go wrong. Yet another world that Roy explores is the world of the Church, an important element of life in Kerala for the many Christians who live there. At the time of Sophie’s funeral, the priest says “We entrust into thy hands. Most merciful Father, the soul of this our child departed, and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Here again, there is the same reference where religion is seen to be a binding force on human beings, something they turn to at the time of trouble and yet it holds out little in terms of comfort or empathy. Thus, Chacko and Margaret not only lose their child but in doing so also lose what they have between them. The same reference to the promise of an illusory happiness is alluded to in the book later when Roy refers to, “Things go better with Coca-Cola”, its the same thing – everything in the past and present of human society, be it religion or powerful western brands, promise happiness, a promise that remains unfulfilled as is evident in the lives of the characters. 

 

In an extension of the theme of appearance vs reality, Roy brings in a slight variation as she indicates that mainstream culture often gives indications of an alternate world and yet never acknowledges it fully. Thus, she refers to childhood nursery rhymes and lullabies like “Rubadub dub, three women in a tub, tarry a while said Slow” and “I’m Popeye the sailor man dum dum, I live in a cara-van dum dum, I op-en the door, and fall-on the floor. I’m Popeye the sailor man dum dum”. In both the song lyrics the existence of a more passionate, sexual world is hinted at and yet children are taught only the superficial, sugar-coated meaning of it. In a similar reference, she talks about Karna and Kunti from the holiest Indian mythology, Mahabharata. The fact remains that Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas is revered as a virtuous woman and yet what mainstream culture tends to gloss over is that she has an illegitimate son born out of wedlock. What Roy is referring to is this whole idea of glamorising and sanctifying human life and human existence beyond recognition. These are the moral values that society and religion hold out as principles that need to be followed for the good of man and yet all they do is bring unhappiness and unfulfillment. The ideal world doesn’t exist and so, when Estha and Rahel’s family go to watch The Sound of Music it is the time when Estha loses his innocence in the hands of the Orangedrink Lemondrink man. Thus, what we think are the most perfect experiences of childhood often hold the most scarring of experiences for us.

 

The story continues, the family is split up with Rahel being sent away. She is expelled from more than one school and goes through a broken relationship before she comes home again. There is a sense of completion of a circle as she can be together with her twin, Estha. Being together makes them feel whole, a fulfilment that they express through physical intercourse. Obviously they are lost souls who are meant to be together. It is a replication of the Adam and Eve story where God creates a perfect world (like society0 yet also adds a rule which is impossible for Adam and Eve to maintain if they want to be really happy. Thus, Roy creates an alternate universe for Estha and Rahel, (which belongs to the God of Small Things) but, this world that she promotes at the cost of the “real world” as a place of harmony and happiness, is it long-lasting? Is it even real? We will never know because the story stops short of explaining. 

 

The Odyssey (favourite lines)

A line that I like because it reveals so much about the world of The Odyssey is, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”. I think that this line reveals a lot about the story as it essentially tells the reader that Odysseus is “the man of twists and turns” because his homecoming is anything but straightforward. However, he is also “the man of twists and turns” as his mind similarly twists and turns, which is what predominantly helps him in the end to escape the dangerous circumstances he is in.

 

A line that I really liked in general was, “he had no choice— unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing”. This is when Calypso forces Odysseus to sleep with her against his will. Although I don’t support Calypso’s action, in this particular scene I find the amount of power Calypso has to be fascinating. It was lovely to see a powerful goddess abuse a powerless Odysseus. Even though it sounds cruel, Odysseus’ later encounter with the Phaecians later reveals that Odysseus too has captured and enslaved women and so calypso cannot be judged too harshly. 

 

Lastly, a line that I found to be incredibly satisfying is, “Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone they say come all their miseries yes but they themselves with their own reckless ways compound their pains beyond their proper share.” I found this line to be satisfying as it is true that men suffer more than necessary because of their own transgressions. Such as the suitors who take space in Odysseus’ home and flirt with Penelope or the Phaecians who help Odysseus. 

 

Conflicts and Themes in The Odyssey

Hospitality 

In Homer’s epics, the theme of hospitality is very common to portray the relationship between guest and host. Hospitality was at the top of the Greek ethical code and represents how travellers at the time had to rely on the hospitality of others for things such as food, shelter and protection. It was also greatly valued as it was thought that other nations may not be able to enter any host territory safely. Thus it was a way to wish luck on strangers passing by through states that were part of one’s nation (even enemies). In the Odyssey, without this hospitality, strangers could be captured or even killed for entering a foreign land. The Greeks believed that the gods wanted people to show hospitality to strangers who showed up at their homes. This was because many believed that turning away lost strangers and not giving them any form of hospitality would result in some form of suffering or punishment from the Gods on the host. An example of this would be in Book IX when Odysseus arrived on Circe’s island and attempts to save his men who have turned into animals by confronting the witch. Although Odysseus was aided by Hermes, Circe was violating the code of conduct between host and guest, and consequently, the Gods punished Circe so that she would become more hospitable. Circe does this by giving Odysseus advice about how to return back home, “So she enticed and won our battle-hardened spirits over.” indicating that he (Odysseus) was supposed to indulge in the goods ie., food and any luxury items (after she was punished by the Gods) and accept her offerings. Here, the book suggests that the luxuries of Circe’s home were providing the comfort that he needed after his experiences in the Trojan War. Just as some of Odysseus’ men forget what they have suffered and indulge into what is offered, Odysseus too temporarily succumbs to the temptation to suspend his own grief.

 

Temptation 

In the Odyssey, the theme of temptation was considered to be an evil act or a sin, but most importantly a negative trait. Odysseus’ character has shown several instances when he has been tempted. These temptations tend to range from the satisfaction of hunger to pride and sensual pleasures. An example would be when Odysseus’ soldiers see the Lotus-eaters and they instantly fall to that temptation. Odysseus too was so tempted by Circe’s beauty but manages to save himself in the nick of time. This is to show that he is different from his crew members as he knows how to restrain himself. The most notable scene is when Odysseus asks his crewmembers to be tied to his ship’s mast so that he can hear the Siren’s songs and find answers to find his way home. They began to sing, “Odysseus! Come here! You are well known…. The music brings them joy, and they go on their way with greater knowledge, since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy… and we know whatever happens anywhere on Earth.” Odysseus admits that their song was melodious and he wanted to hear more. However, he learns to resist them and supports his men so that they can continue their journey back to Ithaca. Although this was a very heroic action of Odysseus’, he portrays a more honourable action later. As in the end, when Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he resists killing the suitors and waits for the perfect time. Thus, showing his difference from his own men of not falling to temptation and restraining himself. 

 

Revenge 

Revenge is an important underlying theme in The Odyssey because it essentially explains why Odysseus’ homecoming journey was so prolonged and dangerous. An example would be Poseidon taking his revenge on Odysseus, similarly to Odysseus taking revenge on the suitors for trying to marry his wife, Penelope. The first case, where Poseidon was taking revenge on Odysseus was in Book 5. Odysseus had escaped the great cyclops Polyphemus (son of Poseidon) by blinding him with a stake. This action enraged Poseidon. However, Poseidon was unable to kill Odysseus as “the Fates” reminded him that Odysseus will return home. Even though Odysseus will return home, Poseidon ensures that Odysseus will arrive in Ithaca late, alone, broken, without his shipmates and his household in disorder. When he does this he says, “My goal is not to kill you. You must understand. That without the gods, man is nothing”. Another instance where Poseidon takes his revenge when the Phaeacians follow their tradition of providing hospitality to Odysseus. Odysseus too takes his revenge by killing the suitors one by one, after he comes home to see them feasting and dining in his halls. “You fools, how dare you take my things and rape my servant girls…” Odysseus’ avenges the lack of respect from the suitors and the lack of loyalty from the servants for his office, his family and property. Odysseus avenges the suitors’ lack of respect for and the servants’ lack of loyalty to his office, his property, and his family. 

 

The Odyssey Incidents Writing

In the book The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson), there are several instances where Odysseus has been portrayed as cunning and manipulative, a trait which is represented to be a valued (positive) quality crucial for victory in certain situations. In the Odyssey, Homer incorporates Odysseus’ characteristic of being manipulative as it reflects the behaviour of the Greek Gods, suggesting that Odysseus is the closest mortal to possessing divine powers. In the story, Odysseus receives help from Athena, who favours him for his “power of cunning” a trait which is reflected in both Athena and Odysseus. Besides physical strength, Athena and Odysseus both have intellectual prowess, a quality needed to achieve successful outcomes. 

 

The first incident where Odysseus displayed God-like qualities was in book 8: The Songs of a Poet when he attends the Phaeacian assembly at Alcinous’s court. “But as for myself grant me a rapid convoy home to my own native land. How far away I’ve been from all my loved ones, how long I have suffered!” Odysseus exclaimed at Alcinous and Arete so that they would assist him on his journey. After being accepted by the Phaeacians, men began to display their athletic abilities and Odysseus enjoys watching them race and wrestle. However, when he is asked to participate, Odysseus initially declines the offer, but Euryalus taunts him. Odysseus then demonstrates his god-like qualities by picking up the heaviest discuss and throwing it beyond the marks of all the other men. Odysseus’s display of strength is extremely impressive, Euryalus apologizes for his remarks before giving Odysseus a gift. In this scene, Odysseus shows that his aim to reach home never wavers. He takes advantage of Arete’s caring persona and manipulates the King and Queen into providing him with protection as well as a route back to Ithaca. Additionally, Odysseus sways the Phaeacians with his strength to prove that he is more dominant than the people around him. In this situation, Athena directs Odysseus to the Phaeacians knowing that they would be instrumental to his route back home. However, Athena also uses this situation as an opportunity to fight back Poseidon with whom she had a prolonged confrontation as Poseidon wanted her land Athens. The Phaecians who were supporters of Poseidon would be seen as traitors if they helped Odysseus, which is what they eventually do because of Athena’s manipulation thus, giving both Athena and Odysseus the upper hand that they have always wanted. 

 

In another instance, Odysseus also displays heroic qualities on the island of Circe. In book ten, Odysseus sends a party to investigate Circe’s home, and the goddess proceeds to turn the men into swine. After Eurylochus informs Odysseus of the shocking events and Circe’s magical powers, Odysseus courageously travels to Circe’s home to save his men. “I strapped my silver-studded sword across my back, took up my bow, and told him, ‘Take me there'” (chp10, 263). With the help of Hermes’ magic potion, Odysseus is able to defeat Circe’s spell and forces her to transform the pigs back into men. Odysseus’s cunning, bold behaviour demonstrates his heroic nature as he successfully rescues his crew from the powerful goddess. This shows that manipulative and cunning qualities, do have positive effects as long as they contribute to the objective. 

 

This image reflects when Eurymachus throws a stool at Odysseus but misses as Odysseus insulted of Eurymachus’ own. He hits a servant instead. Just as a riot is about to break out, Telemachus steps in and diffuses the situation, to the consternation of the suitors.

The Odyssey Polyphemus Comic

Nobody—that’s my name. Nobody—
so my mother and father call me, all my friends.

Cunning is Odysseus’s greatest trait and it serves him well throughout the poem, perhaps nowhere more famously than in his triumph over the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Having introduced himself as “Nobody,” Odysseus subdues the giant with wine and blinds him by piercing his one large eye with a pointed stake. Polyphemus then calls out to his kin for help, saying that “Nobody, friends…Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” The other Cyclopes thus assume that he is fine and ignore his pleas for help, allowing Odysseus and his men ultimately to escape.

The Odyssey Athena Comic

(drawn by me)

The theme behind this comic is “Cunning’. In Book 13, Odysseus finally returns home. The Phaeacians convey him to Ithaca in what is the easiest leg of his journey since Athena puts him into a deep sleep. He wakes up in a cave so disoriented that he does not recognize his own country. Athena, in disguise, confronts and questions him. True to his character, he disguises his identity and spins a tale about how he came to the island. Athena appreciates his cunning, recognizing her own craftiness in her favourite mortal.

 

Writer’s Fortnight with Hanna Alkaf

Today we had a Writer’s Fortnight session with the Malay author Hanna Alkaf. Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything but fiction before finally giving in. She now writes “unapologetically” Malaysian young adult and middle-grade stories. The Weight of Our Sky is her first novel.

 

Hanna was first explaining to us the importance of knowledge of different mental illnesses. She explained how in Malaysia there was a lack of information about mental illnesses and psychologists refused to provide new adapted information. Through this session, I realized that developing a mental illness was a process and so was coping with it. There were several mental illnesses that we covered today, these being OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), schizophrenia, depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). During the talk, there were many of us who actually did not know the meaning of many of these disorders and were confusing them with other disorders. We learnt about how it was important to value people with “mental problems” and how it was important to help people who don’t know what they are experiencing. 

 

Hanna then moved onto describing her book “The Weight of Our Sky” which is about a music-loving teen with OCD who does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Melati Ahmad the main character is like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. However, the main character believes that she harbours a “djinn” inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied. A “djinn” is an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels, able to appear in human and animal forms and to possess humans. 

 

[continuation of plot] “A trip to the movies after school turns into a nightmare when the city erupts into violent race riots between the Chinese and the Malay. When gangsters come into the theatre and hold movie-goers hostage, Mel, a Malay, is saved by a Chinese woman but has to leave her best friend behind to die. On their journey through town, Mel sees for herself the devastation caused by the riots. In her village, a neighbour tells her that her mother, a nurse, was called in to help with the many bodies piling up at the hospital. Mel must survive on her own, with the help of a few kind strangers, until she finds her mother. But the djinn in her mind threatens her ability to cope.”

 

From this story, Hanna explains how she suffered from Postpartum Depression (PPD) which is a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioural changes that happen in a woman after giving birth. She explained how after giving birth everything became difficult for her and her life wasn’t going on the course she wanted it to. She then connected this to her previous story, Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness (Gila means crazy) which she wrote to represent communities in Malaysia who suffered from a mental disorder and were not able to get help, similar to her situation. 

 

In my opinion, I think that it is really promising that authors are now focusing on writing and representing the marginalised communities in Asia through stories especially because differently-abled communities are sometimes a taboo or a less understood subject. There are many people in this region of the world who are unaware of the problems that they face and why. Sometimes they are unaware of how to even deal with their problems which is why books as such are encouraging for certain communities.