English Studies Site

The God of Small Things


by Arundhati Roy

With its concern with social and political Indian history and its chronologically disturbed narrative structure, the isse of Time is a fundamental one to the novel. On this page, students have focused on the ways in which this issue is explored by Roy in the novel. Some have narrowed their scope to particular aspects of time, while others have examined particular passages in the text.

“…a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes.”
Ammu’s Sense of Her Children’s Lives Frozen in Her Absence
The Painted Watch
Time, the Love Laws and Narrative Structure
Isolated Moments in Time
Grasping the Moment
The Effects of History
Paradise Pickles and Preserves
Switching Narrative Perspective

'a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes.'
Josh Allport

Near the start of the novel, Roy writes ominously ‘That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes.’ However, is this so true? Roy is not definite herself; she only says ‘Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day.’ So would Rahel and Estha’s outcome be much different if the timing of the events had changed?

On the one hand, there are so many issues with every character — from Baby Kochamma’s repressed love for Father Mulligan, Ammu’s rage and her ‘Unsafe Edge,’ Velutha’s ‘unwarranted assurance,’ to the strict boundaries of caste and religion. It means that it is only a matter of time for all these elements to come together, especially Ammu and Velutha, indicated by Roy’s use of such phrases as ‘She’d have known him anywhere, any time’ and ‘Boundaries blur.’

Time, therefore, acts as a ticking bomb for the characters of the novel, so even though the actual event may take just ‘a few dozen hours’ the actual reasons behind the event have been present for much longer: ‘That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.’ Indeed, ‘When Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it.’ Time is just one another fateful factor which leads to the events which affects the ‘outcome of whole lifetimes.’
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Ammu’s Sense of Her Children’s Lives Frozen in Her Absence
Clarke Heap

Shortly before Ammu’s death in The God of Small Things, we are told by the narration of a final visit by Ammu to Ayemenem, and, consequently, the last time Rahel saw her mother alive.

Upon returning, Ammu gives several presents to Rahel, such as 'A packet of cigarette sweets,' 'a tin Phantom pencil box, and' a Junior classics Illustrated.' However, these presents, we are told, are 'for a seven year old,' whilst Rahel was ?nearly eleven'. This suggests that after leaving Ayemenem, Ammu has mentally blocked the passage of time, instead preferring to live forever in a time when her children are still young. The narration indicates that 'It was as though, if she refused to acknowledge the passage of time, if she willed it to stand still in the lives of her twins, it would.'

Similarly, its apparent that Ammu’s mind is permanently in a state where they are still a family, which is suggested by Ammu’s disillusionment in the line, “she had bought Estha a comic too, but she’d kept it away from him until she could earn enough to rent a room for the three of them to stay in”, giving the impression that Ammu has never left a time, mentally, where the three of them were still a family.

Therefore, the implications of this are that the reader has an insight into the eventual downfall of Ammu, making the following passages in the novel, concerning Ammu and Velutha’s relationship, and Velutha’s consequent demise, all the more saddening and significant, as the reader is aware of the effect this will eventually have on Ammu, her family, and her mental health.
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The Painted Watch
Sam Okoronkwo

The significance of the painted watch shows that Time has a controlling effect and has to be adjusted to suit. Rahel can ‘change the time whenever she wanted to’. At first it is portrayed as something significant, it stands for something: ‘Time was meant for’ changing and adjusting.

But, since this comes from Rahel, as the novel develops, the immature reasoning is defeated when the symbol of Time, the painted watch, becomes ‘A small forgotten thing.’ It is now worthless, as there is ‘nothing that the world would miss’, leaving Time with no purpose or significance. The fact that the hands painted on the watch indicate ‘a faulty record of the time. Ten to two.’

However, the way Arundhati Roy, in all references to the watch, presents ‘Ten to two’ as a solitary sentence, gives the reader some indication as to a significance to how Time overall affects the novel, and is in turn reflected in the novel’s structure, which fractures and reorders the chronology of events.
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Time, the Love Laws and Narrative Structure
Lizzie Gilbert

Central to The God of Small Things are the issues of the Love Laws and Caste, 'Who should be loved and how, and how much.' The Love Laws are so ingrained into Indian society that when Ammu and Velutha shatters them, the repression of them is brutal, yet considered to be simply bringing back order.

Time is linked to the Love Laws and it could be argued that the founding of them was the very beginning of the novel: 'That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.' The reader never finds out who made the Love Laws, only that they are central the way the community identifies itself. Roy does not deal with time in a linear sequence as most novelists do. The story does not follow traditional chronological order but works in a spiral-like construction. Different parts of the plot are explained when it is most appropriate, not in the order in which they come.

It could be interpreted that the way Roy deals with time, shattering the normal method, parallels the way in which the Love Laws are broken. When the Laws are broken, for example when Ammu sleeps with Velutha, there is a sense of a distortion of time: the moments 'seemed like an eternity.' Moments can last for seconds and time seems to have been stretched out. A similar effect is achieved when Estha and Rahel sleep together. The narrative states that ?it was a little cold. A little wet. But very quiet.? The sense that the reader gains is that time has become static and still.
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Isolated Moments in Time (pp. 175-177)
Chris Georgiades

During The God of Small Things, Roy has isolated specific moments in time to emphasise the importance of certain events. In the episode in question, it is to demonstrate how 'History was wrong-footed'. The comparison of Velutha’s muscles to 'divisions' on a 'slab of chocolate' shows the forbidden desire Ammu feels. The word ?slab? conveys as sense of solidity, making Velutha’s muscles seem muscular, which in turn indicates the extent of the attraction between the two. Chocolate is also dark brown, representing the colour of Velutha’s skin.

The implication of this isolated moment is: 'Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking backwards days all fell away.'

The fact that the 'walking backwards days' 'fell away' shows that Ammu and Velutha are going to ignore the way in which society works and embark on a relationship. Readers are consequently aware of how this will result in turmoil, because of the way the caste system is regarded in India and has been established as the cultural context of the novel.
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Grasping the Moment
Dan Grimwood

Ammu and Velutha’s dangerous relationship means every moment that they are together is spent in fear of being discovered.

This is best illustrated in their visits to the History House, where they link their ‘fates, their futures (their Love, their Madness, their Hope, their Infinnate Joy)’ to that of the spider Chappu Thamburan. Choosing such a fragile creature highlights their understanding that things can easily go wrong. Repetition of ‘their’ creates a sense of a list, suggesting they are putting all their hope in the spider as if they know that when things go wrong it will totally destroy them.

As such they feel like they have to live every day as if it is the last:
‘Each time they parted, they extracted only one small promise from
each other.
‘Tomorrow?’
‘Tomorrow.’’

One day is all that matters to them because they know that ‘things could change in a day’. The fact that they are content with a ‘small promise’ suggests that they really do treasure the little time they have together.

Although time is extremely important, because it dictates how Ammu and Velutha live their lives, they do not let it destroy the relationship. Their way of dealing with time (or the lack of it) is to ‘stick to smallness’.
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The Effects of History
Alex Pedder

Roy explores India’s colonial past and the influence this has on both the present India in the novel and the characters. It is Chacko who travelled to England to study at university, so it is interestingly he that provides both the reader and the children with the largest insight into history, thus making the link between India’s History and English heritage.

Chacko explains that their family has been 'trapped outside their history, and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away', and this could perhaps be generalised to include most Indians. This line, along with others on pp. 52 and 53, suggest that Indians are distanced from their History; perhaps because their History has been governed by an outside force rather than having evolved independently.

There is also the story of 'an Englishman who had ‘gone native’' and who 'shot himself through the head ten years ago when his young lover’s parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school.' The inclusion of this is a narrative device which alerts the reader to the tragedy which can ensue when English and Indian come into too close contact, when the borders between the two cultures are blurred too much.

Roy personifies History, seen with the line 'Estha and Rahel learnt how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws.' This has a menacing effect: history is inescapable. History represents both that which happened in the past and social codes such as the Love Laws. When Ammu and Velutha experience their moment of recognition in chapter 8, history is said to have been 'wrong-footed, caught off guard,' denoting that it is history which governs the Love Laws and social codes of the present. This suggests that History is not just the past, but has effects on the present. When history does finally 'catch up', it is described as having 'fiends (which) returned to claim them. To rewrap them in its old scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived.' Here, history is portrayed as the reason for the moment to be over and its act of dragging Ammu and Velutha back displays their reluctance. More than this, it demonstrates the power that history holds over the characters. This section does, however, show that when history is temporarily forgotten, the characters see other characters for what they really are. This makes concrete the idea that history has a negative influence and also suggests what could be if people were willing to let history remain in the past.
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Paradise Pickles and Preserves
Anita Beveridge

Throughout the novel, Arundhati Roy places heavy emphasis on experimenting with the conventional layout of time. The Family business in the narrative is Paradise Pickles and Preserves. We soon realise that this is a failing company and has little success: 'Even now, after all those years, Paradise Pickles’ bottles still leaked a little.' Even though the leaking was described as, 'imperceptible,' it was still a problem, which can be linked to the collapse of the company: 'Paradise pickles slumped softly to the floor.' The company’s inability to capture time and preserve the fruits effectively or long enough demonstrates the way is symptomatic of the lack of success in stopping or halting the effects of time moving forwards throughout the novel.

This is true of Baby Kochamma’s garden, which she worked hard in creating while her love of Father Mulligan was foremost in her mind. In the end she let things slip and the garden became overgrown, proving that over time she was incapable in keeping the garden looking the same. We also see that much of society appears determined to keep in place the ancient caste system and Love Laws.

However, the fact that a younger new generation, Velutha and Ammu, defied these laws and gave into their desire for each other, shows the impossibility of maintaining a form of society, even if it has been around for generations.
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Switching Narrative Perspective
Georgia Martin
Time is a central concern in The God of Small Things, and is apparent throughout, especially in the way that Roy mixes up the narrative, constantly jumping from one place in time to another; it is never linear. The effect on the reader is that what is happening in the novel does not become clear until the very end; clues are always being given but never fully explained.

One of the ways I which Roy exploits this form of narrative is the switching between Rahel’s adult perspective and her perspective when she was a child. A part of the story can be narrated more than once, but the reader will learn something new because of the difference in age when it is being told.
One of the best examples of this in the novel is the description by Rahel of Sophie Mol’s funeral. She tells the story from her childhood memory. Her narrative is very unemotional highlighting the childhood naivety and innocence of it. 'The long candles on the altar were bent. The short ones weren’t,' and 'she had a special child-sized coffin, satin-lined, brass-handle shined.' This is just one example of Roy’s deployment of this technique in the novel, but it highlights its effectiveness. It lets the reader know how it was then rather than her memories that have been affected by time and by other experiences she has had. They are raw memories, rather than being tainted by the kind of cynicism she shows as an adult.
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