I. Events in which characters obey the “Love Laws”
Mrs. E. Richardson
University English II
12 November 2010
The “Love Laws” in The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a Man Booker Prize-winning novel that depicts the tales of twins Rahel and Estha as they move through life in late twentieth-century Ayemenem in Kerala, India. Presented from Rahel’s point of view, the dramatic and eventually tragic story is able to be set in two distinct times, due in part to Roy’s use of a powerful narrative technique in which she skips back and forth chronologically between Rahel’s childhood memories and adult reflections. Because of this, in fact, the reader is almost simultaneously given two things, the first being an account of several seemingly unrelated events, such as the arrival of Rahel and Estha’s cousin Sophie Mal to Ayemenem and the molestation of Estha in a movie theatre, that are leading up to a mysterious tragedy. The other of the two is the developing present-day story of Rahel’s return to her childhood home, where she reunites with her twin after a twenty-three year separation, unintentionally pushing them towards finally learning to cope with their pasts and relying on each other to mend their own emotional fractures. As the twisting tale of The God of Small Things unravels, Arundhati Roy frequently refers to an idea known as the “Love Laws,” making use of the events in her novel in which these “laws” are obeyed, the occasions upon which they are broken, and pointedly abundant parallelism to critique the disorder, disaster, and death that can be brought on by an excessively rigid social structure.
As early into The God of Small Things as the first chapter, Roy demonstrates her unique ability to use the “Love Laws,” as well as certain characters’ choices to follow them, in order to highlight the destruction caused by a society strictly steeped in tradition. The opening chapter of the novel sets up the background for the story and tells of protagonist Rahel’s long-awaited return to Ayemenem. Upon her arrival, Rahel immediately begins to reflect upon the shadowy events of her past, describing them with, “It was a time when uncles became fathers, mothers lovers, and cousins died and had funerals. It was time when the unthinkable became thinkable and the impossible really happened” (Roy 31) and eventually concluding, “That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much” (33). From this point on in the novel, the “Love Laws” appear frequently and continue to reinforce the death, destruction, and loss of innocence that can become associated with societal pressure and forbidden temptation.
Interestingly, however, Roy does not only shed light upon Rahel and Estha’s choices concerning the “Love Laws,” but also upon those of India’s mythical figures and the novel’s characters that belong to older generations than the twins. To this effect, Ira Mark Milne and Sara Constantakis touch on Roy’s use of ancient Indian mythology when they state that, “Indian history and politics shape the plot and meaning of The God of Small Things in a variety of ways... [The novel] develops profound insights into the ways in which human desperation and desire emerge from the confines of a firmly entrenched caste society” (160), and it is during one of the present-day scenes, when Rahel and Estha have traveled separately to the Ayemenem temple to see traditional kathakali dancing, that the reader is first shown the “Love Laws” from a culturally and mythologically significant point of view. Rahel, standing in the back of the community temple, is observing someone whom she refers to as the “Kathakali Man,” a once-respected man who uses dance to tell the stories of Indian gods.
On this particular evening, the Kathakali Man and his troupe are telling the tale of Kunti and Karna, the latter of which, Rahel describes as, “[The] melancholy son of Surya, God of Day. Karna the Generous. Karna the abandoned child. Karna was the most revered warrior of them all… born to die unfairly, unarmed and alone at the hands of his brother” (220-221). Though the story of Kunti and Karna is a familiar one to Rahel, she watches as the Kathakali Man reenacts the meeting of the mortal woman and the demi-god son she had cast down a river after being seduced by a god. The performance opens with Kunti revealing to Karna that she is his long-lost mother, but goes on to describe how the joy brought on by the reunion is soon, “cut short by dismay when Karna realized that his mother had revealed herself to him only to secure the safety of her five other, more beloved sons… poised on the brink of their epic battle with their one hundred cousins” (222). It is these sons that Kunti seeks to protect and it is for these sons she goes on to invoke the “Love Laws.” Reminding Karna that her sons are his flesh and blood, Kunti seeks to extract a promise from Karna that he will not go to war against her five other sons as planned.
The ancient tale of mother and child continues on to relate, however, that Kunti’s request is one that Karna cannot make without breaking his vow of revenge against the five men in question. Arjuna, in particular, has wronged Karna by publically reviling him as being a lowly charioteer’s son, and thus, it is Karna’s own sense of honor conflicting with his need to obey the “Love Laws” that causes the young demi-god strikes a deal that will lead to disaster. To his mother, Karna swears, “’I promise you this, you will always have five sons. Yudhishtra I will not harm. Bhima will not die by my hand. The twins – Nakula and Sahdeva – will go untouched by me. But Arjuna – him I will make no promises about. I will kill him or he will kill me’” (222). At this point, Kathakali Man and his troupe leave this story for another. Rahel, however, already knows the ending – knows that though Kunti had tried to obey the “Love Laws” by loving and protecting her sons, and though Karna had attempted to follow the “laws” through his promise to his mother, the story will always conclude with, “the most revered warrior of them all” dying “unfairly, unarmed, and alone at the hands of his brother.” This is the first instance of many in which the “Love Laws” become intertwined with death, the societal significance of which is underlined by critic Douglas Dupler when he suggests that Roy’s inclusion of these stories backs Rahel’s assertion “that the story actually ‘began in the days when the Love Laws were made’… [and] shows that it is human passion that cannot be controlled and contained by cultural rules” (174). By the end of the novel, Roy’s use of these stories comes to add complexity and depth to her cautionary tale by stressing the timelessness of conflict between passion and precedent.
While Roy’s use of Indian mythology in The God of Small Things is fascinating in and of itself, the real importance of the folklore’s appearance may lie in its ability to reflect the decisions and actions of the novel’s characters. As author and critic K.V. Surendran states, “The God of Small Things is a saga of lost dreams from several points of view. Almost all the characters in the novel have something to say about their loss. Even the minor characters are no exception to this rule” (10). Surendran raises a valid point, as it is, in fact, often the tales of minor characters that bring the consequences of obeying the “Love Laws” into sharp focus. Surendran’s contemporary, critic Robert Ross, expands even further upon the importance of the characters that are older than Rahel and Estha, specifically the twins’ mother, with, “The adults who shape, or misshape the twin’s lives also emerge as full characters… Their mother is an independent woman who divorces an alcoholic husband, finds herself trapped in the family home, and rebels by forming a romantic liaison that leads to disaster.” Ross also comments on other members of the twins’ family with, “Their Oxford-educated Uncle Chacko, a sometimes comic character, flirts with communism and fails in his personal life, in business, and in most everything else. Their great-aunt, inappropriately called Baby Kochamma, still longs for the priest who chose the church over carnal love.” In truth, these fully-formed characters are not mere background on which Rahel and Estha’s story is painted, but actually represent both the causes and the consequences of the situations the twins face. Each family member plays an unwitting part in shaping the action and tragedy of the novel, just as each is a projection of possible futures for Rahel and Estha.
Obviously, however, the existence of characters such as Uncle Chacko and Baby Kochamma alone is not what draws the attention of literary critics and readers alike; on the contrary, it the fact that each has a story to share and has dealt with the “Love Laws” that haunt Rahel and Estha which draws the attention. Through the course of the novel, one aspect becomes crucial to the over-all effectiveness of the story is that the “Love Laws” do not merely run through the main characters directly, but have been weaving their way through the family and the community for generations. Baby Kochamma and Uncle Chacko’s ex-wife, Sophie Mal’s mother, for instance, each play a hand in the tragedy of the novel due to the ways in which they have been influenced by the “Love Laws.” Baby Kochamma is a bitter woman, obese and aging, who, as described by Sheila Johnson, “fell in love with a priest, converted to Catholicism, and became a nun to be near him. When this proved futile, she returned to the family home and eventually became addicted to television, which brings the greater world she had missed right to her sitting room.” Notably, Baby Kochamma’s story is one of the most overt instances of a character attempting to obey the “Love Laws” and ending up contributing to disaster. Baby Kochamma’s priest had made a commitment to the Catholic god, and society’s “Love Laws” demanded that he honor his commitment and put his love for God above all else. Baby Kochamma eventually gave up on chasing him, broken-hearted, and developed a mean-spiritedness that, decades later, would lead her straight into playing a pivotal role in the death of the twins’ adult best friend, Velutha.
Somehow even less subtle than the effects of the “laws” upon Baby Kochamma, however, are the effects of the “laws” upon Sophie Mal’s bereaved mother, Margaret Kochamma. In Margaret’s case, society’s most ancient rules have told her who to love, and how, and how much, and she followed suit, loving Sophie Mal above all else. Naturally, this overwhelming love for her daughter became the driving force that pushed Margaret over the edge upon Sophie’s death; Milne and Constantakis relate that, “When Margaret sees her daughter’s body, she feels an irrational rage towards the twins and seeks out Estha several times to slap him” (158). Unfortunately, Margaret’s unfounded certainty that Estha is to blame for her daughter’s death later contributes to the family “Returning” Estha -- after the funeral of Sophie Mal, the twins’ mother has no choice but to send Estha to live with his father. As revealed in the novel’s opening scenes, of course, Estha’s departure would be the last time that the twins would see each other until their separate returns to Ayemenem, twenty-three years later.
Despite many of the minor characters being incredibly well-developed, the damaged protagonists of The God of Small Things are undoubtedly Estha (short for Esthappen) and Rahel, whose first seven years of life spent together are described with, “Those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us” (4). Heartbreakingly, Estha and Rahel are forced to leave these years behind when they become the two characters who must constantly live with the consequences of Sophie Mal and Velutha’s deaths, their mother’s affair, Baby Kochamma’s bitterness, Margaret Kochamma’s mis-placed blame, and their own decisions to obey the “Love Laws.” Among these decisions by the twins to obey the “Love Laws,” one of the most significant ones comes at the end of the novel, after Sophie Mal’s body has been found and Velutha has been beaten to the brink of death by police officers. In this scene, Baby Kochamma has taken the twins to the local police station to lay a life-altering choice before them. By taking advantage of the seven-year-old twins’ confusion, Baby Kochamma convinces them that she will have the police officers arrest them and their mother for Sophie Mal’s death unless they agree to untruthfully testify that Velutha is to blame. Baby Kochamma bullies Estha and Rahel that day into making a decision that would destroy one life directly and countless others indirectly. Ultimately, however, just as the “Love Laws” had demanded that Margaret love Sophie Mal above all else and above all reason, they had demanded that Estha and Rahel love Ammu more than anything, something that Roy conveys beautifully when, “Not together (but almost), two frightened voices whispered, ‘Save Ammu’” (302).
There are many occasions upon which choosing to follow the “Love Laws” leads to unforeseen consequences for the characters of The God of Small Things; however, Roy’s novel is really one about the acts of breaking the “Love Laws,” as well as the dark effects of these acts and the societal pressures that pushes her characters into them. Commenting on this theme, critic Scott Trudell asserts that, “The Love Laws represent the strict confines on human behavior – the caste systems, social pressures, and political restrictions that horrify people beyond expression when they are broken. The central action of the novel is about breaking them, and the tragedy that results from breaking them” (165). Of course, just as evidence of struggles to obey the “Love Laws” can be found in the Indian mythology referenced in the book, the characters of the book’s older generations, and the characters of the generation around which the book is centered, cases of these laws being ignored, bent, or twisted can also be found in all three of these places. For instance, the folklore tale of Kunti and Karna that Rahel reenacted in the Ayemenem Temple may be one grounded in an attempt to keep with the teachings of the “Love Laws,” but is also one with, similar to Rahel and Estha’s story, a disastrous conclusion involving the breaking away from the “laws.” In the case of Kunti and Karna, the disruption of nature and the “laws” manifested itself in brother slaying brother, thus simultaneously exemplifying both the corruption of “laws” that allow Kunti to love five of her sons more than her other son and the dreadful consequences of attempting to compromise with those “laws.”
Although Roy uses references to traditional Indian stories to establish the deep-rooted history of the “Love Laws” in Kerala and the distinct lines drawn by the “laws” long ago, her own characters seem to blur these lines with increasing intensity as the novel works towards its climax. Chronologically in the center of the story but physically placed as the last chapter of the book, this scene is the one concrete event to which all the resulting chaos and disorder can be traced back to and, in fact, features two adult characters disregarding India’s “Love Laws” in one of the worst ways possible. This pivotal scene, the one that all of Rahel’s memories in the novel have been leading up to and the one that resulted in the deaths of Velutha and Sophie Mal and the separation of Estha and Rahel, centers around Ammu and Velutha. Ammu and Velutha are, respectively, a divorced upper middle-class mother and a member of India’s lowly “Untouchable” class who, after years of being worn down by the constant grind of restrictive “Love Laws,” turn to each other to heal old wounds.
Trudell contends, “When [Ammu] recognizes that Kerala’s social code is in the process of forcing her down Baby Kochamma’s path of bitter, joyless confinement to the house until death, she acts in perfectly understandable desperation and attempts to find some brief joy with Velutha” (165). This assessment may alter opinion of the last chapter of the book, which depicts the socially unequal lovers as they initiate an affair just beyond the banks of the Meenachal River, but it should be noted that Meenachal River is the river in which Sophie Mal would later drown. Though Ammu and Velutha’s actions are understandable, they brought about grave ramifications. As the novel closes, the true story begins, and Ammu and Velutha initiate their thirteen-day tryst, a third-person omniscient narrator aptly forewarns, “The cost of living climbed to unaffordable heights; though later Baby Kochamma would say it was a Small Price to Pay. Was it? Two lives. Two children’s childhoods. And a history lesson for future offenders” (318).
In the days following Ammu and Velutha’s first indiscretion, both the breaking and the obeying of the “Love Laws” reap heavy consequences and act as a catalyst for tragedy. The scandal is uncovered by Velutha’s father, Baby Kochamma files rape charges against Velutha, Velutha disappears, an irrational Ammu turns against her children, and Estha, Rahel, and Sophie Mal use the boat that Velutha had created (so that he and Ammu could cross the river at night) to attempt to run-away from the mother that Rahel and Estha think no longer loves them. Then, as the novel draws near its ending, the attempted run-away goes horribly awry when the boat capsizes and Sophie Mal disappears. Unable to find their missing cousin, Estha and Rahel continue on to the abandoned house that they had planned to escape to, but Ayemenem police officers discover them asleep the next morning, along with the missing Velutha. From here, Velutha is beaten for presumed kidnapping and rape and taken into custody, Baby Kochamma forces the twins to pin Sophie Mal’s death upon Velutha by identifying him as their kidnapper, and Velutha dies considered a guilty man. Ammu broke the “Love Laws” by letting herself love a man whom she wasn’t supposed to love in a society of people embittered by what they had sacrificed in order to obey the “Love Laws”, and because of this, she, along with her twins, faces a despairing fate as well and is kicked out of the family home by Uncle Chacko. Consequentially, Ammu sends Estha to live with his father, and her own mental and physical health begin to steadily decline. As told by Rahel, Estha will eventually enter into a constant state of quietness, Rahel’s life will be forever tainted by despair, and the twins will live as a broken set for twenty-three miserable years.
However, the two are reunited eventually, and though Ammu and Velutha’s affair may have been the tragedy around which the action of Roy’s novel revolved and one the most blatant instances of characters breaking the “Love Laws,” Roy’s true commentary on the consequences of the liaison appears twenty-three years later. As it turns out, it is Rahel and Estha, broken, damaged, and desperate, who commit the final act of disobeying the “Love Laws”; the final chapter of the book depicts Ammu and Velutha’s attempt to reach out to each other and heal each other, but the chapter just previous to it describes Estha’s and Rahel’s attempt to do so as well. Just as Roy foreshadowed in the first chapter of the novel with, “The emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness of the other… The two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers’ bodies” (21), the end of the novel brings Rahel and Estha to attempting to connect and heal in the only way possible for them. Ultimately, Roy’s beautifully evocative description of Rahel and Estha’s last scene together leads readers to draw their own conclusions: “There is very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next… But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons… Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much” (310-311). Without a doubt, the picture that Roy paints here of Rahel and Estha’s first true interaction in twenty-three years is one of the most powerful instances of the “Love Laws” being broken in The God of Small Things, if not one of the most powerful scenes in the novel overall.
Awe-inspiring as Roy’s words are, however, it may actually be Roy’s frequent use of parallelism that drives The God of Small Things’ thought-provoking analysis of the destruction caused by over-whelming social expectations and prejudices. As Trudell asserts of two literarily and physically sequential scenes: “Roy’s trajectory of foreshadowing and anticipation lead to the two forbidden, taboo erotic relationships of the novel – between Ammu and Velutha, and Estha and Rahel. These are the episodes at the core of the unraveling plot and the crux of the book’s meaning” (164). Though Arundhati Roy is a master of character development, portrayal of emotions, and creative imagery, her use of parallelism in The God of Small Things to emphasize the tragically cyclic effects of the “Love Laws” may be one of her greatest literary accomplishments to date.
Of the several types of parallels that Roy employs, one of the most obvious ones is character parallels, with noticeable similarities between Rahel and Ammu, and Estha and Velutha. For instance, one of the many details that Roy uses to connect Rahel to Ammu lies in how, after Rahel’s return to Ayemenem, Estha often notices things such as, “[Rahel] whispers. She movers her mouth. Their beautiful mother’s mouth” (310). Even more importantly, however, Roy draws parallels between the decisions made by her characters and the consequences of those decisions; perhaps the greatest similarity between Ammu and Rahel manifests itself in their mutual breaking of the “Love Laws” towards the end of the novel. Notably, the reader is allowed more and more insight into Ammu’s past throughout the novel, such as the knowledge of her abuse-tainted childhood and her return to the family home in Ayemenem after a divorce from the twins’ fathers. On this matter, Surendran recognizes that, “Being isolated everywhere, Ammu was badly in need of the company of someone who would bring her some consolation. Velutha being someone whom she knew rather well from her childhood became her natural choice” (81). Viewed in this light, it seems strikingly unlikely that the fact that Rahel’s life closely echoes that of Ammu, who carried her own baggage from childhood, grew up to become a divorcee (as Rahel would before the opening of the novel), returned to Ayemenem, and ending up sexually breaking the “Love Laws” with a childhood friend, is a coincidence. It can also be noted that novel’s present-day twins happen to be the exact age that Ammu was when she died: “Thirty-one. Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age” (5).
Of course, if Ammu and Rahel are similar by mere merit of their actions, Velutha and Estha must be too. Velutha and Estha each represent the male in their taboo affairs and are each living with greater social stigma that Ammu or Rahel at the time of the affair. Velutha, an outcast of society by merit of caste ranking, is amongst those whose social standing Roy conveys with: “It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all” (71). Estha, on the other hand, was born into a higher social standing, but carried a sense of guilt over the events of his childhood until he eventually retreated into himself. As the narrator states, “At Sophie Mal’s funeral and in the days before Estha was Returned, [the twins] saw [Ammu’s] swollen eyes, and with the self-centeredness of children, held themselves wholly culpable for her grief” (307), and “Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past” (13). Furthermore, the last word spoken by Estha in the novel is “yes” as he gives false affirmation that Velutha is guilty of kidnapping, thus literally and figuratively silencing both Velutha and himself. It is connections such as these between Ammu and Rahel and Velutha and Estha that ingeniously tie Rahel and Estha’s present to Ammu and Velutha’s past and relate the disastrously enduring causes and effects of the “Love Laws” in The God of Small Things as no other element of the novel could have.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has received praise and recognition from many organizations and critics, most of whom are in agreement with Ritu Menon’s assessment that, “The God of Small Things is a seduction from start to finish… The paper’s texture and shade evoke clotted cream; a satisfying weight and pleasing typeface make its physical crafting as elegant as its literary craft is inspired. Arundhati Roy’s meticulous attention to detail is evident in both” (175). Calling on her talents as an author, Arundhati Roy uses the “Love Laws,” specifically her characters’ decisions on whether or not to obey the love laws and parallelism to connect the effects of the “Love Laws” across time and space, to develop an intriguing story into a deeply profound novel that critiques society’s paradoxical “Love Laws” and comments on the disorder that the “laws” can cause. In the closing of the story, the final gift that Roy gives her readers is hope for the future, for a breaking of the cycle of lost childhood and lost life caused by the “Love Laws,” and the novel ends: “She had a dry rose in her hair. She turned to say it once again: ‘Naaley.’ Tomorrow” (321). The “Love Laws” may have defeated Ammu and Velutha, but Roy reminds readers that there is always a tomorrow, always a Rahel and Estha to learn from past mistakes.
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