This book caused a bit of a storm when it won the Booker in 1997. Some people really disliked it. I loved it, especially the wordplay and the private language of the twins. They way they pick up and distort words and phrases from the adults around them can be very funny at times, as when they turn Baby Kochamma's stern warning to be 'Ambassador of India' at the airport into 'Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect'. At other times this wordplay shows a dawning awareness of the grim and heartless world of adults, as when an angry parent's 'later' delivered 'meaningfully' becomes LayTer, a horrible, menacing, 'goose-bumpy' word.
Of all the adult characters, only Ammu is sympathetically drawn, and even she is selfish in risking her family with forbidden love for an 'Untouchable'. Velutha is depicted as a kindly man, ambitious for an 'Untouchable' but we never really see inside his head. Chacko, a foolish Anglophile and bully, would be comic if he were not so cruel and self-deluded; he still loves the idea of Margaret as his wife (because she's English) even after she divorced him because of his laziness and selfishness. Baby Kochamma is a viperous old woman keen to stir up trouble for everyone and anyone, and so protective of her family's reputation that she invents murder and rape to convict Velutha. (Not that there's any need for a trial. In Roy's India police can deliver a fatal beating with impunity, it seems.)
(My favourite character was actually Baby Kochamma, wicked old crone that she was. Her malevolence permeates every event; she's only happy when others are down for she needs to feel morally superior to survive. Bossy, opinionated, disagreeable in every way - she's a wonderful invention!)
As the story is revealed, we become aware that Estha has become an elective mute because it was his word that denounced Velutha, his friend and adult playmate. Baby Kochamma blackmails him into agreeing that the children were abducted when in fact they were running away from angry adults - trying to teach them a lesson and intending to come back when the adults 'begged'.
With the theme of forbidden love, there are numerous taboos broken. Chacko marries an English girl to the dismay of both families. Baby Kochamma nurtures a fruitless love for a Catholic priest for a lifetime. Ammu falls for Velutha, though it's just for sex and they both know it; and as adults Estha and Rahel have an incestuous relationship. Then there's the dirty old man who abuses little Estha at the pictures, to the irony of the wholesome Sound of Music on screen.
So nobody has a happy love life - all yearn for the forbidden, and suffer for it. A tragic theme but not a tragic book. It's too playful for that and the language is rich and powerful, never sordid or gloomy. It's as if Roy says: bad things will happen; the god of small things will have his way, but life goes on - and people do as they will in surviving it.
It's clear that Roy doesn't like the caste system, but she interprets it as part of the inheritance of exclusion and snobbery that came with British rule. It's also part of the way women wield power when they are otherwise powerless. Roy seems to love India too much to be appalled by it and is content to bring it to world attention and leave it to others to express opinions about it.
Highly recommended and a terrific book for book groups.
I finished reading this book and journalled it on 3.2.2001.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers