Umesh Patra, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad
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In that enchanted jungle, a divorced, upper-class mother of two children made love with an untouchable Paravan transgressing the boundaries of morality and breaking the ‘law’ as to who should be loved, how and how much. This paper seeks to study Roy’s The God of Small Things as a parable of the original sin depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy brought India the first Booker Prize for any non-expatriate writer. It is endeared both by critics and lay readers positioning Roy as a literary genius, after which she sauntered into political activism. The novel has been analyzed from multiple dimensions highlighting feminism, Dalit aesthetics, non-sequential narratology, stylistics, neologism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, eco-criticism and so on. The novel also bears an imprint of the Original Sin which will be my contention here.
Tempted by the Devil, Eve tasted the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Adam could not imagine a fate without his consort and partook of the fruit. Having acquired knowledge, they looked at themselves lustfully and became aware of their nakedness. Innocence deserted them. They committed the Original Sin and broke the commandment of God. They were banished from the heavenly abode and their progeny had to toil in the mortal world. Thus began death and suffering for humans. Milton’s Paradise Lost deals primarily with this fable. This Judeo-Christian tale impacted immensely the western understanding of human life.
Even though the tale of sin and banishment appears as a tragic event, Milton’s magnum opus withholds a simplistic reading. Milton’s Satan is not only characterized with guile and viciousness but also with righteous rhetoric, leadership and an indefatigable zeal against God’s monarchy. One echoes Satan’s words when one says, “it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” (Milton 7) or “what if the field be lost, all is not lost” (Ibid 3). Isn’t Satan the perennial Samson Agonistes, who risks his life to fight tyranny; the ambitious Icarus who ventured to fly to the sun; Dr. Faustus who trades his soul in exchange for power? Isn’t Satan the alter ego of Milton himself who defended regicide and was instrumental, along with Cromwell, in the establishment of the only Republic of Britain? In his voluminous epic, God is an ambivalent character. According to Danielson, Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to men” (Milton 2) was characterized by both chutzpah and humility. The attempt thus presupposes our “ability to arrive at judgment concerning God’s nature and character” with the awareness that God “himself the Author and Judge of all things” (Danielson 115). Milton’s intended to balance the three fundamental propositions of Christianity:
- God is all powerful (omnipotent).
- God is wholly good.
- There is evil in the world. (Ibid 113-115)
If two of the above three propositions are asserted, the third one is invalidated. For example, If God is omnipotent and wholly good, how could evil exist? In the context of Paradise Lost, one is haunted by similar questions. If God is omniscient, why didn’t He prevent Satan’s infiltration in his Garden? Why would God dislike Adam’s partaking of the fruit of knowledge? Satan asks not an unreasonable question:
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By Ignorance, is that thir happy state,
The proof of thir obedience and thir faith? (Milton 70)
According to John Carey, Milton hasn’t projected Satan as pure evil or infimum malum. Therefore, Satan has been valorized as the true hero in Paradise Lost in eighteenth century France and England. Romantics like Coleridge, Blake, Byron and Shelly glorified Satan. Carey cogently attributes the reason of the controversy of between pro- and anti- Satanists to the text’s ambivalence.
Milton’s God falls short of being all merciful. Blake was credible in stating that Milton is “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. The fall has been lauded as fortunate by many. Lovejoy explores the paradox of the fortunate fall and argues that God’s grace could be invoked only by primal sin of Adam. The Exultet read on the Eve of Easter exclaims “O sin of Adam, truly necessary” and “We should be lost (perdus) if we had not been lost” (qtd. in Lovejoy 178). Empson believes that “Milton regularly presents a fall as due to an intellectually interesting temptation, such that a cool judge may feel actual doubt whether the fall was not the best thing to do in the circumstances” (36). Others, however, see a better future in Eden for human progeny. Lewalski argues that Adam and Eve gathered experience in Eden itself by their dialogues with angels. They also achieved prelapsarian physical union.
In the light of the above discussion, a reading of Roy’s fiction will reveal a hitherto untrodden path. Velutha and Ammu appear like Adam and Eve who transgressed the ‘love laws’ equivalent to the commandment of God. Ramanathan sees Velutha as a Christ figure. Her thesis takes into account Velutha’s profession as a carpenter and the heart-rending suffering he undergoes. The nascent child Estha has been compared to Judas for unknowingly nodding to accusations against Velutha. However, unlike Christ, Velutha is not a savior of the downtrodden. His death follows no resurrection. He is more like an Adam, innocent, susceptible to temptation and persecution at the hands of the Big Gods.
Like Milton’s invocation, Roy’s first chapter titled “Paradise Pickles and Preserves” summarizes the tale which began thousands of years ago.
They all broke the rules… They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly… it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago…it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. (Roy 31-33)
The novel depicts a binary of godhead; the Big God and the Small God. The Big God “howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity” (Roy 10). Velutha has been termed as the God of loss, the god of small things, equivalent to Adam, the earthly image of God.
The love between Ammu, a divorced mother and Velutha, a Paravan Christian broke the ‘love laws’ that were created ‘thousands of years ago’. One might find the reference to the genesis because these laws made grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles and jelly jelly. The laws not only regulate the world but have also created it. Laws are therefore the pseudonym of God.
In Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve in a dream. Perturbed by the dream, Eve relates the obscure details to Adam. In the titular chapter titled “The God of Small Things”, Ammu too dreams of making love with a one-armed man. She wakes up and realizes that the one-armed man was none other than Velutha. As a parallel to Eve’s narcissism beholding her own image in the water, Ammu too looks at her naked self in the bathroom mirror. “Hooded in her own hair, Ammu leaned against herself in the bathroom mirror and tried to weep” (Roy 224).
Both Eve and Ammu were frightened and bewitched by their dreams. After waking up, Ammu shrugs off her twins and reclaimed her body. “It was hers”, the narrator exclaims (Roy, 222). Harish finds it to be an obvious “feminist proclamation the narrator” (49). While Ammu is undoubtedly a victim of patriarchy, this scene is far from these concerns. Why would a mother of two children assert her feminism by disengaging herself from the filial affection of her seven year olds? The reclamation of her body can be a symbol of her arousal of sexual desires after the erotic dream she had. It was her movement from innocence to experience.
The final chapter is the re-creation of original sin committed in the Paradise. Like Eve, Ammu is alone and vulnerable to the guiles of Satan. She listens to her transistor.
A lonely, lambent woman looking out at her embittered aunt’s ornamental garden, listening to a tangerine. To a voice from far away. Wafting through the night. Sailing over lakes and rivers. Over dense heads of trees. Past the yellow church. Past the school. Bumping up the dirt road. Up the steps of the verandah. To her. (Roy 331)
Ammu, is approached by a voice from far away. The movement of the voice resembles the serpentine trail. The voice sang as if borrowing Satan’s rhetoric.
There’s no time to lose I heard her say
Cash your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you
Will lose your mind. (Ibid 331-332)
These lines cast a spell on Ammu who rushes to the river bank. “She moved quickly through the darkness, like an insect following a chemical trail” (Ibid 332) as if following the infernal serpent.
When Ammu reached the river bank, Velutha was in his elements, swimming in the river. He was wearing only a loin cloth from which water dripped. He came ashore almost naked like Adam. While Ammu had already made up her mind and therefore tasted the fruit, Velutha had still time. He saw Ammu. “Despite his fear his body was prepared to take the bait” (Ibid 334). He was aware that he could lose everything, yet was defiant and ventured like Adam did: “if Death Consort with thee, Death is to mee as Life” (Milton 175). The narrator says, “Had he known that he was about to enter a tunnel whose only egress was his own annihilation, would he have turned away? Perhaps. Perhaps not Who can tell? (Roy 333)”
Ammu felt only those parts of her body where he touched her. The rest was smoke. It strikes a parallel with the description of angelic love by Raphael in Paradise Lost. But unlike Adam and Eve, Ammu and Velutha are not repentant. They knew it was the only thing they could ask of each other. The parting word of Ammu is Naale (tomorrow). But soon the message went to the Big Gods.
Velutha was caught by the Police and charged falsely with abduction of the children. He succumbed to the torture perpetrated by the Big Gods. Ammu was ostracized. She committed suicide in a hotel room. As the biblical couple became mortal by their sin, Ammu and Velutha succumbed to mortality.
Ammu’s love for Velutha flouts the ‘love laws’ in a variety of ways. Being a woman, even though divorced, she is not allowed coitus. The narrator contrasts her libido with that of Chacko who could get a tacit assent from his mother for satisfying his “man’s needs”. Secondly, she is a mother. But most importantly, she chose a Paravan to make love to. Even though “on paper”, Velutha is casteless for being Christian, in practice caste regulates the converted Christian community in Kerela, God’s own country. The Ipes take pride in their genealogy from Brahmin ancestors. Untouchable Christians like Velutha are assigned a Pariah Church and a Pariah Father. Satan tempts Eve by stating that eating the apple will make her equal to gods. The Ipes could never condone Ammu’s choice of a Paraiah as her paramour. It could equate an untouchable Christian with the touchables. It was unthinkable. The matter was suppressed and the transgressors punished.
The sin committed by Adam and Eve had its repercussion on their progeny. The sin by Ammu made her children suffer. Estha did not join college and started doing menial jobs at his biological father’s house. He thus earned his living by the sweat of his brows as Adam’s progeny were compelled to. Rahel’s life was in shambles. As a punishment in her school, She was made to look up the word depravity in Oxford Dictionary which read the “innate corruption of human nature due to ‘original sin; both the elect and the non-elect come into the world in a state of total d. and alienation from God, and can of themselves do nothing but sin” (Roy 16). When the twins meet, they realize that their happiness lies only in themselves. Before leaving the twins, Ammu had extracted a promise from them that they would always love each other. The Siamese twins nodded without knowing the difference between each and other. When Estha eventually puts his arms around Rahel, the insinuation of a biological relationship ensues. Is it incest? Is it a union they fell into owing to their failures in separated lives? Or did they too violate the ‘love laws’ and thus committed another original sin?
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Umesh Patra is a research scholar at the department of Indian and World Literature in English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He is engaged in the comparative analysis of Odia Pala Culture and Brechtian Dramaturgy for his PhD Dissertation. His research interest includes theatre and performance, queer theory and popular culture.
The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015