Victims of Caste, Transgressions and Punishments in Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things”


A.N. Guru Prasad

Prof. P. Elaiah


Introduction: Arundhati Roy is a postcolonial writer.  It is evident in her debut novel, “The God of Small Things”.  The novel has all the required ingredients of postcolonial hybridity, revisionism, anti-imperial sentiments, transgressions and  discriminations – racial, gender and class. Having said that Roy’s novel is marked by its postcolonial revisionism and anti-imperial sentiments, there is a need to deal with some of the theoretical manifestations of postcolonial writings.


Graham Huggan rightly points out, “Indian writing in English is, to a large extent, transnational, diasporic phenomenon, the product of complex collusions between East and West”. Hence, the term postcolonial has a wider definition.  It denotes “an index of resistance, a perceived imperative to rewrite and social context of continuing imperial dominance” (Huggan ix), and it functions as “a sales-tag in the context of today’s globalized commodity culture” (Huggan ix).


Caste System: In Indian context everything in society matters a lot. The readers find such instances in the novel of Arundhati Roy, “The God of Small Things”. The case of an Untouchable Velutha in the novel brings out the issues concerning caste, class, social mobilization and violence. The name Velutha means ‘White’ in Malayalam, but he is originally not.  The untouchables are denied basic human rights in many ways.


“In Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed” (71).


When we speak of Velutha, it is not proper to mention about the identity problem and Indian identity.  As Robin Cohen indicates, “globalization at the cultural level has brought about the fragmentation and multiplication of identities”.  Yet, we must notice that globalization is not a brand new phenomenon.  Instead, we should see it as pointed by Chowdhuri Kanishka as “a more dramatic form of reterritorialization and multiplicity within a new regime of capital accumulation”. 


We find that Velutha’s identity is a flawed one because he is incapable of changing and resisting the powerful hegemony. He belongs to no strong community which can support him throughout the whole difficulty. In short, Velutha dwells in a world where privilege and exclusion determine the survival of small lives. As for the love laws, there are the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how, and how much. The transgressive behaviours of Ammu, Velutha and the twins in the novel may not carry equal importance if the caste and love laws are not taken into consideration. For instance, the transgression between a white man and a black woman or vice versa may reveal the racial conflicts between East and West.  Though Ammu teaches her children how to behave well, she is the one who violates the love laws. Ammu marries a man from a different caste and religion. Therefore, the children are considered illegitimate and less loveable.


“They provided the care (food, clothes, fees) but withdrew the concern”. (17)


Ammu breaks the caste taboo by having an affair with the Untouchable Velutha. Both taste the bitter results of the love laws at the end.


Transgressions: There are other people such as Rahel and Esta, who break rules and cross into forbidden territory. But Ammu’s transgression is not without symptom since she contains within herself…


“The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber. It was this that grew in her, and eventually led her to love by night the man her children love by day”. (44)


Knowing that their love is doomed to be crushed by the love laws, both Ammu and Velutha still desire each other meeting secretly on the following nights. Yet they realize that they have nothing and no future. Only thing they can do is to stick to the ‘small things’ and let the Big Things lurk inside.


Bataille’s view point makes sense to everyone that “the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it” Both Velutha and Ammu are aware of the existence of social taboo. Yet they still follow free will and try to conquer the fear in their minds. When we turn to the transgression between Rahel and Estha, the depiction begins with how they identify themselves as ‘twins’. They lack a complete family which is full of love and warmth.  Due to lack of father figure in their lives, they find another person to love- although Velutha is an Untouchable, the twins see him not only as an adored father figure but an ‘ideal substitute’ for Ammu’s husband.  The twins indulge in incest, another social taboo, not with a sensuous desire, but to be off from the loneliness, each one of them is feeling personally, after the death of their mother, Ammu.


In Roy’s novel there are questions about the hybrid mixing together of categories and the breaking of boundaries. Some characters do break the ‘rules’ and exceed ‘boundaries’. Ammu and Velutha belong to different castes and thus they; represent the hybrid cultures of India. Their act of transgression subverts the fixed norms of love laws and produces heterogeneous culture. Since the hybridity contains different types of mixing, the cultural formation of India is inevitably a process of transculturation (mutual and multiple borrowing and adaptation).  Transgression is related to gender oppression.  It is not concerned with women exclusively.  Rather, men are possible to become oppressed.   In the novel, among the women who suffer from gender oppression, Mammachi, Ammu and Rahel are three women from three different generations. While Mammachi suffers from masculine violence and patriarchal confinement, Ammu suffers from domestic violence and endures the belittlement of her relatives only because she divorced and whereas Rahel suffers from bad childhood and her childhood experiences also retard her growth towards a normal and complete womanhood.  Estha and Velutha are men who  suffer from gender oppression.  Estha, throughout his life is not happy as he is a victim at all times. It is needless to say how pathetic is the life of Velutha, another victim of gender oppression in the novel.


Punishments: Roy encourages her characters in The God of Small Things to follow their hearts. However, following one’s heart does not necessarily mean living happily ever after. Following one’s heart and seeking one’s personal truth seems to a lot of times also mean acting against the social norms of society. In this novel, Roy does not try to write a happy ending. But to show that the people who transgress the social boundaries eventually get punished for doing so. This does not necessarily mean that they get what they deserve. They get punished for being good, or for just following their heart, without harming other people. And, in the same time, people who bring a lot of evil to the world still go through life rather easily. Both Ammu and Velutha are very good examples of people who act against the social norms and who are punished severely for this.


Velutha is a good person who happens to be born in the wrong caste; he is born a Paravan, but he does not let that stop him from doing what he wants. Roy shows here that acting against social norms, crossing social boundaries is not something easy. She shows that crossing these boundaries is not something you can just do and then live your life the way you have always wanted to live. The love affair with Ammu is the last straw, and for acting the way he does, the punishment he gets is death. Ammu is treated differently in her family because she one time chose the wrong man. However, Ammu is not the only one suffering for this; her children, Rahel and Estha also, have to suffer because their mother chose the wrong father for them.


They are treated differently for not having a father, and are branded  “children of a whore, a prostitute”. After the reveal of her love affair with Velutha, Ammu is locked in a room, and later, she is taken away to live a life without her beloved children and they lead a life without their dear mother. Ammu dies all alone in an empty, dirty room, without love, without any new happy thoughts in her mind. Therefore, her punishment is in a way much worse than Velutha’s.


One example of how wrong her actions are seen as is in the section where Ammu is dead and Rahel and Chacko have to decide what to do with the body; when it is told that the church refuses to bury Ammu, and she is sent, wrapped in a dirty bed sheet, to the crematorium, where beggars, abandoned people, and people who have died in police custody are sent to be cremated after their death. It is really an unceremonious end of Ammu.  In spite of all the violence and death in this novel, it in a way ends especially with a ray of hope. It ends with the scene with Ammu and Velutha, when Ammu tells Velutha, “naaley.” (340), meaning tomorrow. And, in a way, this tomorrow gives hope.


Conclusion: It is worth to note that Arundhati Roy handles the aspects of transgressions, love laws and punishments in her novel “The God of Small Things” very effectively. As an architect, Roy constructs her space of story-telling by manipulating landscapes of Ayemenem and setting up the locations for specific characters. The social norms in the novel are called the Love Laws, the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how and how much. Both Ammu and Velutha are punished for following their hearts. Velutha is beaten to death as soon as their love affair is revealed, and Ammu is sent away to live the rest of her life and die alone. What Ammu does to cross the social boundaries is particularly breaking the gender roles. Despite the fact that love laws regulate people’s behaviour and restrict their freedom in searching for love, the two pairs of transgressors, Ammu and Velutha, Rahel and Esta, in the novel still break them and follow their own free will. Hence, they remain as victims, finally receive punishments. Hope and despair frequently follow each other in the lives of these people in Arundhati Roy’s novel.