Spatial Boundaries in The God of Small Things

The first seven chapters of Arundhati Roy’s novel has raised more questions than answered. However, it is important to discuss how the stylistic format of this novel produces implicit dimensions of discussion that can be drawn out through the text. Roy’s explorative style of prose is a joy to read, although at times can tend to be overwhelming. As I went back through the earlier chapters of the novel in an attempt to identify some of the narrative’s themes and intentions, I was struck by the multitude of voices that comprise the narrative. Also, many phrases or images reappear throughout (Pappachi’s moth, Christian hymns, The Sound of Music lyrics) the narratives to reinforce or complicate dimensions to the intentions of characters. The setting and spatial dimensions of the text appear to be as important as the multitude of symbolic imagery that Roy presents. The Ayemenem house is separated from Kari Saipu’s estate by the river. For the twins, the “History House” takes on a literal representation as Chacko tries to metaphorically explain what history is, and how their family (and India) is affected by becoming “Anglophiles” (51-2). Estha and Rahel grapple with the abstract concepts that Chacko places in front of them, while the narrative expels foreshadowing about the “house they couldn’t enter”: “They didn’t know then that soon they would go in. That they would cross the river and be where they weren’t supposed to be, with a man they weren’t supposed to love. That they would watch with dinner-plate eyes as history revealed itself to them in the back verandah. While other child of their age learned other things, Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws” (53-4).
Although only time (and reading the rest of the novel) will tell what happened to the twins on the Saipu estate, the “History House” is brought up again at the beginning of Chapter Five. The estate is renovated, painted, and remodeled into a hotel called “Heritage”. Exclusive boundaries are implemented regarding the estate:
“The History House (where map-breath’d ancestors with tough toe-nails once whispered) could no longer be approached from the river. It had turned its back on Ayemenem. The hotel guests were ferried across the backwaters, straight from Cochin. They arrived by speedboat, opening up a V of foam on the water, leaving behind a rainbow film of gasoline. The view from the hotel was beautiful, but here too the water was thick and toxic. No Swimming signs had been put up in stylish calligraphy. They had built a tall wall to screen off the slum and prevent it from encroaching on Kari Saipu’s estate” (119).
The personification of the estate “turning its back” on Ayemenem is one point where we can access a postcolonial interpretation of Roy’s work. Constructed boundaries represent a constructed space of meaning, which further solidifies Chacko’s metaphor as a discussion on the exclusionary aspects of colonialism and what is left (or made) in its wake.
Similarly, the river holds many connotations that discuss the evolution of postcolonial experience. It separates Ayemenem from the Saipu estate, but is directly affected by the actions of both sides. Its evident deterioration and pollution shows a disrespect for natural environment, which was perhaps a fostered mentality from colonial occupation that was left in the wake, so to speak. The blatant disregard and disrespect for environmental preservation becomes representative in the river, and everyone around Ayemenem can smell it. The constructed boundaries of the estate can be seen as an attempt to disregard, or perhaps evade responsibility for the perpetuation of destructive practices, for the perpetuation of a history that a majority of local citizens have no part in creating.

Questions to Consider

1. What other examples of boundaries/spatial inclusion/ exclusion have you encountered in your reading? Are boundaries ever explicitly challenged?

2. How does Arundhati Roy represent “Western” spaces of meaning and their relationships with Indian culture? (Think Abhilash Talkies) Are any characters shown having agency against these spaces, or are they unknowingly accepted?