The God of Small Things: feminism in post-colonial India through symbolism and characterisation

By Arushi Aditi

“A lot of the women who are involved in resistance movements are also redefining what ‘modern’ means. They are really at war against their community’s traditions, on the one hand, and against the kind of modernity that is being imposed by the global economy, on the other. They decide what they want from their tradition and what they will take from modernity. It’s a high-wire act”

– Arundhati Roy.

The God of Small Things, written by Arundhati Roy, is a globally acclaimed novel unraveling the themes of love, relationships, and discrimination between classes and castes. One of the most prominent conflicts is gender inequality, shown through a nexus of oppression in the story. Roy portrays a spectrum of resistance and complicity to gender inequality in society, primarily through characterization. This is further emphasized by the conflicting role of modernity in post-colonial India which promoted the development of economic/political evolution, yet had difficulty embracing that of gender equality. 

Set in the 1960s in Kerala, Southern India, Roy narrates the story of several generations of the Ipe family surrounded by social and political conflicts, rooted in discrimination against caste and class. We learn about Mammachi and Pappachi’s unstable relationship, which affects Ammu’s upbringing. How society treats Ammu is another emblem of anti-feminist ideologies engrained in post-colonial India that manifested its influence on Ammu’s children (the protagonist twins)Estha and Rahel.

The first generation includes Mammachi and Pappachi, grandparents to Estha and Rahel. Roy uses their relationship to get across how intergenerational trauma can carry anti-feminist ideologies and injustice. Pappachi pioneers the central refrain of female oppression in the novel. He never received the credit he felt he deserved for discovering a moth, causing a rooted anger, disappointment, and failure in his life; the same anger that could not accept Mammachi’s successes in life, gave Ammu (his daughter) the respect and love she deserved. This instigated a nexus of oppression by being physically abusive to Mammachi. As much as Roy villainizes Mammachi for augmenting oppressive forces in the story as she does not support Ammu’s inter-caste relations with Velutha (a man below her caste), there is a sense of historical and cultural empathy that lies within these ideas, denoted by the oppression Mammachi faces herself from Pappachi’s abuse. Roy reminds the readers of the difficulties women face when resisting such engrained ideologies in society, holding them back from battling for freedom.

Ammu is the central female protagonist in this novel and an emblem of resistance and progression in Indian society who experiences physical oppression, lack of sexual freedom, and societal injustice. This is shown through her first marriage, where she is treated disrespectfully by her alcoholic husband. Her divorce left her with a shattered image in society and the lack of acceptance for her inter-caste romantic relationship with someone below her social class.

The beauty of the character dynamics, imaginative story-telling and eloquent language that Roy uses allows this novel to artfully tackle social conflicts. Even though post-colonial India held expectations of being a liberal and self-sufficient nation through legal and political means, Roy explores the flawed reality of this neo-imperialist masquerading. The society truly lacked the mindset of allowing women to move forward with as much power and stature as men, not permitting the gap between the East and West to be reduced.

Illustration by Paavas Bansal

An analysis and reflection on gender inequality through one of Arundhati Roy's famous books


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