6 October 2020
Voice and Silence in Roy’s The God of Small Things
Two sentences in and the reader meets the river. Within the first pages the river is easily overlooked as a simple geological feature to give the novel vision. But as the narrative progresses the river takes on a mystical force, karmic and unapologetic as the lifeblood of the plot’s main tragedies and the silent witness to life unfolding. Here, in The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy constructs a setting that thrives on its naturalness and small ecological wonders, both of which decay as time in the novel non-linearly progresses. It is in this natural decay that one sees the repercussions of the human world: a place of social, political, and religious conflict. Set in the village of Ayemenem in the district of Kerala, the story is tucked away into the south-west tip of India, a place dominated by the natural world and (as the narrative shows) prevalent forces of colonialism, tourism, class division, and political parties (namely Communism).
Roy’s criticism of all societal institutions were not without their real life repercussions. Offended by the book, the Marxist government filed a case against Roy for “compromising public morality,” a case that has since been dropped to avoid calling more attention to the book. But beyond legal reverberations, The God of Small Things is a book in which Roy is deeply, indistinguishably entangled, the author even mentioning how “it’s hard to say where experience ends and imagination begins” (327). The God of Small Things then really becomes a kind of voice for Roy herself (specifically through Rahel), a voice she uses to emphasize the tool of language and the sanctuary of silence.
The narrative emphasizes the individuality of language through uncommon uses of grammar, spelling, repetition, and in the fragmented narrative structure itself (influenced by Roy’s studies as an architect). Language functions as a means of conceptualizing reality, meaning the characters with voice in the novel are allowed a greater amount of agency and identity with which to construct their world. Silence, on the other hand, functions as an escape from reality, an empty space in which the characters retreat, deny, and ficitionize a new “reality” in order to cope with trauma. It then becomes crucial to ask who is allowed a voice and where? And who clutches to silence and when?
As mentioned, the voice of Roy is best connected to (and perhaps at some times equivalent to) the voice of Rahel. It then becomes no surprise that Rahel is the character allowed the most voice and whose perspective governs the vast majority of the novel. However, it is important to note how the other occasional characters with voice (such as Ammu with her dream and Baby Kochamma’s control of the police narrative) are predominantly female. In this way, one could say Roy’s choice of voice was radical, allowing the women of her novel to be in charge of conceptualizing reality, while the majority of main male characters are left in silence. As an adult, Estha is literally silent and even as a child his view is always sacrificed or cut short for Rahel, giving Estha very little literary space to occupy. He is “a quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise” (Roy 13). Additionally, the character of Velutha (a Paravan who does maintenance for the pickles and preserves factory) is given no form of narrative dictation, his speech limited to a couple of lines responding to the twins (mostly Rahel) and a single word to Ammu. The reality of the novel is shaped by the female voice, often leaving the male figures of the novel as shadows on the wall.
Velutha’s silence, however, does not only hold implications for gender in the novel but also for class and national identity. Instead of possessing autonomous voice, Velutha is reduced into a figure, this “God of Small Things” that no doubt has an important function in the lives of Ammu and the twins (that is as a symbol of the beauty of ordinariness and its simplicity and a totem of the tragedies of temporariness and forbidden love), but that is denied true agency, perspective, and experiential portrayal in the novel. His identity is in constant relation to characters of a higher class. Roy failing to give Velutha voice in many ways reinforces the ideas of the caste system, an institution she intends to and does criticize. The voiceless are made into a narrative motif but remain as simply that — voiceless. Though Roy ironically does the same thing, she criticizes India for its foundations on the unseen and the unheard, its social structures reliant on a paralyzed and ostrichsized lower class that carries out the undesired duties of society.
Another one of the novel’s shortcomings in terms of voice is its tailoring to its English speaking audience. The native language of Kerala is apparent in bits and phrases, but immediately translated into English. Again, Roy ironically participates in something she tries to criticize in the book: the white-washing of language and the reinforcement of an English-oriented world. This criticism is seen in the character of Miss Mitten, the teacher who punishes the twin’s “improper” use of English and lingual games (58) and in the strict use of English while in front of Sophie Mol. This critiques the Anglo-centric dominance of language, and yet Roy waters down the use of Malayalam (not even using the native characters) to serve the English audience.
In other places, however, a lack of language does promote the culture and practices of Kerala, namely in religion. This is most crucial in the scene in the temple, as Rahel watches kathakali, traditional dances that recount stories of Hindu gods and goddesses. Spoken language is abandoned for vivid storytelling accomplished solely through the body. No words are spoken, and yet “the Great Stories...are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin” (218). This makes the stories more accessible to all classes and emphasizes the physicality of worship. In terms of religion, silence functions as a space to abandon the human institution of speech, to temporarily step out of a mortal reality, and to engage in the reality of the divine. Silence is sacrificed for bodily communication, making it simultaneously more intimate and more available.
Attention to the language of the body reoccurs in how the book addresses sexuality, specifically between the twins and between Ammu and Velutha. The twins are constantly engaging in unspoken communication, able to sense each other’s pain and emptiness. This is seen when they are children, when Rahel opens the hotel door for Estha without him saying anything (133) and later when they are adults and have intercourse. The unspoken communication between the twins is essential for their personal feelings of being understood. Here, silence is a means of protection and retreat from the reality of their experiences. The language of touch is a language that is unable to be infiltrated. In the same way, the final scene of the book between Ammu and Velutha is heavily based on describing touch rather than dialogue. Silence for Ammu and Velutha is an escape from their societal identities, a way of denying the social gravity of their lovemaking and ignoring the potential grave consequences that the audience knows are to follow. In both instances, silence is a break from or an abandonment of conceptualizing a painful reality, a reality that restricts all of these characters from being properly loved or from the ability to properly love. The only word spoken between Ammu and Velutha is “naaley” or “tomorrow,” signifying a small but vital hope that their love will be granted another day. In silence there is protection and retreat. In words there is fictionalization and hope.
In essence, voice is a tool to manipulate one’s perception of reality, while silence is the renunciation of reality altogether. Voice is a recognition of agency and a confirmation of experience, given to few in The God of Small Things and perhaps only fully to Rahel. Silence is an anesthetic the characters depend on to escape the trauma and pain produced by the cruelness of others and by fatal institutions. And yet, despite the pessimistic trajectory of the character’s fates, Roy leaves the reader in a self-contained space, one of quietness and affection, with a single word echoing out as promise. Tomorrow.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. Metha Publishing House, 2017.