Three Children On The Riverbank

In Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, Roy builds to the climax of the novel just for it to fall short of surprising. Through constant foreshadowing and revealing small details throughout the book, Roy leaves the audience already expecting what will happen, leaving a more emphasized yet comfortable storytelling. In Chapter 16, the disaster of Sophie Mol’s death finally transpires. The passage begins with the kids entering the river bank with the motives of making the adults feel guilty. Sophie mol is hesitant and Roy’s writing infers that something bad may happen, “Sophie Mol was more tentative. A little frightened of what lurked in the shadows around her.” Roy contrasts the comfortability of Estha and Rahel who “seemed to trust the darkness” with Sophie Mol’s hesitation and unfamiliarity, commenting on the twin’s eastern origins and being careless with danger, while the cousin is western–innocent to the shadows. This idea of attempting to combine both the east and west is carried on when Sophie Mol tries to convince Estha and Rahel that her accompanying them is “essential”. She states that “the absence of children, all children, would heighten the adults’ remorse.” Sophie Mol, while it would seem like the whole novel tries to depict easterners as yearning to become more western, tries to mix in with Rahel and Estha–her rejection of Chacko and Baby Kochamma in order to win their approval.

Roy, subtlely discusses the failure of the westerners trying to familiarize themself with the east, and this results in a horrific scene. With Sophie Mol’s death left in the hands of Estha and Rahel, the motif of Pappachi’s moth returns, showing the fear and anger that resides in Rahel’s heart: “On Rahel’s heart Pappachi’s moth snapped open its somber wings. Out. In. And lifted its legs.” The metaphor of Pappachi’s moth is finally completed at this moment, finally opening its wings. This passage really exemplifies one of the main tragedies of The God of Small Things and answers questions about Orientalism that influence Western perceptions.

Orientalism in Action

Throughout modern media, tv, and cinema we see misrepresentations of many eastern cultures. Movie studios, such as Disney, pick and choose which pieces of what cultures they would like to include in their movies and exclude what they don’t like. This is especially prominent in modern American action movies and tv shows, in which cultures aren’t misrepresented, but completely changed to be a fitting other for the protagonist in the story. In these action movies and shows, we often see the entire Middle East depicted as extremely gruesome and violent. We often have an antagonist that is a Middle Eastern terrorist which perpetuates this false idea that people from the Middle East are violent, radical, and terrorists. This image being continuously pushed throughout American action movies creates prejudice towards people from the Middle East in many people who watch these movies. This prejudice prevents people from understanding the many different cultures that are in the Middle East. It also continues to make the problem of xenophobia throughout America and the west worse and worse.

A specific example of this idea is in Marvel’s Iron Man, which is centered around an extremely wealthy business man, Tony Stark, who is captured by an Afghanistan terrorist group called the 10 rings. He is put in a cave, tortured, and forced to develop a weapon for them so that they can start taking power globally. He ends up making the Iron Man suit, which he later uses to seek revenge on the 10 rings and bring justice to those they terrorize. This movie became extremely popular, becoming one of the biggest movies in 2008. This movies popularity gave Marvel the boost it needed to start making more and more movies and developing its franchise, but the popularity of this movie also exastrabates many of its negative impacts.

This movies popularity creates increased prejudice in those who have watched it because it again pushes the idea that people from the Middle East are violent, radical, and terrorists. We often see in action movies people from the Middle East portrayed as either the villains or regular citizens, but never as the hero of the story. Often the hero has to be a white guy saving the citizens from some sort of terrorist, just as we see in Iron Man. We also see an issue in the portrayal of Afghanistan in this movie aswell. Afghanistan is shown as a desolate area that is only desert, they fail to show cities, developed areas, and the foresty mountianis areas and opt to only show small run down towns and military camps. This again further perpetuates the idea that Middle Eastern countries are violent and underdeveloped.

The failure of modern action movies to properly represent the east in general, and especially those who live there and the cultures they practice, creates prejudice as well as an unwillingness to actually learn and involve yourself in those different cultures. It further extrabaltes the problem of xenophobia an America and the west in general and continues to push us farther and farther away from the rest of the world.

The Alchemist and Orientalism

Orientalism is a faulty representation of the east conceptualized from the western world’s perception of what Asia and Africa look like and how the people of said origins behave.  Orientalism began as one person with misconstrued information providing a story of eastern countries and from there everyone developed their ideas and stereotypes of the east off of a false notion. Through the years this has only grown more prevalent and grounded in America and western societies as the “ideal other”. The ideal other is a group of people that is presented in a way to make the western world look better and more developed, an example would be shaping the middle east as barbaric, mysterious, and full of magic among other negative and/or misleading connotations to build a superiority complex on the western world.  The biggest culprits submitting to orientalism are various media such as film, television, and books. Some notorious media promoting these stereotypes are Aladdin, A Passage to India, and another big contributor is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist is in some aspects a self-help book, it follows a Spaniard Shepard through a journey to find a treasure under the pyramids in Egypt. A message about personal legends is enforced by an old king and so the Shepard sells his sheep and sets off on a journey to fulfill his personal legend( to find treasure under the pyramids). Towards the end of the book, the Shepard finds himself in a village in the middle of the “Arab desert” where they encounter alchemy, dangerous tribes, and thieves. Additionally, in a village, where the Shepard stays for a short while, he falls in love with a woman who has promised to wait for him as he continues on with his quest. All of the following depictions heavily align with the false characteristics of the Arab world. 

The Shepard from the west throughout the novel is seen as an observer, as though the east is something to be observed or to be labeled “fascinating” by a so-called superior European man. This notion objectifies people from the middle east and then continues to promote the idea that they should be observed as captivating to impressionable readers. Additionally, both the magical and savage tropes in the dessert are condescending and repetitive as they are often shown in European works when characterizing the east. This colonial attitude is shown most prominently when the Shepard is being taught to turn into sand and fly away to escape the savage and violent tribe he and the alchemist encounter during their travels together. Similar illustrations can be seen in the movie Aladin with the genie and magic carpet and also barbaric characters presented through the film.

Women in the east is another example of orientalism, in The Alchemist the woman, Fatima, is set to wait around for the Shepard to come back for her as if this is her only purpose. She is portrayed as submissive and nothing without a connection to a man, again playing into the classic western narrative of the east. This depiction of women extends past Fatima as all the women in the village are holding the fort and waiting fearfully for their husbands to return from the war on-going.

I believe that these false notions and characterizations are harmful to everyone who encounters it, however, it is arguably most destructive when orientalism in writing and film is targeted toward a European/western audience. It only advances the fabricated representation that is continuously being built upon each time another ill-informed European/America decides to write about or surrounding around “The East”.

Russian Orientalism during the Era of Putin/Invasion of Ukraine

The first geographic areas that generally come to mind when a person is asked about Orientalism are the Middle East and northern Africa. However, I believe that some type of Orientalism exists in any place that is truly unknown to the West, yet plays a large role in Western media. One of these places is Russia, which has similar eastern geography in relation to the West. Westerners stereotypically view Russia as exotic and chaotic, as a tundra of mystery. Negative opinions of Russian in American culture regardless of political party began during the later stages of the Cold War, and were amplified when Putin came to power. Americans were already incredibly distrustful of Russia because of the combinations of the stereotypes and negative political views they had caused, and when Ukraine was invaded, most Americans were pushed over the edge.

But maybe this action was to be expected. I am by no means defending Putin; he has been destroying the Russian political system for the past 20 years. But certain actions by the United States may have forced him into a corner.

There have been a series of NATO expansions ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the 2008 summit, two countries that border Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, were welcomed into NATO. Russia most likely felt threatened because the US has been putting military assets in these countries ever since they became part of NATO. These expansions had little strategic value for Americans, and instead agitated Russia. For Putin, invading Ukraine is not a personal but an existential issue of protecting the national security of Russia. The West uniting against him has only confirmed his fears. The only way out of global conflict is to get rid of him now.

Maybe these tonedeaf actions by the western world/America could have been avoided. I wonder if the actions of Americans in power were prompted by disregard of Russian agency. I believe that these actions might have been challenged by the American people if Russian orientalism wasn’t so prominent in American culture.