Orientalism in “The God of Small Things”

“The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy highlights the aftermath of colonization through characters that readers emphasize with. The idea of orientalism is shown in the novel through the character’s beliefs and way of life as well as their relationships with others. The negative impact of this belief is depicted through the perception of characters such as Baby Kochama, Ammu, Velutha, Estha, and Rahel. This results in social and political issues being at the core of the novel which informs readers on the long-lasting effect that orientalism has on the lives of people and their mindsets.

One example of this is Rahel’s relationship with Larry McCaslin. Larry is never able to understand the darkness that Rahel has experienced which results in him not being able to connect with her. This is evident when Larry does not understand a certain look of Rahel. “He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like the country Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough” (20). This passage is extremely powerful in illustrating the long-lasting consequences of colonization and orientalism. Orientalism has controlled the way of life and the values of those around Rahel which has caused a lot of destruction. Larry as an American has never experienced the power of history and the repercussions of colonization. While Roy portrays the damage caused by an orientalist mindset, she also sheds light on the misinformation of the east that is portrayed in western media and the false beliefs that form as a result.

The Cost of Living

The concluding chapter of The God of Small Things is possibly one of the best last chapter of a book I have ever read. It did a really good job of fully wrapping up the full meaning of the book and what/who the good of small things really is. The chapter starts off with Velutha and Ammu meeting up and sharing an intimate moment with each other. They are simply just enjoying each others presence and trying to live in the current moment with the joy they feel together. While they spent time together they “instinctively stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things.”(320) This is such a powerful line and honestly sums up the entire book. Ammu and Velutha can’t be together and they know that so instead of dwelling on that and only thinking about that, they choose not to and I think that is super significant. They can’t be anything together and they beat that by just enjoying each other and letting that be enough. While spending time together, they decided to focus of “ant-bites on each other’s bottoms” and “the pair of small fish that always sought Velutha out in the river and bit him” While these things obviously don’t matter, it calms them to focus on little things. Sometimes, when you can’t control the big things it is easier to focus on the small things that you can control. The last chapter fully wraps up the full meaning of the book and the reason Velutha is The God of Small Things.

Bathroom Buddies

The novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy exhibits some tendencies of the twins, Rahel and Estha, through a particularly unique scene of the Ipe family at the cinema. Before heading to watch the film, the family splits up to go to the restroom, Estha is directed to go alone while Ammu, Baby Kochamma, and Rahel go together. The significance of this passage was more specific to developing and reflecting the traits of the characters which would account for their actions later in the novel. 

When Rahel sets foot into the restroom, Ammu and Baby Kochamma help her to relieve herself by holding her up above the pot. As Rahel is held up by her mother and baby grandaunt they have a little moment of laughter as Ammu is trying to mimic the urinating sound. Then while Baby Kochamma takes her turn Rahel thinks to herself that she “liked all this. Holding the handbag. Everyone pissing in front of everyone. Like friends’’ (91). Rahel values the time she spends with the people she loves although they may disapprove of her. She feels secure in a vulnerable environment with others while Estha, on the other hand, feels, or at least tries to be more comfortable alone. 

When Estha enters the restroom he faces a problem at the urinal, he is too short. He rectifies this issue by organizing some cans he found sitting on the ground in front of the urinal to stand on top of. The book states that Estha “stood on them, one foot on each, and pissed carefully with minimal wobble. Like a Man” (92). Through this action we can see that Estha wants to be seen as more mature and tries to present more grown, physically and mentally. Ammu confirms his act when Estha leaves the restroom to join the women. Ammu states that she “felt a sudden clutch of love for her reserved dignified little son in his beige and pointy shoes, who had just completed his first adult assignment” (93). Ammu is able to feel the matured energy from Estha which can explain why Baby Kochamma saw him as the ‘responsible’ and ‘practical’ twin when he was selected to confirm an identity for the inspector later in the novel.

Altering the Love Laws As We Thought We Knew It

Throughout the novel The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy the topic of caste differences, specifically between Velutha and the Ayemenem house. However, in the last chapter of the novel, we get an in-depth explanation of sex between Velutha and Ammu. From about the middle to the end of the novel the relationship between Ammu and Velutha seemed to be a crime of passion and lust. But with the description of the sex between these two, not only is it the only time in the story where we are told this is happening vividly, but the chapter holds more power than just lust. This chapter contrasts the traditional viewpoints between Touchables and the Untouchables and destroys everything thought of with the Love Laws motif explained throughout the novel, more specifically, who can be loved. In it’s explained, “She could hear the wild hammering of his heart. She help him till it calmed down. Somewhat” (Roy 316). The explanation of Velutha’s heart-pounding somewhat humanizes him, which goes against how he has been characterized before, as an animal. I also find the word choice of the chapter, The Cost of Living, very interesting because it tells the severity of the relationship between Ammu and Velutha. This while chapter not only describes the intimate story between two people but it’s an opposition to the mistreatment and alienation of lower caste people but the true love between Ammu and Velutha, far beyond what Baby Kochamma — who could not believe that Ammu would even allow this to happen— thought of their relationship.

Orientalism in Our Lives …

When I was first reading about orientalism I had never heard about it specifically. I knew about the idea but I was still very confused about why and how it comes across. It is in a way stereotypes mixed with racism mixed with a Eurocentric attitude.

When I was thinking back to my own life and how it influenced me at young age. Orientalism has been present in the media that surrounds me since a young age. Even Disney movies pushing this view. When you see costumes or superheros who are written by Westerners especially recently with the push for more diversity. They attempt to be inclusive and sometimes succeed, but still end up falling short. Even halloween costumes that portray a belly dancer or a general asian costume with no attention to the difference in cultures.

Orientalism is all around us and affect us all even on a daily basis, and the media is a large part of that. When everything was happening with ISIS or the affect effect of 9/11. The media was inadvertently (or on purpose) trying to make Americans believe that everyone that came from that region was bad. Even with the coronavirus we have a president crossing out corona and calling it the chinese virus. Which messes with people’s heads to make them think anyone of Asian origin has it.

Orientalism runs deep in our society and everyone has either seen it in action or been subjected to it. While I was learning about it the implications and the history it has is enormous and crazy how much of an impact it has had on our society.

The Profitability of Suffering

In Chapter 3 on page 85, there is a passage that intrigues me. The passage begins with a description of Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria watching a man sing on a show called The Best of Donahue. The audience is shown a video of him singing in a subway where he keeps getting interrupted by the passing trains. Then the video ends and the man is revealed to be on the stage and begins to play. Roy says of the man: “He was ragged as a rock star, but his missing teeth and the unhealthy pallor of his skin spoke eloquently of a life of privation and despair” (85). The moment that the man is able to achieve his dream of singing on the show is no doubt supposed to be a moment that warms the audience’s heart (and it did if their compassionate clapping is any indication), but Roy does not let the book audience take such a rosy view. She says, “It had been his [the man] dream to sing on the Donahue show, he said, not realizing that he had just been robbed of that show too” (85).

This moment made me think, and thinking about it made me uncomfortable. Particularly the line “The studio audience clapped and looked compassionate”(85) annoyed me. How compassionate were they really? Couldn’t they see what Roy had pointed out? That the man had been interrupted yet again, not allowed to have more than a few seconds basking in the glory of his dream before it was snatched away uncompleted? Then I realized that no they couldn’t. They, just like the man, were caught up in how good the moment felt and completely missed it!

They didn’t see the way the man was being treated like an object. He was given the chance to be on The Best of Donahue, not to show his singing talents as shown by the fact they cut him off, but to give them a sob story. To me, that is a gross perversion of his dream. It is something that people should be repulsed by, and yet they weren’t. They participated in the manipulation of a man’s misfortune for entertainment value and kindness points for Phil Donahue.

If I am being honest though I think the reason they bother me is that, in truth,  I can’t always see what Roy pointed out. It’s easy for me to judge them for not seeing how the man’s misfortune was exploited when the narrator kindly tells me that. Ultimately, that passage made me uncomfortable because it made me wonder how many times had I bought into the manipulation and objectification of another person for entertainment value. I don’t know, I guess I’ll just have to try to pay better attention in the future.

The Secret of Stories

At the beginning of Chapter 12, while Rahel is at the temple Roy’s words stood out to me about the “secret” formula of stories. While being home I have been watching a lot of movies that my parents liked to watch in the 80’s and around that time. Roy describes the Power of Stories and why people choose to rewatch a movie or reread a specific book even after multiple years, and they still enjoy it as much as they did the first time.

The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. (218)

While the first part of the quote may seem unimportant at first, this is exactly the reason books or movies continue to be popular even though it has been years since they came out and are labeled “classics.” But the second part of the quote is what really ties it all together.

They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. (218)

This was giving me flashbacks to the beginning of the year when we talked about the power of stories, which I think especially is true with God of Small Things. The language and the characters are “fresh and different” the book is something different and has a different feeling when you read it. I think something that makes this book so enjoyable is because the book from the beginning is familiar and easy to enjoy. It doesn’t require a lot of deep thinking, but is still able to communicate a deeper meaning. Overall, this quote really made me think about all of the books and even movies that I reread and rewatch and the reason I keep doing it even though I already know everything that happens.

A Feminist Look at GOST: The Power of Female Characters

I recently read this paper about feminism within GOST and thought this sentence summed up my thoughts perfectly: “The God of Small Things portrays the truthful picture of the plight of Indian women, their great suffering, cares and anxieties, their humble submission, persecution and undeserved humiliation in male dominating society.” (article here!) As a reader we get to see the unique experiences of being a woman in 20th century India, a time when women had little autonomy and faced the prospect of arranged marriages and were essentially barred from receiving education. We also get this window into severely abusive relationships. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve read so far have been about Ammu’s and Mammachi’s experiences with abusive and controlling husbands.

I specifically like that Roy gives female characters a sense of agency even in a deeply patriarchal society; Ammu chooses who to marry, when to leave the marriage, and reclaims her life, and Mammachi runs a successful company on her own. Even after reading these last few chapters, my favorite passage is still when Ammu’s background is described. To me, this remains one of the most powerful scenes and is laced with a lot of great feminist discourse. In describing Ammu’s wedding, Roy writes:

“Ammu had an elaborate Calcutta wedding. Later, looking back on the day, Ammu realized that the slightly feverish glitter in her bridegroom’s eyes had not been love, or even excitement at the prospect of carnal bliss, but approximately eight large pegs of whiskey. Straight. Neat”.


In class we talked about how these lines are the kind that stay with you for the entirety of the book. This is an especially powerful moment because Roy builds up the excitement of a wedding and young love, and then completely subverts expectations all in two sentences. A page before Roy wrote, “…in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had one chance. She made a mistake. She married the wrong man” (38). This entire scene functions to emphasize Ammu’s struggle for independence. In what she thought was an act of independence- running away to marry a man her parents disapproved of- was instead an entry-way into an abusive marriage. Ammu’s realization is even more hard-hitting because of Roy’s syntax. She employs many stand-alone paragraphs and one-word sentences like “Straight” and “Neat”. Her writing style emulates how heavy and tragic Ammu’s past was, making this scene even more powerful.

As I touched on earlier though, what I appreciate with the story is that Roy gives these female characters autonomy. After bearing the brunt of male domination-from her father denying her education, to marrying an abusive husband, to raising kids alone- Ammu reclaims her body. In another powerful paragraph Roy beautifully writes: 

“Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divoree-hood”


The phrase “liquid ache” combined with words like “witch”, “restless”, and “untamed” evoke this sense of female liberation. Ammu is further described as wearing flowers in her hair and taking midnight swims. She is also described as having this deep, almost insatiable, love for her children and having this sporadic energy that mirrors the women’s liberation movement in the 70s. Moreover, I think all of the female characters in GOST play such a pivotal role in defining the common female experience. Over four generations, we see a lot of similarities with all of these characters, but we also get to see their individual agency and yearn for happiness in a patriarchal society.