REVIEW OF THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS…by Arundhati Roy

In my first attempt at reading this remarkable book, I failed to capture the essence of he story. Perhaps this is because it has so many calamities, and they assail the reader relentlessly until the end. But once the reader understands how to read the book, she is held in thrall by its beauty, with every word a pearl, as it soars beyond the sublime.

The story begins with the return of 31-year old Rahel Kochamma to her home, Ayemenem House, in Kerala. The house seemed deserted and was in total disrepair. The only signs of life besides her great-aunt Baby Kochamma, who was contentedly ensconced in front of a new television set, were the bullfrogs and a rattle-snake.

Rahel came back to Ayemenem to see her twin brother, Estha. The two were once inseparable but had been torn apart for almost 25 years ever since the tragedy of 1969, when their cousin Sophie Mol, who was visiting with her mother from London, drowned in the river. The death of Sophie Mol is the ‘major thing’: the ‘major thing’ among many smaller things that lead to the family’s ruin.

The twins were raised in Ayemenem House: once a beautiful home and the property of their grandfather (papachi), and their grandmother, (mamachi). Ammu, their mother, was papachiand mamachi’s only daughter. Mamachi’s head is scarred and dented because of her husband’s beatings. Ammu’s brother, Chako, who was Sophie Mol’s father, studied in London where he met and married an English woman, Margaret: the mother of Sophie Mol.

When Margaret divorced Chako he returned home, and for a while he ran the family’s Pickle Factory. As he flirted with women and communism, the family business slowly plummeted to the ground. After the death of Margaret’s second husband, Joe, Chako invited her and Sophie to spend time with his family at Ayemenem House.The other character, who contributes to the foul air in the family and the bleakness of the story, is Baby Kochamma, papachi’s spiteful and lying younger sister.

Ammu, sick of her father’s violent temper, left home for Calcutta where she met and married, Babu: an alcoholic, and like papachi, physically abusive. When the abuse affected her children, Ammu divorced him and went back to Ayemenem House. Consequently, Ammu’s status with her own family is uncertain because of her marital disgrace. Even her children, the twins, feel unloved by their grandparents.

The other major character in the story is Velutha, ‘which means White in Malayalam-because he is black’. He is of low caste. In Ayemenem House, his kind was not allowed to touch anything ‘Touchables’ touched. Mammachi knew a time when Velutha’s kind ‘were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that’ others would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into their footprints.

This is the man that Mammachi’s daughter, Ammu, falls in love with. Velutha gave Ammu the affection she never enjoyed, and was to the twins the father they never had. Ammu’s affair with a low caste Hindu was the spark that finally ignited the tragic events in the story: the death of Sophie Mol when the twins were 7 years old.

We finally hear, somewhere in the middle of the story, about the events that led of Sophie Mol’s death. First, Velutha’s father comes to Mammachi’s door and offers to kill his son with his bare hands for having an affair with Ammu. Mamachi responded to this with rage as she imagined Velutha’scoarse black hand’ on her daughter’s body, and ‘his mouth on hers’. Velutha is fired from Ayemenem House, and banished from the property on pain of death.

The narration of Sophie Mol’s actual death is short. She is now visiting her father, Chako, with her mother. She is staying with his family in Ayehem House. She joined the twins as they ran away after Ammu had insulted them. After their boat capsized in the river, Sophie Mol drowned, and the twins, ‘who could swim like seals’, survived. The twins remained in hiding following the accident fearing their family’s wrath.

The next morning the police arrested Velutha. They beat him nearly to death on suspicion of kidnapping the twins and sexually molesting Ammu. This was the version of events given to them by Baby Kochamma. In this way, she believed, they could finally erase the stain on their family brought about by the affair.

Then Estha is pressured by his grand-aunt, Baby Kochamma, into saying Velutha is guilty of kidnapping him and Rahel, and he complied. After that, the family evicted Ammu from the house and forced Estha to go and live with Babu, his father. With the death of their cousin, the twins’ childhood was aborted, their family splintered, and an innocent man was tortured to death in prison.

Much as the few hours leading to Sophie Mol’s death changed the twins’ entire lives, tragedy had been looming before they were even born. The Kochamma family is like a military force bent on self-destruction. They are most brutal and savage when dealing with each other. One of the books’ many tragedies is that what it depicts seethes on in many families not only in Kerala, but all over the world.

Mammachi’s dented and scarred head is the symbol of the horrors and decline of the Kochamma family. Its children are doomed early in their lives. They are haunted by the death of their English and white cousin. Even in life, Sophie Mol’s presence tormented them because of her fair skin. Her colour and western manners made the twins feel inferior.

Twenty five years after her death, like the albino whale in Moby Dick that could not be slain, Sophie Mol still had a hold on them. It is as if, though the twins were alive, they had drowned with her. One wonders what really happened that fateful day. Was Sophie Mol’s death an accident, or was it something else?

Rahel came back home after a failed marriage in America. It is as if her former husband was repelled by the presence of a third party in their union: a bobbing, swollen and wrinkled ghost. Estha returned to Ayemenem House because his father had gone away. Their lives were marked by a litany of painful separations. The twins, now adults and in search for solace and even love, end up in bed together.

My passion for The God of Small things is so strong that I have read it several times, and with each read a new and painful theme is revealed in a manner not dissimilar to the dirty river in Kerala that spewed out Sophie Mol: bloated ‘like a phantom in an empty auditorium’.

One wonders why Arundhati Roy never followed up this masterpiece with another book. Her novel speaks the most harrowing truth about the power of evil. It is strident in its abhorrence of hatefulness and prejudice. I am certain very few debut novelists have given the world a book as memorable as The God of Small Things.

 

REVIEW OF BRING UP THE BODIES…by Hilary Mantel.

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is an elegant and gripping masterpiece. It vividly brings to life sixteenth century England: the vice and virtue, the clash of interests between the church and the state, the salacious and often deadly palace intrigue.

It is now 1535, and Thomas Cromwell is Hilary Mantel’s main protagonist. Thanks to him, the pious scholar, Sir Thomas More was sent to the tower. Although Thomas Cromwell cannot think of dying men without this mind straying to ‘the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the rain: his body already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe.’ And thanks to Cromwell the 20-year marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon has ended.

The king is now unhappily married to Anne Boleyn. Once again the queen, as history ominously repeated itself, cannot give Henry a male heir. Whenever a son was born, death followed within a few days of birth. Like the first queen, Anne Boleyn, gave the king a daughter, Elizabeth. But at the time, a queen on the throne of England was unthinkable. Henry was frustrated and angry: though powerful enough to create the Church of England, he could not put a male child in his queen’s belly.

Gossip was also rife of Anne Boleyn’s wantonness. Henry believed that there was some flaw in his second marriage and that because of it he was made to suffer the wrath of God. He looks to Thomas Cromwell to erase his second marriage to unfaithful Anne while he turns his lecherous eyes to Jane Seymour. Whenever Henry wanted someone stricken, he knew which of his subjects to turn to, and Cromwell as always rose to the occasion. Once again, as with Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell fixes his mind on the complete destruction of the king’s enemy.

When one of his lackeys asked if Henry’s freedom from his wife can be obtained with ‘less bloodshed’, he answers: ‘once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.’

He manages with both guile and cruelty to extract a ‘confession’ of infidelity with the queen from four men: including the queen’s own brother. As with More, the charge against the king’s enemies was treason. Cromwell’s prey didn’t have a chance. The aim of course was the complete eradication of the queen, Anne Boleyn. One of the men was accused of having secretly married the queen but ‘had forgotten’ about it. Despite their initial protests of innocence, he urges them to confess for the sake of their own wives and families since the king ‘never extends his animosity to widows.’

The men, fearing for their families, and knowing there was no escape from a charge invented by Cromwell, did just that. Thus the end of Henry’s second marriage, like the first, was decided on the scaffold, using a French executioner who first ‘boobs on his knees to ask pardon’ from his victim, before lowering his wretched hatchet. Thomas Cromwell was made a baron for his efforts. The scrapping for the spoils soon followed, with many keen to help themselves to the priviledges and wealth previously accorded to Anne Boleyn, her family and those who waited on them.

The focus of the reader’s attention is of course Thomas Cromwell: a blacksmith’s son who ran away from home to escape his father fists. His role in settling his king’s affairs in so final a fashion is the story. He could take an abominable rumour, turn it inside out, and shape into a believable charge of treason. He would then ‘dig out a jury’, and bully it to a guilty verdict. To gratify his belligerent king, he would not rest until the victim has been marched to the scaffold and beheaded.

The reader struggles to find heroes in this magnificent creation by Hilary Mantel.  Cromwell’s role is the story. Besides his blood thirsty nature, Cromwell has a genius for character analysis. He seemed to have a clear sense of humanity’s attributes and short comings. He knew that by attending to his king’s insatiable and dirty desires, and dishing out patronage to some of his subjects he would not only survive but thrive. This was not a world that he created, but perhaps more than most did his best to cast his line in its trouble waters.

Cromwell surely deserves his wretched reputation as a villain. He is a moral monstrosity. He was very ruthless in pressing his cause, and had the blood of the innocent on his hands. But he was man’s creation and, though deformed, its representative. Perhaps our passions are deeply disturbed by him because we faintly recognise ourselves in his character. You cannot condemn Cromwell without pointing a fierce finger at his king. You cannot hack him down without doing so to the rest of mankind, with its blind and boundless devotion to tyrants. You could not miss the pungent presence of his idolaters who dwelt with him in his abyss, and only lived to loot the wealth of his victims.

The novel is also a reminder at the terrible plight of women. It depicts a world, very similar to ours, where men were praised for their dalliances, and ‘unfaithful Anne’ was executed for simply not giving her husband a male heir. Women had to always bend themselves to the savage ways and seduction of men.

This is the genius, audacity, eloquence and immensity of this sublime book: it is not just about the Tudor world, but it is about life, and it enlarges our consciousness about it.

 

REVIEW OF THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE….JUDITH WALLERSTEIN

This wonderfully researched book examines the lives of children of divorce over a span of twenty-five years. It shows that the challenges for divorced families, especially for the children, are complex and continue to transform society. It states that 45% first marriages break up, that the risk of divorce in second marriages is 60%, and that 25% of people today between ages 18-44 years have divorced parents.

The difficulty of writing this article is that one can only make a few comments on a book and subject, the full consideration of which would take us very far. The first paragraph in the introductory chapter recounts a Sesame Street episode in which Kermit the frog interviews a little bird enquiring where she lived. The bird’s response is that she spends half her time happily playing in her mother’s nest, and the rest of the time frolicking in her father’s nest.

This little story illustrates one of the many assumptions that this book comprehensively dispels. Many parents and policy makers assume that as soon as the marriage is dissolved, and parents attain their freedom from an unhappy union, that their children’s lives will exactly be as they were before. This book destroys this notion, and clearly shows the lasting effects of divorce on the children, and how it later shapes and even ruins their lives.

The book represents the voices of these children. They have now grown up, and some have families of their own. They narrate their difficulties in dealing with the loneliness, anger, depression, drug abuse and even the violence in their own lives that followed the break-up of their families. They talk about the unpleasantness of hopping from one nest to another, often having little choice of how to spend their time, and feeling inferior to children from intact families. They are now forcing society to pay more attention at their interests.The book is written in five parts, like five short stories, with each section demonstrating the very unique challenges encountered by these children.

Part one is about Karen James, a child forced by divorce to be a care-giver early in her life and continued to put the needs of others above her throughout her growing years. Her life is compared to Gary, a child of parents who decided to stay together despite their difficult marriage.

Karen’s father was a successful dermatologist, and her mother worked in a floral shop. She regularly yelled at husband for not paying enough attention to the family. He also barked grievances at her. The situation got worse when Mrs. James lost her mother in an accident. Her husband became the principal target of her anger, as Mrs. James rapidly sunk into depression. Eventually and inevitably their marriage ended in divorce, as they continued their savage feud with their children looking on.

With her father meeting and marrying someone else, Karen’s mother floundered from one relationship to the next. Karen, at a very young age, became a substitute parent for her siblings, and even for her mother. Her own childhood had ended early. She continued this habit of parenting others into her personal relationships: always feeling responsible for the problems of others.

Her story is juxtaposed to that of Gary, who grew up in a home where the parents were unhappy with each other, but toughed it out despite their difficulties. Gary grew up, got married and had a family of his own. His parents had been a model for him of how to keep the family together, their unhappiness with each other notwithstanding.

Part two is about Larry, a child raised in a family blighted by domestic violence, and the rage that tormented his life following the break-up of his parents’ divorce. He is compared to Carol, a young who like him witnessed scenes of parental violence without their breaking up.

Part three is about Paula, who suffered from intense loneliness after the divorce when her mother took up studies and continued to work at the same time. Divorce brought about an economic nightmare for both her parents and her mother to make ends meet had to study and work at the same time. This not only led to the loss of structure in Paula’s life but also the constant presence of one of her parents. She was both fatherless and motherless.

Part four is about Billy, a vulnerable child with special medical needs because he was born with congenital heart disease. Billy’s health made it difficult for him to adapt to the changed family environment. His mother quickly remarried and focused on her new family. His father was pre-occupied with sport and his business. Neither seemed sensitive to the time and attention required for Billy.

Part five is about Lisa, who was raised in a family where every effort was made to ensure harmony. Her parents were determined after the divorce not to worsen their child’s suffering and often co-operated with each other. Lisa’s case leads to the question: Is not fighting enough? Does absence of conflict between divorced parents protect the child from suffering? However even this did not stem Lisa’s rage, even though she seemed to have adapted better than others following her parents’ divorce.

Although her father was apparently happily remarried, there was a vast distance between Lisa and her parents than when her family was intact. She had to adapt to the two families, as she continued to hop from one parent to the other. As she grew from a child to a woman in her thirties, she still harboured fears about marriage.

Her life mirrored those of many children of divorce (40% of them) who decide remain single as adults.  Some of them like Lisa were co-habiting, others hop from one affair to another, and a few led very solitary lives. Lisa’s story illustrates that although the impact of divorce is immediately felt by children, it is in adulthood that they suffer the most: especially when they venture out in search of love.

The book is an eloquent narrative of the aftermath of divorce and seeks to make us understand the long term impact on the children. The authors warn us that though we have a created a world where there is greater freedom for adults that this carries considerable and hidden costs. The authors wisely point out that their book is not a pronouncement against divorce. They are aware of the acute suffering of adults trapped in failed marriages. They are also equally aware that very few adults take the decision to divorce without due consideration.

But they only wish to point out that while divorce may be beneficial to the parents, the consequences for the children are often dire. This book also seeks to assist those who are affected by divorce to rebuild their lives.

This book is also for the policy makers: the judges and a whole array of other stake holders in the legal system: it urges them to pay more attention to the interests of children during and following a divorce. Wisely the authors conclude while it is necessary to improve the post-divorce culture, much more effort must be put in strengthening the institution of marriage.

REVIEW OF A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS…by ROBERT BOLT

Robert Bolt’s book is a timeless classic with profound lessons for the present. Since I first stumbled on it as a schoolboy, I have derived much pleasure from reading and re-reading this book.

Robert Bolt bases his play on the story of the English king, Henry VIII. In 1509, Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Spain, thereby strengthening England’s political alliance with Spain. The pope granted Henry an exemption from Catholic law, thus allowing the marriage between him and Catherine.

However, the couple failed to produce an heir and a male offspring. Henry then sought to have his marriage to Catherine, who ‘was as barren as a brick’, annulled by the Catholic Church to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn with whom he was now in love. Citing, Leviticus 18, he thundered that his marriage was wrong in the eyes God, and the failure to produce a male heir was punishment for this transgression of the church’s scriptures.

Son after so she’s borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within the month; I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything…I have a daughter, she a good child, a well-set child –But I have no son.’

When Pope Clement VII refused to ‘dispense with his dispensation’ and allow the divorce, Henry replaced the pope’s adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, with Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England. The king tried to get his Chancellor’s support for his divorce, but More, despite Henry’s incessant and even desperate exhortations, was violently opposed to it.

 Cromwell’s, Henry’s hatchet man, solution to More’s obstinacy was pressure. He believed that More was just a man, and that every man had a price. So he started gathering whatever information he could find on him. He is the primary plotter against More. He stalks and torments More throughout with glee. One can almost see his smirk as he railed at him:

I charge you with great ingratitude. I remind you of many benefits graciously given and ill received. I tell you that no King of England ever had nor could have so villainous a servant nor so traitorous a subject as yourself.’

Through guile and coercion Cromwell managed to make even members of More’s own household his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Henry passed through legislation to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church in England. When Cranmer authorized Henry’s divorce and remarriage, Henry was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Then in 1534, Parliament enacted the Act of Supremacy, which established Henry as the head of the Church in England, and severed the authority of the pope.

On hearing this, More resigned as the Lord Chancellor. Parliament passed another law, this time requiring subjects to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy in England over the Church and to the validity of his divorce and remarriage. More was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath.

Cromwell had been courting Rich, a Machiavellian character who was blinded by ambition. By giving him the office of Attorney General for Wales in Rich gives false testimony at More’s trial. In the end, More was found guilty of High Treason and sent to the scaffold.

Thomas More is the tragic hero of the story. He was a lawyer of high repute, a staunch Christian and a devout catholic. He was erudite, eloquent and with a fund of wit. He had a great family, with friends in both low and very high places: including the king. His fame is mainly due to the rightness of the principles he pursued, and the sincerity with which he expressed them. It is as if he was aware of his role in English life, and what his actions meant to human history.

Due to his saintliness, his consent for the divorce was necessary for the king. It was as if Henry was tortured by More’s unswerving devotion to principle and virtue: his vice revealed by More’s virtue. While the king believed that his word was law, More not only respected the country’s laws but he also believed that there was a part of himself that he would not allow the king to rule over. This was a sin to Henry, and as was wretchedly commonplace at the time, the wages of defiance was the tower with its blood-stained scaffold.

There are great similarities between Thomas More and Sophocles’ Antigone. Both their characters are symbols of rebellion against a tyrant. Henry VIII and Kreon are embodiments of absolute power that brooked no opposition. We are repelled and even disgusted by their dark designs. If anything, we encourage them as they smash themselves against the rock of justice, and on their walk to annihilation.

More’s and Antigone’s eloquence reveals their rulers’ evil. The threat of death does not sway them from their principles and in obeying God’s laws above man’s malleable laws. They were both not warriors, but the battle they chose to fight was to resist failing the self and their conscience. It is this sublime feature of both their characters that prevents us from pitying them.

From the beginning of the play, the reader can almost smell the terrible fate awaiting More. Yet we accompany him in his doomed journey, not with sadness but awe. We never ask: why does he forsake his life when there is so much in it. We are inspired by his fortitude and marvel at his wisdom. There are other minor characters in the play, weak and wicked men like Rich, Cranmer, and Norfolk. But all their roles are there to enhance that of More.

After More has been found guilty of treason, Cromwell asks him if he had anything to say. ‘To what purpose?’ answers, More.

What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.’

A Man For All Seasons remains a singular work of literature and scholarship, with a magnificent story and characters.