A full understanding of and appreciation for Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things requires that the reader be well acquainted with the land and culture through which Roy weaves her tale. Roy achieves the rich descriptive texture and vivid imagery of her novel by writing about something with which she is intimately familiar. By gaining knowledge about Kerala, the reader obtains the means by which to sense the passion that Roy feels for her homeland and her story.
Geography, Climate, & Economy
Kerala lies on the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula, stretching 360 miles along what is known as the Malabar coast. Its area of 15,000 square miles comprises just over one percent of the total land area of India, though its 29 million person population accounts for 3.5% of the Indian population. The state is bordered by Karnataka to the north and Tamil Nadu to the east, but Kerala is physically separated from neighboring states by the Western Ghat mountain range; this feature isolated Kerala from other Indian cultures for many years, and as a result allowed it to develop a society in which foreign culture is actually more evident than is the Indian influence (see Languages of South Asia).
Because of its proximity to the Arabian Sea, Kerala is the first state each season to receive the monsoon rains, which contribute significantly to the 118 inches of annual rainfall. Most of Kerala’s innumerable rivers and backwaters are almost entirely monsoon fed, meaning they fluctuate in size from small rivulets in the summer to almost overwhelming volumes in the rainy season. It is during the monsoon rains that young Sophie Mol in The God of Small Things is taken to her death by the high, swift waters of a deceptively powerful river. Heavy rains also contribute to the agriculture which forms the basis for most of the economy of Kerala and surrounding states. The Keralan spice trade dates back over three thousand years, and Kerala is still among the world leaders in the production and export of such spices as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and turmeric (Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is partly located in Kerala; the Da Gama/Zogoiby family’s fortune comes from trade in spice).
Roy centers her story around the region of Kottayam, in the highlands of Kerala. The agriculture of this region is dominated by the production of coffee, tea, and rubber; it is a rubber plantation which the “history house” is situated, and where Velutha is first sheltered and finally destroyed.
Though English is spoken in much of Kerala, Malayalam is by far the principal language: it is spoken by a full 96 percent of the population of Kerala, as well as four percent of the population of India. Malayalam ranks eighth among the fifteen major Indian languages in total number of speakers. The language originated from Sanskrit and Tamil, but has evolved greatly with the influx of various foreign cultures and languages into Keralan society. Malayalam now includes literally hundreds of words and idiomatic expressions taken from languages such as English, Syriac, Latin,and Portuguese. Not only is Malayalam widely spoken, but it and other languages are also quite heavily read in Kerala; the state boasts a literacy rate of between 90 and 100 percent. Knowledge of that fact may make the phenomenal reading and writing abilities of young Estha and Rahel seem slightly more conceivable to a skeptical reader of Roy’s story.
The Marxist sentiments portrayed in The God of Small Things are in some ways representative of the actual political climate of Kerala. In 1957 Kerala became the first state in the world (with the exception of the Italian principality of San Marino) to form a democratically elected communist government. In 1970, Kerala became the first state in India to abolish landlordism. Kerala is presently a democratic state, and is still under Marxist control (see Communism in India).
History, Religion, & Society
The political state of Kerala was formed on November 1st, 1956 with the joining of the Travancore-Cochin State and Malabar. However, Hindu mythology places the date much earlier; it contends that once, many thousands of years ago, the god Vishnu descended to earth in the form of his sixth incarnation, Parashurama, in order to slay evil demons. After he battled the demons, Parashurama flung his axe into the Arabian Sea, and where it landed, Kerala arose from the depths of the ocean. Hinduism is strong in Kerala, as it is throughout India, but in Kerala, Hinduism has long been accompanied by several other world religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
The Syrian Christian faith practiced by Ammu and her family was begun in 52 AD when St. Thomas brought Christianity to Kerala. Jews migrated to Kerala even earlier, perhaps arriving from Jerusalem as early as 587 BC. About sixty percent of the Keralan population is currently Hindu, with Christians and Muslims making up most of the remaining forty percent; small pockets of Jewish communities still exist in certain parts, including the town of Kochi and surrounding areas. One of the most apparent indications of the Hindu influence in Kerala is the prevalence and importance of the caste system in Keralan society. Though caste was originally present only in Hinduism, it was adopted and internalized by other religions as they began to appear in Kerala; caste has now become more of a social phenomenon than a religious convention in Kerala. The extreme importance of caste in the Syrian Christian society is apparent in the profound power that it holds over the actions of such characters as Mammachi and Baby Kochamma.
- Aiyappan, A. The Personality of Kerala. Trivandrum: The University of Kerala, 1982.
- Bumiller, Elisabeth. “First Novel About India Gets Writer a Date in Court.” The New York Times. 29 July 1997. Web .5 November 1997.
- Gopal, Vipin. “Kerala: God’s Own Land!” 1995. Web. 5 November 1997. <www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/usr/vipin/www/mal.html>
- “Kerala: God’s Own Country.” 1997. Web.5 November 1997. <www.kerala.com>
- Menon, Dilip M. Caste, Nationalism and Communism in South India. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.
- Varghese, James. “Kerala Connection.” 1997. Web. 5 November 1997. <www.kerala.com>
Works to Consult
- Anderson, Leona M. and Pamela Dickey Young. Women & religious traditions. Don Mills, Ont. ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Jeffrey, Robin. Politics, women and well-being : How Kerala became a “model”. Basingstoke : Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1992.
- Raman Ravi K. Development, democracy and the state : critiquing the Kerala model of development. New York : Routledge, 2010.
- Robinson, Rowena and Sathianathan Clarke. Religious conversion in India : modes, motivations, and meanings. Delhi: Oxford University Press 2003
- Zachariah, K. C. and S. Irudaya Rajan. Migration and development : the Kerala experience. Delhi : Daanish Books, 2009.
A Gateway to Kerala Cyber Resources
An Overview of Malayalam
Author: Charley Coffey, Fall 1997
Last Updated: October 2017