The God of Small Things
By ARUNDHATI ROY
PARADISE PICKLES & PRESERVES
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.
It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway.
The house itself looked empty. The doors and windows were locked. The front verandah bare. Unfurnished. But the skyblue Plymouth with chrome tailfins was still parked outside, and inside, Baby Kochamma was still alive.
She was Rahel's baby grandaunt, her grandfather's younger sister. Her name was really Navomi, Navomi Ipe, but everybody called her Baby. She became Baby Kochamma when she was old enough to be an aunt. Rahel hadn't come to see her, though. Neither niece nor baby grandaunt labored under any illusions on that account. Rahel had come to see her brother, Estha. They were two-egg twins. "Dizygotic" doctors called them. Born from separate but simultaneously fertilized eggs. Estha--Esthappen--was the older by eighteen minutes.
They never did look much like each other, Estha and Rahel, and even when they were thin-armed children, flat-chasted, wormridden and Elvis Presley-puffed, there was none of the usual "Who is who?" and "Which is which?" from oversmiling relatives or the Syrian Orthodox bishops who frequently visited the Ayemenem House for donations.
The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place.
In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream.
She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
She remembers, for instance (though she hadn't been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches--Estha's sandwiches, that Estha ate--on the Madras Mail to Madras.
And these are only the small things.
(C) 1997 Arundhati Roy All Rights Reserved ISBN:0-679-45731-3
"Recipe" based on observation of first page of The God of Small Things:
1) Begin with months, contrasting second with first.
a) Use precise location-specific imagery: plants, animals, topography.
b) Strive for poetic richness of sound and texture of language.
c) Simple syntax, hard-edged words.
2) Shift to main character on a specific day, what s/he is doing.
a) Share thoughts/memories of character.
b) Suggest unique dilemma or situation the character is facing.
Writing based on the recipe:
Late September in New England is like a pane of polished glass: shimmering and clear and transparent. In the mornings the air is cool and crisp, but gains density in the early afternoon, when the sun's rays play down on the village greens, the red-brick Victorian houses that watch over the streets like maiden aunties. Oaks and maples blaze orange and red. High school soccer players begin their games sweating in the heat of the midafternoon sun, but by the middle of the second half the sun's rays fall nearly horizontal, half the field is in darkness, and the air is chilly and raw.
By late October, the sunlight is no longer warm. The trees stand bare, branches reaching like skinny fingers begging forgiveness from a remote, grey-white sky, empty except for the occasional flock of birds high overhead beating their way south for the winter. Squirrels rustle among the brown leaves beneath the barren oaks, stashing acorns away against six months of snow to come.
Out behind his house on Pleasant Street, George Sykes stands between the pile of logs he has already split and the larger pile of logs - it is, in fact, over his head - waiting for him. He has loosened the buttons on his red-plaid wool shirt, and he reaches up with his forearm to wipe the sweat that keeps dripping from his bald head, streaking the bottlethick glasses he wears even when he works. He sees his wife Sylvia watching from the window of the house, and he gives her a little wave. Then he picks up the sledge hammmer, taps a wedge into place on the top of the log he has just upended. Raising the sledge over his shoulders, he brings it down hard and with great precision on the head of the wedge, and the log splits evenly in half. George reaches down, trying to ignore the spasm of pain in his lower back as he does so, and stands one of the split halves on its end, taps the wedge into place, and swings again.
This stack of wood will have to be split and stacked under a plastic tarp before the end of next week, or there will not be enough wood for the stove in the kitchen to last through the winter. If he runs out, he'll have to buy fuel oil for the furnace, and he can't afford to pay what they're asking for fuel oil these days. Over the last two years they have had to take George Junior to one doctor after another. The money in their bank account has melted away; now there's nothing left.
George looks up over the pine trees at the sun sliding down toward the horizon. He bends over to pick up another log. Got to finish. There's not much time left.
This exercise worked well for me. I found it interesting that the character seemed to emerge from the landscape. When I began writing, all I had in mind was the first step from my recipe: to describe a particular place at a particular time. I selected fall in New England because it was a time and a place I am very familiar with, and I figured I'd be able to use a specific vocabulary because the sensations were already in my memory.
After I completed the first two paragraphs, the recipe dictated that I had to introduce a character into this landscape. The one that popped into my mind as I sat at the computer was George Sykes, who is in fact a real person. He was my next-door neighbor for the last six years I lived in Massachusetts, an aging ex-Marine who does in fact split his own wood during the fall. We both enjoyed yard work and we often would stop and talk when we saw each other outside. It wasn't hard for me try to put myself inside his mind as he worked, watching the sun go down.
The resulting piece of writing surprised me. I haven't written anything like this before, and if I had not been doing the exercise I would not have written it at all. It occurred to me as I was writing about George watching the sun go down that this piece of writing was emerging as a kind of meditation on vulnerability and mortality, which is something I having been thinking a lot about lately. Just yesterday, before I even thought of starting this exercise, I had been writing an essay about something fairly scary that had happened to our family on Friday, and how that connected with some of the even scarier threats that are dominating the news these days: the threat of further terrorist attacks, the likelihood of war with Iraq, the increasing probability that some day soon we will wake up as we did on September 11 and find the world changed irrevocably.
I suppose it's inevitable that these themes would emerge when I sat down to write. My students often seem to assume that writers start with themes and write stories to illustrate them. This writing exercise confirms for me the truth of what I have often tried to convince them: that the themes emerge - often in a wholly unplanned way - from the writing, and not vice versa. I sat down to write, and what my subconscious mind - or whatever you call that part of the brain that pushes the words up when one writes - led me toward was a dramatization of a set of concerns that were already present, in a different form, in my head. I didn't plan to write about them, but what I wrote was of course connected to who I am and what is on my mind at this moment.
The model I was working from was the first page of a novel. I don't know if I will have the perseverance to stick with this story until it becomes a novel, but I feel like I have something here which is worth pushing further. What's going to happen to George? What's wrong with George Junior? What are the dynamics of this family's life? What challenges will the oncoming winter present to George? How will he handle them? Will he live to see another spring? The only way I'll be able to find out the answers to these questions is to write my way through them.