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Another Life

Mélanie Joseph-Vilain
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Rewriting the Archive: Arundhati Roy’s (An)Other Life in The God of Small Things

Priya Menon


This article examines how Arundhati Roy’s training as an archeologist shapes her narrative and thematic concerns in The God of Small Things as she unearths the oppressive ideologies that circulate within the Kerala society. Roy’s attention to the native hegemons of castism and sexism along with contemporary Kerala’s obsession with colonial values provide a counter-archive to the traditional representation of Kerala as utopic. Roy’s counter-archive successfully recovers the subaltern experiences in Kerala and she establishes the validity of these marginal voices through an aesthetic of the ‘fragment’. Roy’s investigation of the monuments that form the ‘sites of action’ of her protagonists’ personal history, the excavation and display of indigenous life styles, and the layered form of her narrative structure help support my claim that Roy’s life and novel offer figures for the archeologist-author’s efforts to probe, unearth and problematize marginal desires.

Texte intégral

Archeology allows the fragmentary nature of the story, against the coerced unity of traditional history. Archeology allows for discontinuity. It allows for layering. It allows for imaginative speculation. Even the wrong headed histories become, rather than narratives of the past, archeological deposits.
Robert Kroetsch

A few dozen hours can affect the outcome of a whole lifetime and when they do, those few dozen hours, like salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.
Arundhati Roy

1Arundhati Roy is simultaneously recognized as an archeologist, architect, political activist, feminist, journalist, screenplay writer, non-fiction writer and a novelist. Roy’s life work has often been studied both individually and collectively within the cultural and socio-political context of its setting. However, there is yet to be an analysis that investigates the influence of her brief career as an archeologist on her writing. In an interview with Maya Jaggi, Roy claims that her previous professions were ‘exercises in limitations’ which helped hone her skills before she began The God of Small Things (Mullaney 2005: 8). Roy is a trained architect and an archeologist. After absconding from her home in Kerala, a state in southeast India, in 1977, Roy joined The New Delhi School of Architecture at the age of eighteen. In the second year of her study there, she received a letter from her family in Kerala asking her not to return home because of what they called her ‘bohemian life style’ (Batra 2009: 2). In 1971, while working as a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, Roy won an Italian fellowship in Archeology to go to Florence for eight months in order to study restoration of monuments. Roy’s particular area of study in Florence focused on ‘the restoration of historical urban centers’ (Prasad 2005: 4). According to Prasad, Roy was critical of her study of archeology as she became aware of the ‘terrible damages’ that could be done by unethical practices of the discipline (4). Prasad claims that Roy returned from Italy ‘grimly determined to restore neither monuments nor Historic Urban Centers’ (5). More importantly, however, Roy claims that she realized during her tenure in Italy that she wanted to be a writer. In an interview, Roy says that she wrote to her husband, Pradeep Krishen, from Italy, and kept copies of those letters so that it would later encourage him to ask her to be a writer (Sanghvi: 2006). According to Batra, it was in Italy that Roy realized that ‘her real calling was writing’ (3). Actually, Roy has claimed that ‘ever since as a child I knew that people had to do things when they grew up, I knew I wanted to be a writer in Italy while studying archeology’ (3). Critics and scholars have overlooked the importance of the impact that archeology has had on Roy’s writing as evidenced by the lack of material in academia on the nature of her study of archeology in Florence. In fact, even a cursory examination will produce proof of an influence of archeology on Roy’s writings. For example, a chapter in Roy’s recent book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to the Empire, has a clear allusion to archeology. The chapter discusses the Kashmir situation in India and is entitled ‘How deep shall we dig?’ In another instance, this time in an interview, Roy calls upon the archeologist directly as she discusses authorial presence in any text: ‘a person who conceals his or her identity is no more objective than a person who reveals it. Any clued-in archeologist should know that’ (Roy 2008: 17). In The God of Small Things, Roy’s protagonist, Rahel, like an archeologist, attempts to restore and sieve through the buried remains of her existing life in order to reconstruct a narrative of her family’s past history. In the process, Rahel also succeeds in making visible a wider pattern of organizations and interpretations through which her contemporary society functions. No doubt, the issues and themes that Roy discusses in The God of Small Things are intensely complex, personal, and bear semblance to the marginal voices tucked away in the archives of Kerala history. These marginal voices belong to subjects that are oppressed based on caste segregation, sexism, political violence and the colonial past. In this article, I study the relationship between Roy’s professional life as an archeologist and her career as an author. Can Roy’s concern with the way contemporary Kerala society orders, classifies, and categorizes things and her ability to view this structuring through the lens of archeology be attributed to her training in this field? How does the knowledge of Roy as an archeologist change our reading of The God of Small Things? Does her ‘new life’ as an author contain traces of her ‘previous life’ as an archeologist? Do the interpretative, historical and methodological elements of the profession/discipline of archeology bleed into Roy’s writing? If so, what does Roy’s archeology help achieve for the author and her audience?

  • 1 Caste can be roughly defined as a hierarchical socio-religious ranking often associated with an occ (...)

2 A critical examination of Roy’s previous career as an archeologist, as it shapes her writing, is bound to produce edifying results that showcase the symbiotic relationship between the two. Archeology as a discipline with its own intellectual framework and its own methodologies invites analysis within the postcolonial context in which Roy sets her novel, The God of Small Things. According to Matthew Liebmann and Uzma Z. Rizvi, in Archeology and the Postcolonial Critique, the discipline of archeology intersects with Postcolonial studies in three distinct ways: 1) ‘interpretively, ’ in the exploration of the past through the ‘archeological record; ’ 2) ‘historically, ’ in archeology’s role in the ‘construction and deconstruction of discourses; ’ and 3) ‘methodologically, ’ as an ‘aid to the decolonization of the discipline’ (4). I argue here that The God of Small Things examines Kerala as an archive and convincingly demonstrates the influence that the discipline of archeology has had on its author. First, I focus on Roy’s attempt to critique the historic projection of Kerala as utopic in mainstream representations. I examine Roy’s study of native oppressions in Kerala, especially the caste system,1 whereby she not only examines the structures of hegemonic discourses (the archive) of Kerala but also offers her view on how her characters interact with these repressive ideologies. Roy’s interpretive goal is to reclaim and recover the inaudible/invisible presences and voices/life experiences of the subaltern from the archive of hegemonic social practices of Kerala that include the inequalities of caste, sexism and the colonial past. Second, I attempt to explore how Roy’s archeological methodology provides a ‘counter-archive, ’ one that establishes the validity of the subaltern experience—found especially in the native figure of Velutha— to postcolonial Kerala’s anglophile values. Finally, I argue that the architectonic structure of Roy’s plot—the organization of its telling and retelling—adumbrates her critique of the production of historiographic knowledge as it omits the lives of the subaltern. The recovery of the subaltern voices and the establishment of their validity in Roy’s ‘counter-archive’ are expressed stylistically through an aesthetic of the ‘fragment’, at the level both of the sentence and of chronological, narrative structure. For me, Roy’s life and novel offer figures for the archeologist-author’s efforts to probe, excavate and even complicate marginal desires.

3In the Archeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault uses the discipline of archeology as a trope to elaborate his own theory of the archive by discarding the usual definition of the archive as an establishment that holds historical documents. For Foucault, the archive is ‘the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements and events’ (Foucault 1972: 32). More precisely, the archive is what organizes and hierarchizes statements and events in our historical memory. Nowadays, an archive has come to signify not only physical collections of documents and cultural artifacts but, as Adalaine Holton claims, the archive is also the ‘repository of memories and knowledge, as well as the practice of remembering, forgetting, and cataloging memories and events of the past’ (225). For Roy, Kerala functions as a Foucauldian-archive wherein the discourse of oppression is conditioned by the way its society is structured and the way its laws and codes are employed. In The God of Small Things Roy utilizes an archeology that is critical of the various rules of domination encoded within the social matrix of Kerala. Roy’s text revolves around the resistance and the resultant tragedy that unfolds when one transgresses what she calls the ‘love laws’ that dictate ‘who should be loved and how much’ (205). It is precisely these laws—‘laws of what can be said’, that Michel Foucault defines as ‘the archive’ in his groundbreaking work, The Archeology of Knowledge (128). Subjects who defy the codes of these laws are stamped as disobedient and treated as anathema; and as Roy’s text illuminates, the spectacularization of the punishment serves to ‘inoculate the whole community against an outbreak’ of future defiance (293). For instance, the upper caste, but divorced, Ammu is as socially ostracized as the outcaste Velutha, who is tortured and killed in Police custody because he dares to love Ammu. Thus, Roy’s critique of the Kerala-archive exposes its complex and unequal social structure.

4Roy and her novel gained a cult-like following after she won the Booker Prize in October 1997. However, the scale of the novel’s global success was not immediately reciprocated back home in Kerala. Roy claims that Kerala’s powerful elite has manifested an ambivalent reaction to her book; that at once ‘they want to embrace [her] and to say that this is "our" woman, and yet they don’t want to address what the book is about, which is their society and its intrinsic, callous brutality’ (Roy 2008: 35). Roy’s text is set in the village of Ayemenem, located in the Kottayam district of Kerala. While Kerala, one of India’s premier states, shares many characteristics with other metropolitan areas of the north, as an urban formation and place, it has a peculiar history and configuration that has shaped its economic, cultural, social, and political loyalties. In the recent past, Kerala has received national and international attention for its successful performance in key areas of human development, particularly education, health, and social welfare measures. Not long ago, Amartya Sen—eminent philosopher and Nobel economist—placed Kerala on a pedestal when he privileged its unique position among the so-called Third World countries. Sen claims of India that

in respect of certain variables like average levels of literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, etc., conditions in India are enormously adverse compared with China, and yet in all these respects, Kerala does significantly better than China. (Kuriyan 1995: 70)

  • 2 Kerala is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India and is fondly referred to by media (...)
  • 3 A Keralan is a person native to Kerala.

5 Kerala’s unique geography, cocooned by the Vindhya Ranges and the Arabian Sea, provides for the state’s enchanting stretch of backwaters, monsoons, and lush greenery that has earned her the moniker of being god’s own country.2 Such a utopic representation of Kerala, usually based on geography, statistics and results from random samplings of data, often ignores real-life conditions and differences within the group, and as such must be questioned. The God of Small Things tells the story of the Ipe family through the eyes of Rahel, as she realizes that their lives have been primarily controlled by and subjected to Kerala’s hegemonic archive, that include an extreme case of castist segregation. Caste articulates itself in every dimension of a contemporary Keralan’s3 existence. In an article entitled ‘The Colonization of Knowledge, ’ Roy asserts the existence of the continuous caste oppression in Kerala: ‘even among the Syrian Christians—who are the oldest, most orthodox Christians in India— you have caste issues. If you look to the communist parties, most of their leaders are from the upper caste’ (Roy 2008: 31). Roy’s text notes that the caste system is one of the major principles behind power divisions in Kerala. Outcastes like Velutha and Vallya Pappan undergo the most inhuman treatment in the novel. Pappachi would not allow outcastes into the house while Mammachi recalls a time when outcaste Paravans ‘were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their foot print so that the Brahmins would not defile themselves by accidently stepping into a Paravan’s footprint’ (73). Roy reveals that Velutha suffers segregation in all walks of life: the touchable workers at Paradise Pickles sniff at him because ‘according to them, Paravans were not meant to be carpenters’, police inspector Thomas Matthew and ‘the crusader of the Oppressed’ Comrade K.N.M. Pillai willfully shake hands with each other to favor Baby Kochamma, merely for the reason that all of them are touchable and Velutha is an outcast (73). Roy’s novel is also spun on the fabric of the gender stratification that Kerala has faced for several centuries. Mammachi, Ammu, Baby Kochamma, and Rahel depict the fate of women in Kerala. Mammachi’s profitable pickle-making job earns Pappachi’s jealous frowns instead of favor as ‘every night he beat her with a brass flower vase’ (47). Ammu is a victim to her husband’s routine drunken violence and to Chacko, who ensures that she has no legal claim to the family property. Ironically, Comrade Pillai pronounces the predicament of divorced women in Kerala as ‘die-vorced’ (124). Moreover, Roy’s disgust with party politics is barely concealed in her portrayal of Comrade Pillai’s deceptive stance and the freedom with which the police are allowed to unleash barbarism on the underprivileged. Velutha’s association with the Marxist party and its ensuring hypocrisy made evident through Comrade Pillai’s betrayal of one of its valuable card carrying members all go to imply the façade under which real Kerala operates. Unlike Velutha, Pillai uses Marxism for personal gains rather than for the workers belonging to his party. In illustrating the tragedy that befalls the representationally powerless, especially Velutha and Ammu, Roy demonstrates that her Kerala exists outside of all its typical paradisiacal representations.

6 The God of Small Things also parallels the goals of deconstruction as a critical practice in revealing the relationship between cultural discourses and the acceptance of unspeakable rules/laws. Contemporary Kerala’s obsession with social norms and lives subjected to violence and communal alienation based on its archival structures are depicted in The God of Small Things as a result of the domination by the ‘big things’. The ‘big things’ are what form the powerful social archive of Kerala. This archive includes Ideological State Apparatuses like the schools and churches in Kerala, and it is characterized by their complete indifference to the needs of the local population. They represent both the hegemonies and ideologies of racism, castism, classism, and sexism that lead to the exploitation of ‘small things’. Oppression based on gender, caste, and class together with the nexus formed between the local police and politicians like Comrade Pillai, and the church distinguishing between the original Syrian Christians and the untouchables converted to Christianity, all find their place in Roy’s text. Although these ideologies are deadly, the text celebrates the ‘small things, ’ the marginalized subjects who choose to collide with the machinery of the ‘big things.’ For example, the text contrasts the Ipe patriarch’s subservience to white ideals with that of his daughter, Ammu, who challenges the family norms. In Ammu, Pappachi’s wife-beating, white- fawning ‘cold, calculating cruelty’ provokes an acute consciousness of injustice and rebellion (172). Ammu’s subversive affair with an outcaste man named White (Velutha), who in actuality was ‘as dark as a slab of chocolate’, and their subsequent tragic ends represent the reality that genuine social change also requires a conceptual conversion and positive action, and that mere appropriation of names will not blindfold the ‘big things’ that dictate the ‘love laws’, that condition this society (205).

7Besides, Roy’s use of monuments such as the ‘History House’ and the ‘Meenachal River’ in The God of Small Things serves to exemplify Foucault’s definition of monuments as sites of action that help decipher how they ‘create stories through organizing and interpreting massive groups of different actions’ (7). Roy’s protagonist, Rahel, returns to Ayemenem after a hiatus of twenty-three years, and attempts to salvage the remains of her memory by reconstructing her childhood narrative. Julie Mullaney claims that Rahel’s return to Ayemenam represents the return to history and the historical archive, and that it ‘simultaneously reveals what is lost or hidden but which continues to haunt the historical archive’ (44). Roy constructs the plot in such a way that the monuments of Rahel’s past memory—the sites of action—have not been preserved in time; like an archeologist, she must dig deep to unearth the deposits of what has been hidden or lost in order to organize the narrative of her past. Here we see another instance where Roy’s training as an archeologist influences her novel and its characters. Rahel returns home to find that Kerala’s hegemonic archives continue to wreak havoc in Ayemenem. For instance, the ‘Meenachal River’, once the livelihood of the region, now ‘smells of shit, and pesticides bought with World Bank loans’ (13). Roy’s reference here is to the 1960s when the World Bank—a ‘big thing’—offered loans to India to develop new high-yield varieties of agricultural products that resulted in the use of large amounts of fertilizers that often damaged the environment. Rahel also discovers that Kari Saipu’s ‘History House’, where Velutha was murdered by the Police has now become a ‘Heritage’ hotel. Roy’s use of ‘History House’ as the venue for Velutha’s cruel capture and it’s renaming as ‘Heritage’ is not accidental, because it signifies Roy’s interest in exposing how this monument is managed, repackaged and appropriated by the archive. For Roy, Kerala can be experienced not only through the historical records that celebrate its heavenly locale and statistical achievements but also through the commonplace instances or fragments of the private lives of its subaltern people. Roy’s meticulous depiction of the realities experienced by the powerless in Kerala is one of the chief facets that sets her novel apart from the numerous traditional utopic descriptions of Kerala. The ‘Meenachal River’, the caste system, the sexism and the ‘History House’ are all existing monuments in Ayemenem’s contemporary archive and through these monuments Roy demonstrates that her Kerala exists outside of all its typical paradisiacal representations. We now notice that Roy does more than simply reproduce the popular rhetoric of a utopic Kerala but, as an archeologist, she successfully extends and complicates our understanding of what an archive is, the role it plays in the production of knowledge, and its function in the creation and maintenance of political power.

8If Roy’s The God of Small Things exposes a dystopic Kerala by her criticism of the ‘big things’ that dictate the ‘love laws’, inherent in the indigenous hierarchy of Kerala’s social matrix, it also seeks to salvage the remains of the local culture that has been layered, glossed over, and deposited as inferior by British colonial past (205). Jacques Derrida, in Archive Fever, claims that the dominant power of the archive derives from its ‘economy of knowledge as it provides the institutional responsibility of interpretation’ (65). For Derrida, the practice of archiving signifies (the contradictory purposes of) both endeavoring to protect something to be remembered and omitting something to be forgotten (77). By recovering, archiving, and even giving agency to the dynamic life-history of the ‘small things’ in Kerala, Roy has given visibility to the marginalized voices that live-out their lives at the fringes of this society. Roy is at once critical of Kerala’s colonial past and also its postcolonial present that perpetuates the power/knowledge symbiosis. By suggesting that the recovery of indigenous history will lead to liberation from the social damages of colonialism, Roy identifies the subjugation and manipulation of knowledge as a powerful and continuing legacy of British colonialism in Kerala. Controlling and manipulating colonial elites find their place in Roy’s characters such as Pappachi, Chacko, Baby Kochamma, and even Kochu Maria, who demonstrate a sort of fetishistic relationship to colonial artifacts and art. They accept white norms as superior to their native culture as they live in a setting surrounded by foreign objects. Mammachi’s imported violin and violin stands, Pappachi’s expensive suits and cufflinks, and dressing tables made in Vienna are all liberally sprinkled as ‘fine’ art throughout the narrative in descriptions of the Ipe family home. European artwork adorns the walls of their home. Roy’s archeological methodology is critical of the colonial past, and she digs up material evidence that vouch for the continued subservience of the Ipe family to colonial rule. Pappachi’s old Plymouth purchased from an Englishman gets referenced substantially in the text (further suggesting links to British colonialism and the looming presence of the U.S., that will replace the old British empire, through its new technologies) all the while the perception of the colonial metropolis is endowed with superior humanistic attributes. Even though the text is set in postcolonial Kerala, most of the Ipe family members continue to ascribe to British values. These local subjects struggle within an environment screaming of the colonial obsequiousness, representing those that have learned to value themselves only as imitators of British values. For example, Pappachi, Reverend John Ipe—Rahel’s grandfather—like Chacko after him, serves the hegemonic ideal in Kerala. Oxford educated, Pappachi, was, as Ammu tells us, ‘an incurable British CCP, which was short for chhi-chhi poach [which] in Hindi meant shit-wiper’ (50). Pappachi ‘was charming and urbane with visitors, and stopped just short of fawning on them if they happened to be white’ (171). Pappachi even refused to believe his daughter when Ammu confessed that the reason for her divorce was the attempted rape by Mr Hollick, her husband’s English boss, who ‘suggested that Ammu be sent to his bungalow to be ‘looked after’ (41). Rahel tells us that Pappachi’s refusal to accept his daughter’s testimony is ‘not because he thought well of her husband, but simply because he didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife’ (42). Roy explains, through Chacko, that such deference to whiteness by Pappachi is a result of Anglophilia. Chacko explains to the twins that Pappachi’s particular brand of ‘Anglophilia’ meant that Pappachi’s ‘mind had been brought into a state, which made him like the English’ (51). The syntax of the phrase ‘had been brought’ underscores the conditioning effect of the colonial hegemonic grasp over Pappachi and over many other of Macaulay’s minutemen like him who served British Raj (51).

  • 4 Richard W. Franke claims that the term ‘Kerala model’ generally refers to the high achievements of (...)

9Roy’s counter-archive of Kerala makes a radical intervention in the production of historiographic knowledge of the Kerala model.4 By terming Roy’s text a counter-archive, I do not suggest that its relationship to the mainstream depiction of Kerala is one of negation or opposition. Rather, Roy’s text has a supplementary relationship, both in its content and in its style, to the dominant historiographic knowledge, and this is where its power lies. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, influenced by the Derridian concept of the supplement, details the way in which supplementary interventions from the margins of the nation disrupt dominant paradigms through which the nation understands itself:

Coming ‘after’ the original, or in addition to it, gives supplementary question [sic] the advantage of introducing a sense of ‘secondariness’ or belatedness into the structure of the original demand. The supplementary strategy suggests that adding ‘to’ need not ‘add up’, but may disturb the calculation... Insinuating itself to the terms of reference of the dominant discourse, the supplementary antagonizes the implicit power to generalize, to produce the sociological solidity. (155)

10Roy’s representation of Kerala in The God of Small Things disturbs the master narratives of dominant discourse and effectively rearticulates the ‘times, terms and traditions’ through which such narratives are formally enacted (Bhabha 1994: 155). Things do not ‘add up’ in Roy’s representation of Kerala and, what is more, her fragmentary writing style enhances this disconnect between the ‘original’ and the ‘supplement’ (Bhabha 1994: 155). Roy’s counter-archive, which validates the subaltern experiences of Kerala, functions as the supplement to the utopic rendering of the traditional archive. The layered and fragmented nature of her writing upsets the homeostatic balance of a continuous and unified historical narrative of Kerala, and this evidences the influence of archeology in her writing. Julie Mullaney claims that ‘the layered histories and sedimentation of Kerala’s past history unearthed in Roy’s text are replicated in the layered nature of her writing: short sentences, fragmented images, lives, memories, songs, rituals, traditions’ are piled up, one against another (43). Roy’s text is not neatly structured in the classic model of a beginning-middle-end triumvirate. The thread that yokes the chapters together is highly illogical which helps to showcase the form and structure of the narrative. In an interview with Barsamian, Roy states that

the structure of the book ambushes the story... the novel ends more of less in the middle of the story and it ends with Ammu and Velutha making love and it ends on the word Tomorrow... I don’t think I offer you one thing. (Roy 2008: 74)

11Roy’s fragmentary style of writing, the structure of her tale, and its form generate a supplement to the unified Kerala master-archive. Moreover, Roy’s twins are depicted as ‘frozen two-egg fossils... trapped in the bog of a story that wasn’t theirs’ (236). The archeological metaphor of the quotation above becomes self-evident as Roy attempts to uncover the moments of anxiety that trigger of the tragedy experienced by the outlaws of Kerala.

12Reading Roy’s Kerala in The God of Small Things reveals how she worked to counter the ideological underpinnings of such colonial hegemonies by exposing the indigenous culture (and the people who create them) as belonging to the same category of ‘finesse’. Unlike the historically privileged Chacko and his anglophile father, Reverend Ipe, who chose to disregard the disingenuousness of colonial rule, many others have not had the option of ignoring Kerala society’s ideological determinants. The most positive consequence of this awareness is the unearthing of indigenous, oppositional, and subjugated knowledge. Such cultural and intellectual standpoints are alluded to in The God of Small Things through the depiction of Velutha, whose life, by virtue of his being an untouchable Paravan, is rooted outside the normative boundaries followed by other characters. Velutha, unlike any other figure in the text, has an identity based on expanded knowledge, experience, and information. Velutha is the most industrious, talented and creative character in The God of Small Things. Roy explains that as Ammu ‘watched him [Velutha] she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labour had shaped him... Had left its stamp on him. Had given him his strength, his supple grace’ (316). Velutha’s life is rooted in an organic nonwhite reality as he makes possible, as Saldivar says, a ‘qualitative cognitive reorientation through his beauty and his labor’ for Ammu and her children (Needham 2005: 361). Unlike the rest of the Ipe family who favors the white Sophie Mol over Rahel and Estha, Velutha is the only member of the novel (except Ammu, of course) who loves the twins and, as a result, they always seek his comforting arms in times of distress. Unlike Baba, Velutha is able to recognize and challenge Ammu’s ostracization based on her gender in contemporary Kerala. The moments in the text where Ammu, reared in colonial ideology, recognizes Velutha as representing the history and culture of local Kerala metaphorically functions to be the only instance of happiness for her. Additionally, in comparison to the Oxford educated Chacko, Velutha’s creative engineering skills are used at the factory, where he reassembles ‘bottle-sealing machines’ and maintained ‘new cannery machines’ and automatic fruit and vegetable slicers (72). Velutha (since the age of eleven), Roy emphasizes, could make intricate toys out of locally available objects, ‘tiny windmills, rattles, minute jewel boxes out of dried palm reeds; he could carve perfect boats of tapioca stems and figurines on cashew nuts’ (71). Velutha is the ultimate technological man in the novel. However, what sets Velutha apart is that he is not only gifted with an intuitive understanding of machines but he is also a craftsman who is not dependent on them. Apart from his elegant woodwork and toy-making skills, Velutha is also politically very aware. Velutha’s communist ideology forms a stark contrast to that of Comrade Pillai’s Marxist sentiments. Pillai is a caricature of the local politician, who like the colonial master, is an epitome of all the unpleasant and deceptive aspects of a degenerate political tradition, which is nothing more than a means of self promotion, maintaining one’s hold over the citadel of local power by playing one against the other. Roy comically illustrates Pillai’s pride in his son’s ability to recite from the British canon. The awkward pauses and the gaps of the recitation allude to blindly following colonial norms. Also, Kari Saipu, the first British subject of Ayemenem, does not initiate any changes in Ayemenem but it is the local Velutha who at first learns from the Oxford educated Chacko, finds his place, and then attempts to fight in concert with the local Marxist group against the forces threatening them all. Accordingly, dirty roads and places of Kerala and exhibition of strong emotions shout unpretentious humanity. Conversely, Kari Saipu’s history house that gets converted to a hotel chain with its manicured lawns and technologically engineered illumination suggests enormous amounts of energy spent in maintaining contrived appearances and spaces. It is a clear contrast to Velutha’s house, where light comes from the kitchen fire—a natural and a direct source of energy. Conversely, the ‘Heritage hotel’ has no integration of natural light sources; only artificial lighting for its dark interior places, suggesting a comparative imbalance between knowledge rooted in experience and abstracted cold florescent epistemologies. Velutha’s skill and creativity place him in clear contrast to the Ipe family’s pretentiousness, Kari Saipu’s failed colonial project, and Pillai’s hypocritical lifestyle. Because indigenous skills and abilities are glossed over by the mainstream culture of contemporary Kerala, Roy’s depiction of Velutha reclaims a place for his ilk in the grand and unified narrative of the powerful representations within the traditional Kerala archive. In creating Velutha, Roy notes that the work of the marginalized subjects bears silent testimony to the rights and abilities of such outcastes in Kerala. Through Velutha, Roy excavates a cultural stratum that challenges the colonial supremacist veneer of British superiority.

13 Roy’s archeology is critical of ordering, categorizing, and classifying people into various pigeonholes based on different social rules and laws. Moreover, just as the archeologist resurrects and draws meaning from the recoverable fragments, which, in turn, provide us with alternative or added knowledge of the excavated monument, so too does Roy create her story by (re) covering and (re) interpreting the traditional archive of Kerala’s powerful societal representations. Roy’s archeology provides us with an intimate view of Kerala and its ideological systems, its power play and its representations in traditional and popular history. In this sense, Roy’s text can be considered as postcolonial in that it vigorously returns to interrogate the legacies of colonial and postcolonial histories through the Kerala archive. Here Roy’s task, just as it is for postcolonial writers like Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai, is to provide a parallel representation of Kerala’s cultural and social landscape—especially, of the subaltern in the more personal spaces of their own homes by depicting, as Julie Mullaney claims, ‘the working out of desire and conflict, love and hate, fear and hope, between individuals [such as] Velutha and Ammu’ (47). Thus, in presenting a counter-history of the subaltern, Roy’s text succeeds in constructing a discursive space located outside the dominant discourse. Roy’s writing suggests that one of the most powerful legacies of colonization is the colonization of history itself. In the face of the broad consensus of indigenous inferiority in the representational Ipe household in Kerala, Roy’s depiction of Velutha and his creative contributions to the society reveals the fallacies and biases of Kerala’s archival prejudices. The evidences provided by Velutha’s social, emotional, and creative output in Roy’s novel is the incontrovertible proof that the ‘locked-out’ marginal voices indeed do have a history worthy of archeological excavation.

14Like Foucault’s archeology of knowledge, Roy’s archeology of Kerala also represents ‘an attempt to emancipate’ subjugated forms of knowledge and ‘render them capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary and formal discourse’ (Foucault 1972: 233). Roy’s effort to depict subjugated knowledge through Velutha produces a counter-archive to Kerala’s conventional history that does not merely fill in the missing gaps, nor does it simply vindicate the subaltern. Rather, through the logic of the ‘fragment’, Roy’s project contradicts the epistemological fundamentals of colonial and local ascendancy that construct a master narrative of a place, representing only the powerful. By employing an archeological methodology, Roy at once subtly redefines local history as the recovery and incorporation of buried primary sources, such as the personal history of one such as Velutha in Kerala, which in the process also demonstrates the strong influence of her career as an archeologist in The God of Small Things. Most significantly, however, Roy’s achievement lies in the capacity of her archeological approach to move her text closer to what Anthony O’Brien suggests to be the task of all art: ‘to ask new questions of old histories’ (55).


Works Cited

Batra, Shakti. The God of Small Things: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Surjeet, 2009.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Transl. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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1 Caste can be roughly defined as a hierarchical socio-religious ranking often associated with an occupation. The employment of people born into backward castes in occupations outside their traditional caste callings was prohibited. Conventionally, people born into unprivileged castes were not permitted to wear clean clothes, or cloth other than coarse cloth, and in some cases any clothes above the waist; they were not permitted to keep cattle, or use the service of oil mills, use metal pots and pans, or carry umbrellas or even wear slippers on their feet.

2 Kerala is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India and is fondly referred to by media as god’s own country, signifying a divinely sanctioned locale.

3 A Keralan is a person native to Kerala.

4 Richard W. Franke claims that the term ‘Kerala model’ generally refers to the high achievements of Kerala’s people on statistical indicators of development. Kerala was declared 100 % literate in the 2000 census. The infant mortality rate is low and the land reforms are progressive. These indicators have been achieved despite continuing low incomes that perplexes economists (21).


Troy University
Is an Assistant Professor of English at Troy University, Troy, Al, USA. Priya is a newly minted PhD from Georgia State University, and her dissertation entitled ‘Liminal Resistances: Local Subjections in My Story, Vidheyan and The God of Small Things’ examines the workings and creative subversions of hegemonic discourses of caste, class, gender and color within the local milieu of Kerala, India. Her research focuses on examining the affinity of postcolonial theory to critical discourse analysis (especially Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian Psychoanalysis) in order to emphasize that meaning is not present in any sign, or in any text, but is the result of Derridian Différance. Priya is a member of the MLA, SAMLA, SCMS and USACLALS. Priya is a regular contributor to ABES, Routledge.

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