Religious Myth and Subversion in The God of Small Things

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,516 words

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[(essay date 2004) In the following essay, Kanaganayakam examines the treatment of religion in The God of Small Things, arguing that Roy performs a critique of mythmaking belief systems. Kanaganayakam also offers a succinct explanation of the novel’s Syrian-Christian context.]

Four years after the publication of Arundhati Roy’s The god of small things the novel still remains something of an icon—a reminder that the efflorescence of Indian writing in English is hardly a short-lived affair. As recently as the summer of 2000 the cover page of the international issue of Book carried a picture of Roy, and the article on Indian writing in English by Padma Viswanathan in the issue makes this point about her reputation very precisely: ‘Then, in 1997, all the activity seemed to coalesce into a single shining point: Arundhati Roy and her first and only novel so far, The god of small things.’2 If it is possible to speak of a second phase of regeneration after the arrival of Salman Rushdie on the literary scene, it is probably Roy’s work that inaugurated it. Rushdie’s role was to question the pieties and half-truths that masqueraded as expressions of transcendence. Roy’s text, which reflects the subversive potential of Rushdie’s writing, also explores the possibilities of wholeness by offering a secular myth, derived from, but in opposition to, dominant religious myths. While Rushdie’s project is one of deconstruction, Roy’s purpose is recuperation, although her tone of bitterness and despair often masks the conviction that secular myths that derive from religious ones have a redemptive power.

Like Rushdie’s The satanic verses, albeit but on a somewhat smaller scale, The god of small things met with the strange fate of being celebrated in the West and condemned in the East. Rushdie was acclaimed in the West for upholding liberal values, for his formal innovation and for his opposition to forms of censorship and totalitarianism. In the East he was taken to task for distorting the values of India and Pakistan, for essentialising South Asia, and for disregarding personal and religious sensibilities. Rushdie’s predicament was a particularly difficult one, leading to the fatwa after the publication of The satanic verses.3 In Roy’s case there was considerable adulation in India and many critics were generous in their praise of the novel. But there was also some opposition to its erotic content—ironic in a culture that has accommodated so much sensuality in its literature and sculpture! More importantly, the substantial critique centred on the fact that much of Roy’s fame in the West was a result of her bold attack on communism in Kerala and her misrepresentation of those held in high esteem in the Communist Party. A scathing condemnation appeared in the Indian journal Frontline criticising her for the cavalier manner in which she depicted the values and practices of the Communist Party.4 Roy’s response was to continue with her social activism, with the consequence that the issue has all but disappeared now. In criticising India’s mega-dam projects...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100118258