The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
We don't know about you, but if we had to pick the character we dislike the most in the novel, it would probably be Baby Kochamma. She's selfish, self-centered, snippy, and just downright mean. Still, a novel without an antagonist would be like chocolate chip cookies without the milk, or karaoke without a Kelly Clarkson song: it just doesn't seem to work as well if that key piece is missing. As much as we want to tell Baby Kochamma to get over herself and take a hike, we actually need her. In a novel that covers such a big stretch of time, Baby Kochamma's history is the longest of any other character. So, who is Baby Kochamma?
First, a little back-story: Baby Kochamma is not a baby, and her last name is not really Kochamma. We never find out exactly why she takes on the name Baby, but it's how everyone knows her. Her real name is Navomi Ipe, and Kochamma is just a title of respect and honor for a woman.
As a young woman, Baby Kochamma fell in love with Father Mulligan, a priest who used to visit her dad, Rev. E. John Ipe, on Thursdays. She figured that if she showed him how charitable she was, he would fall in love with her. Baby Kochamma would forcibly bathe a peasant kid in the public well every Thursday so Father Mulligan would see how sweet and wonderful she was. When this didn't work, she entered a convent to become a nun. Though this seemed like a foolproof plan at the time, it didn't actually work, and Baby Kochamma was miserable. For someone who turns out to be a colossal jerk, we've got to at least respect B.K. for her persistence. She eventually dropped out of the convent. Her father, figuring she was totally unmarriageable at this point, sent her to the United States, where she studied ornamental gardening at the University of Rochester.
Fast forward to 1969, when the parts of the novel involving Rahel and Estha as children take place. Baby Kochamma seems to be trying to figure out what her place in the world is. She has never been married, and lives with the rest of the family as an old maid. She looks down on Ammu for not being ashamed of being a divorced mother of two, and she lives to put Estha and Rahel down.
This is especially noticeable when Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma arrive. Baby Kochamma takes every opportunity she can to diss and humiliate the twins. Baby Kochamma's behavior is the kind of thing your mom warned you about in elementary school: when people aren't nice to you, it's because they're insecure. We can see this play out in Baby Kochamma's every move. She's totally preoccupied with how she's perceived by others. When Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol arrive, for example, Rahel notices that Baby Kochamma starts speaking in a "strange new British accent" (6.92) and tries to show off her knowledge of Shakespeare and all things classy and British. We get the vibe, though, that everybody knows that Baby Kochamma is full of it, but nobody except Estha and Rahel really do anything to burst her bubble.
Baby Kochamma's acts of getting Velutha and Ammu in trouble and manipulating Estha and Rahel after Sophie Mol's death are key moments that show us just how insecure she is when it comes to social status. Here's a woman who knows exactly what she's doing: she's a total snake in the grass, even if she acts like she truly cares about everyone else.
When Vellya Paapen comes to the house to confess that he's discovered the relationship between Ammu and Velutha, Mammachi and Baby Kochamma both seriously flip out. All Baby Kochamma can think about is how bad she's going to look because of Ammu's actions. She's totally willing to compromise Ammu's happiness and to sell Velutha out – which leads to his death – to maintain "respectable" appearances. She's also willing to terrify the twins – calling them murderers and telling them that they will also be responsible for Ammu's death – in order to make sure that her own false accusations against Velutha seem legit.
The Baby Kochamma of 1993 lives a pretty simple life in comparison. There's not really anyone left to manipulate. Ammu and Mammachi are both dead, and Chacko has moved to Canada. She's totally addicted to satellite TV, and as a result she's let the house fall to pieces around her. She sits around wearing all of Mammachi's old jewelry as though she's playing dress-up. Rahel observes that it's like Baby Kochamma is "living her life backwards" (1.136). All in all, Baby Kochamma is hard to like, but she's a complex and interesting character.