Study Guide

The God of Small Things Memory and the Past

By Arundhati Roy

Memory and the Past

Now, all 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. (1.10-12)

Rahel's ability to remember things that happened to Estha and not her tells us a lot about their joint identity and how profoundly she understands him.

It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol [...] slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. (1.98)

When you think about it, it makes sense that the memory of Sophie Mol's death should be sharper than the memory of her life. Her death is a traumatic experience for the twins and their whole family – nearly impossible to forget. The circumstances surrounding it change everyone's lives forever, splitting apart Estha and Rahel's family. These major experiences overshadow any little actions or quips from Sophie Mol during her short life. We experience this as readers, too – scenes with Sophie Mol are few and far between, but her death is always coming up.

Earlier that year, Margaret Kochamma's second husband, Joe, had been killed in a car accident. When Chacko heard about the accident he invited them to Ayemenem. He said that he couldn't bear to think of them spending a lonely, desolate Christmas in England. In a house full of memories. (2.4)

Here we see the painful side of memory. Chacko imagines that Margaret and Sophie's life in England is full of memories of Joe, of what they've lost. Memory, in this case, is something to escape from.

"Oh come on!" Chacko said. "You can't dictate what she does with her own spit!"

"Mind your own business," Ammu snapped.

"It brings back Memories," Estha, in his wisdom, explained to Chacko. (2.380-382)

Again, we see how many of our characters try to escape from memory instead of embracing it. When Rahel blows spit bubbles, it reminds Ammu of her ex-husband Baba's unrefined behavior. The capital M in "Memories" shows us just how serious of a matter this is to Estha.

Silence hung in the air like secret loss.

The terrible ghosts of impossible-to-forget toys clustered on the blades of the ceiling fan. A catapult. A Qantas koala (from Miss Mitten) with loosened button eyes. An inflatable goose (that had been burst with a policeman's cigarette). Two ballpoint pens with silent streetscapes and red London buses that floated up and down in them. (3.34)

Here, we find ourselves in Estha's room in 1993, a room once filled with toys. These toys all hold a secret significance for Estha and Rahel, and they're impossible for them to forget. We get the hint that they belong to a scene in the past that was scary for the twins when we find out that a policeman destroyed one of their toys on purpose.

The Torch Man opened the heavy Princess Circle door into the fan-whirring, peanut-crunching darkness. It smelled of breathing people and hairoil. And old carpets. A magical, Sound of Music smell that Rahel remembered and treasured. Smells, like music, hold memories. She breathed deep, and bottled it up for posterity. (4.40)

Memories are triggered left and right in this book. Almost any object, sensation, smell, or sight is capable of bringing memories to the surface. What's interesting about this moment is that Rahel actively tries to capture it. This is one instance in which memories are to be treasured and not feared.

Neither question nor answer was meant as anything more than a polite preamble to conversation. Both [Rahel] and [Comrade Pillai] knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot – that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes. (5.36)

This is the first time Rahel sees Comrade Pillai since returning to Ayemenem. We get the idea that there is some experience in the past that they both share and remember but that neither is willing to discuss.

"The steel door of the incinerator went up and the muted hum of the eternal fire became a red roaring. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. Then Rahel's Ammu was fed to it. Her hair, her skin, her smile. Her voice. The way she used Kipling to love her children before putting them to bed: We be of one blood, thou and I. Her goodnight kiss. The way she held their faces steady with one hand (squashed-cheeked, fish-mouthed) while she parted and combed their hair with the other. The way she held knickers out for Rahel to climb into. Left leg, right leg. All this was fed to the beast, and it was satisfied. (7.55)

This moment is sort of like the sad, looking-back moments in movies that tug at our heartstrings. Even though Ammu changes significantly in the several years before her death, Rahel remembers the Ammu of her childhood as she watches her mother's body being dumped into the incinerator. She remembers Ammu as she and Estha knew her: the one who loved them ceaselessly, who inhabited the brightest memories and the happiest times of their lives.

Sophie Mol put the presents into her go-go bag, and went forth into the world. To drive a hard bargain. To negotiate a friendship.

A friendship that, unfortunately, would be left dangling. Incomplete. Flailing in the air with no foothold. A friendship that never circled around into a story, which is why, far more quickly than ever should have happened, Sophie Mol became a Memory, while The Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season. (13.186)

One striking thing about this moment is the way Sophie turns into a memory. The narrator suggests that Sophie herself never becomes part of Rahel and Estha's story. Like them, we experience her as more of a shadow – a memory – than a real character. It's her death that lives on as the story in itself.

Their beautiful mother's mouth, Estha thought. Ammu's mouth.

That had kissed his hand through the barred train window. First class, on the Madras Mail to Madras.

'Bye Estha, Godbless, Ammu's mouth had said. Ammu's trying-not-to-cry mouth.

The last time he had seen her. (17.39-42)

At 31, Rahel has grown to look strikingly like Ammu the last time Estha saw her. They have the same mouth. This moment shows us how the simplest little details have the power to trigger overwhelming memories.