Study Guide

The God of Small Things Society and Class

By Arundhati Roy

Society and Class

"It's a little too late for all of this, don't you think?" he said. He spoke the coarse Kottayam dialect of Malayalam. He stared at Ammu's breasts as he spoke. He said the police knew all they needed to know and that the Kottayam Police didn't take statements from veshyas or their illegitimate children. Ammu said she'd see about that. Inspector Thomas Mathew came around his desk and approached Ammu with his baton.

"If I were you," he said, "I'd go home quietly." Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket.... Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn't. Policemen have that instinct. (1.55-56)

Thomas Matthew sexually harasses Ammu by tapping her breasts, showing that since he's a man, he's automatically more powerful than she is. Then he shows her what kind of woman he thinks she is by bringing up her "illegitimate" children. Talk about a nasty interaction.

Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.

Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn't just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly. (1.188-189)

Classification – figuring out where things and people belong and how they should be labeled – is a big deal in this book. The society Rahel and Estha live in is divided by extremely rigid class lines that not only dictate how "good" someone is but also whom they can associate with and even love. We find out early on in the novel, however, that Rahel, Estha, and Ammu – along with almost everyone else – will violate those rules.

That whole week Baby Kochamma eavesdropped relentlessly on the twins' private conversations, and whenever she caught them speaking in Malayalam, she levied a small fine which was deducted at source. From their pocket money. She made them write lines – "impositions" she called them – I will always speak in English, I will always speak in English. A hundred times each. (2.7)

Baby Kochamma finds everything British – the language, the culture – inherently superior. Here, she punishes the twins for speaking their own language instead of English. Think about how this must contribute to the twins' fear that Sophie Mol is somehow better than them because she is only half-Indian and lives in England.

[Baby Kochamma] subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents' home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma's outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an intercommunity love marriage – Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject. (2.56)

It seems that Baby Kochamma lives to put others down. One of the easiest ways to do this is to point out other people's violations of societal rules. Here, she finds not one, not two, but three societal standards that Ammu breaks, giving her ample reason to look down on her.

There would be two flasks of water. Boiled water for Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol, tap water for everybody else. (2.59)

Even in the most minor details, like the drinking water the family brings to the airport, we see how everyone defers to Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma. What's good enough for the rest of the family is not good enough for the two of them. On the flip side, it seems that Estha and Rahel aren't good enough to have "special" boiled water, either. (Although, to be fair, the two visitors aren't accustomed to the unpurified Indian water, which would probably make them sick.)

Chacko told the twins that, though he hated to admit it, they were all Anglophiles. They were a family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away. (2.90)

The concept of "Anglophilia" is a big one in this book, from the way everyone fawns over Sophie Mol, to Chacko's cocky attitude about his Oxford degree, to the whole family's obsession with The Sound of Music. But it's pretty clear that the thing they love also holds them down. When Chacko says their footprints have been swept away, he is making a reference to the way members of the Untouchable caste have to sweep away their footprints so that people of higher classes don't "pollute" themselves by walking in them. Even though by Indian standards their family is of a relatively high social status, they are of a low social status in relation to the British.

Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan's footprint. In Mammachi's time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed. (2.270)

This quote speaks volumes about the experience of the Untouchables, and it helps us appreciate the kinds of deeply ingrained attitudes that drive so much of the prejudice and hate we see in the novel.

The Masters would haggle with him as he trudged behind them with the boys' luggage, his bowed legs further bowed, cruel schoolboys imitating his gait. Balls-in-Brackets they used to call him.

Smallest Man the Varicose Veins he clean forgot to mention, and he wobbled off with less than half the money he had asked for and less than a tenth of what he deserved. (3.17-18)

Here we get a snapshot of the experience of a member of the lowest class, who carries luggage for the students on Estha's class trip. This is a very humanizing moment for someone who is ordinarily seen by those around him as less than human. Life isn't fair for those in the lower classes; they have to deal with the upper classes not only bossing them around, but also being unnecessarily cruel and hateful – and not paying enough in return for hard work.

Mammachi had never met Margaret Kochamma. But she despised her anyway. Shopkeeper's daughter was how Margaret Kochamma was filed away in Mammachi's mind. Mammachi's world was arranged that way. If she was invited to a wedding in Kottayam, she would spend the whole time whispering to whoever she went with, "The bride's maternal grandfather was my father's carpenter. Kunjukutty Eapen? His great-grandmother's sister was just a midwife in Trivandrum. My husband's family used to own this whole hill." (8.19)

Pigeonholing people is really important to Mammachi – not only to give her world order, but to show how important she is in comparison.

Then [Baby Kochamma] shuddered her schoolgirl shudder. That was when she said: How could she stand the smell? Haven't you noticed? They have a particular smell, these Paravans. (13.129)

Like Mammachi, Baby Kochamma has a heap of prejudices against other social classes, and these prejudices run deep. By disparaging Velutha out loud and saying that his smell must have been intolerable, she tries to show just how high class she is.

Mammachi's rage at the old one-eyed Paravan standing in the rain, drunk, dribbling and covered in mud was re-directed into a cold contempt for her daughter and what she had done. She thought of her naked, coupling in the mud with a man who was nothing but a filthy coolie. She imagined it in vivid detail: a Paravan's coarse black hand on her daughter's breast. His mouth on hers. His black hips jerking between her parted legs. The sound of their breathing. His particular Paravan smell. Like animals, Mammachi thought and nearly vomited. (13.131)

Again, we see just how deeply Mammachi's prejudices run. She doesn't see Ammu and Velutha's relationship as love between two people, as it might look to us. As far as she is concerned, it is as low as two animals going at it in the mud. The idea of a "coolie" (lower-class laborer) having sex with her daughter is so repulsive to Mammachi that it almost makes her puke.

With a street-fighter's unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straitened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match.

He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko's head. (14.63-64)

The communist movement is an important sub-plot in the novel. Basically, we see people who are typically regarded as the lowest members of society – the workers of the world – looking to break class lines and fight for their own rights, whether it means marching in the streets or taking more violent measures. As the boss of the pickle factory, Chacko represents the kind of person who oppresses the lower classes (even though he calls himself a Marxist). As someone with political ambitions in this climate, Comrade Pillai can have more sway over the masses, and this is dangerous for a more affluent person like Chacko – he doesn't have the same kind of power in society that he used to.