A strange place to return to

Book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I am holidaying. In a manner of speaking. I stay home with small children while the other half of us has urgent things to do before we leave once again. 

It is Kerala. Humid, hot, frustrating. Sometimes beautiful if we are indoors and it is raining. I have not had the leisure to read anything new, even though all the housework is done by the near and dears. I find it rather obnoxious to be reading a book while they are worrying about how many curries to cook. 

But I figured I can cheat a bit and expand on my States project. I have already read a few books set in Kerala. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy needs no introduction from when it won the feted literary prize. 

I first read it when it was published. I disliked it. I was in love with the English in our textbooks which were populated mostly with British writing. Even stories that were an Indian translation were quaint and slightly vague in their Indian-ness. 

I was repulsed by the description of armpits and sweat in the book. Cousins who got treated much better than yourself. The heartbreak of being a child with no agency. Tragedy and a non-commital ending. 

A narrative that felt like a commentary on your or mine nondescript life. Who would want to read that when life was already by turns, difficult or lacklustre. 

I was not impressed. 

I read it again later when a dear one gifted it to me. Initially I lamented the fact that I had already read the book. It was a first when being older and wiser had changed my perspective of a book radically. 

The God of Small Things is a man, an untouchable in the native land. The children in this story are so real that we hurt for their sadnesses and a childhood that is yes, maybe like ours, yet with the wisdom of growing up, we can’t help but want to read about them. I would not prescribe this book for a teenage me, but as a woman grown up, it was fortuitous that I read the story once more. 

Being unable to visit Kerala for more than a few weeks at a time, the settings of a green land and descriptions of political processions provide ample dose of nostalgia (to sound a bit cheesy). 

The language, yes. I am not a purist anymore. And I think it is important for us in previously colonised places to reclaim and reinvent the language that has been anyway shoved down upon us. So instead of lamenting it, it is glorious to read books where our own mother tongues are embedded into the English. 

I was also able to make sense of where the book ends. There is a Pakistani drama on TV based on the book. I only saw the first episode, but it is interesting to see the saree clad mother coming home with her children. The daughter, years later, comes back to the strangely familiar house, its inhabitants now shells of their past characters. 

When we are children, places and experiences feel sharp to the senses, every aspect affects us strongly. Also as children, if our experiences are not happy, we find these hard to overcome. But when we return to these places and experiences as adults, we find the memories dulled. 

Being a grown up offers us a greater agency over our actions and choices, and we come to see even painful periods in an easier sense. It is the reverse with happier memories. Things and people that brought us great joy when younger, now seem to be lacklustre. Being grown up takes away much of our sense of wonderment. And we start noticing the clay feet of our old gods.

Coming home to a place that we once left behind discomforts us in strange ways. 


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