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The God of Small Things flashes back and forth in time, from the early 1990s when the novel was written, when the grown-up Rahel is visiting her twin brother Estha in India, to the past, when they were children in 1969. The focal point of the flashbacks is the time when the twins' cousin Sophie Mol comes to India with her mother for a visit from England. While Rahel and Estha deal with their feelings of being second-class citizens in relation to their half-white cousin, their mother Ammu is in a secret relationship with Velutha, an Untouchable, a man from the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system. Members of the lowest caste, dalits, are called Untouchables. They were severely punished for mixing with higher-caste members. Ammu's secret affair with Velutha therefore has potentially fatal consequences. In fact, tragedy strikes all five of these characters. In the general grieving that ends the flashbacks, Ammu, Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol's mother and father are all left without hope or purpose in life.
The story of what happened to Velutha and Sophie Mol is given out piecemeal, with readers only gradually coming to understand what happened and why at the very end. Roy uses this technique to convey the sense of childhood memory, of Rahel's and Estha's incomplete grasp on facts and motives. The terrible part the twins are forced to play in Velutha's death by their aunt, Baby Kochamma, is at first only dimly understood by the children. The reader, also, comes slowly to understand exactly what happened to Ammu, Velutha, Rahel and Estha, and to make sense of the emptiness and withdrawal from the world that characterizes the twins as adults.
In this way, The God of Small Things makes us ask what power we really have over our own lives, when all of us are so intertwined with other people, particularly the family members who loom large in our childhoods but are only really understood when we grow up. When we do grow up, how do we loom large over the children in our own lives? What is the full legacy of a family, and how do we—can we?—separate ourselves from our family in order to create our own destiny? How are the dynamics of family life mirrored in the connections and betrayals created by broader religious and political modes of belonging?
The God of Small Things was written in English, which is spoken by many Indians together with one or more Indian languages. There are also words, phrases, and sentences from the Malayalam language—one of India's twenty-two official languages—which Roy also speaks. Roy uses different types of English for different characters; the children speak a more childlike, simple English than the adults, mixing words and taking them apart. In this way, later becomes "Lay. Ter." The novel is written entirely in the third-person, but most of the story unfolds from Rahel's point of view, from her innocent childhood or her reflective adulthood.