Invitation to World Literature
The God of Small Things The God of Small Things – Expert’s View
Experts' View: A Love Story Begins
An excerpt from The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
Opening of the book
“Still, to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it.
Equally it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago. Long before the Marxists came. Before the British took Malabar, before the Dutch Ascendancy, before Vasco da Gama arrived, before the Zamorin’s conquest of Calicut. Before three purple-robed Syrian bishops murdered by the Portuguese were found floating in the sea, with coiled sea serpents riding on their chests and oysters knotted in their tangled beards. It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a tea bag.
That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.
And how much.”
“The essential story is one of love. And even if the ending is certainly sad, it’s so much more than that. It’s a transcendent story.”
“I see the book as mostly about lines between gender, lines between caste, lines between race. The artificial limits and barriers placed between people. And Ammu at the center of it, is first the victim of circumstance. She’s a woman; she’s not allowed to do the things that a man would. And secondly, she is told whom to love, and when she falls in love with a person who’s deemed the wrong kind of person because he’s from a different caste and a different place in society, lives are lost.”
“It isn’t necessarily true that just because people die it’s a tragedy, you know, in a larger sense. What did they die for? It was… it was something hopeful in the end. It was love. It was a love that was never supposed to be.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
From the eighteenth century on, ambitious novels have frequently used private lives to explore public issues, often taking the classic romance plot (boy meets girl, obstacles are overcome, they live happily ever after) and complicating it in ways that set a society’s tensions and contradictions into relief. A common twist of the romance plot in colonial and post-colonial novels has been to stage a forbidden relationship between a colonist and a colonial subject. In Kipling’s short story “Without Benefit of Clergy,” a young colonial administrator undertakes a secret marriage with an Indian woman, with shattering results; in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the mysterious Mr. Kurtz goes off the deep end as he goes native, his transgressions including sexual involvement with a woman (or many women) in the jungle, a fact that must be kept from his innocent fiancee back home.
In The God of Small Things, Roy boldly incorporates this time-honored (and by now, rather timeworn) plot in the pre-history of her book, in the early marriage of Sophie Mol’s Indian father Chacko and her English mother Margaret. Far from yielding fatal consequences at the time, however, the interracial relationship led only to a quite typical disappointment and breakup, and now a somewhat awkward re-acquaintance in India. This back story of Sophie’s parents sets the stage for Roy’s radical presentation of the transgressive love affair between Ammu and Velutha, as she challenges her readers—Indian and Western alike—to move beyond the old colonial plots and see the realities of India today, in situations at once culture-bound and suggestive of universal truths.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.