A WORLD TO WIN    #26   (2000)

Contemporary Fiction

The two novels reviewed here, by Arundhati Roy from India and Barbara Kingsolver from the US share in different social contexts and historical settings the common theme of women's oppression. By introducing cultural reviews into the pages of AWTW, we are neither espousing the views of the authors nor implying that they uphold the political analysis contained in the magazine.

We hope to acquaint our readers with important progressive cultural works in future issues. Different class ideologies contend sharply in this sphere, which has an important influence on how large sections of people look at the world and their relationship to it. We encourage you to submit suggestions (and/or review proposals) covering any genre - theatre, literature, film, music, fine art and others. We are looking for art and literature that - like these two novels - unmasks the intolerable burden of the existing order with its diverse faces and features and stirs the imagination of people struggling to create a different one. We also count on you to help make known the rich material covering all regions of the world, about our class and its ambition, which is often ignored or suppressed by the imperialist culture industry.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

By J.R.

The widely acclaimed novel, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, is about anything but small things. It mounts a blistering attack on the degenerate moral system in which caste oppression and male domination are tightly intertwined, a situation that is familiar far beyond India's borders.

The scene is the verdant and lush state of Kerala in southern India in 1969, saturated with banana flowers, vine-covered trees, jackfruit, wild pepper, cormorants, purple herons, giant spiders, young rice fields and old rubber trees. It is a world seemingly at peace, while, in a scarcely-veiled reference to Vietnam, "further east, in a small country with similar landscape (jungles, rice fields, communists), enough bombs were being dropped to cover all of it in six inches of steel". The intricately woven story shifts between past and present, and offers the reader alternative interpretations. While only slight reference is made to it in the book, during this period in India a group of revolutionary communists called Naxalites were sinking roots among the masses and challenging the so-called communists who had deserted revolution and taken the parliamentary road.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Rahel Kochamma. Rahel and her twin brother Esta are inseparable. They are seven years old. Whenever Esta has a dream or whenever he is molested by the Lemondrink vendor, Rahel knows it even though she wasn't there. Their view of the small things in their surroundings is constantly juxtaposed to the big things that unfold in the grown-up world where the social system dictates the oppression of women, where caste and class relations obscenely crush the people they love. "Other children their age learned other things. Rahel and Esta learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws. They heard its sickening thud and smelled its smell."

Ammu Kochamma, the twins' mother, is a Savarna Christian from an educated upper middle class, high caste family, who escapes the religious orthodoxy and beatings of her entomologist father by going off to Calcutta and marrying a Bengali Hindu. After having refused to become the mistress of the tea plantation manager in order to save the job of her drunken husband, who has begun beating her and their twins, she returns to Ayemenem in Kerala. Returning as a divorcee to her family's house and community, where women have neither property nor respect, is already an insolent act. She had one chance in life and made the mistake of marrying the wrong man. She and her children are thus looked down upon by the rest of the family, who also consider Ammu dangerous because of her evident inner rage at the stifling situation she is trapped in. Ammu quarrels with her fate as a woman. When she realises later that she has seen Velutha, an "Untouchable" working at the family pickle factory, at a demonstration in a nearby town, she hopes that despite his outward appearance of cheerfulness, he, like her, harbours a living, breathing anger against the smug, oppressive world they live in.

Velutha is a neighbour whose family have long been servants for the Kochammas. Velutha and Ammu grew up together. As a child, he carved little wooden toys for Ammu and held them out in his hand in such a way that she could accept them without touching him. He had recently returned to Ayemenem, after his brother had a crippling accident, to help his family survive. Without Velutha, an accomplished carpenter and machine operator, the Kochamma pickle factory could not run properly. Absent from the community for four years during the period of the Naxalite rebellion, people said that in all likelihood he had joined them. He had a way of walking, a way of offering suggestions without being asked and a self-assurance undesirable in "Untouchables". After his long absence these characteristics were more pronounced.

The third child in the story is Sophie Mol, daughter of Chacko, Ammu's inept Oxford educated brother, and his English ex-wife. After Chacko's divorce, he also goes home to Ayemenem to run his mother's pickle factory. He regularly pressures the women who work there to have sex with him. His Christian mother indulges what she calls his "men's needs", putting up a new door so that the women can come and go without embarrassing her, even though she also occasionally leaves a tip for them. When Chacko's ex-wife and their daughter Sophie Mol come to Kerala for a visit, the twins get a fresh appreciation of their own low status in the family. Two weeks later Sophie Mol drowns in the river.

The revelation of Velutha and Ammu's relationship coincides with Sophie Mol's drowning. To save the family's reputation, Baby Kochamma goes to the police, suggesting that Velutha is responsible for the drowning. This legitimises the manhunt and brutal murder of Velutha, although his real crime is "stealing from the Touchables' Kingdom", sharing intimacy with an upper-caste woman. When Ammu and Velutha cross into forbidden territory and breach these love laws, "laid down thousands of years ago", the three representatives of established tradition in society - the family, the police and the parliamentary Marxists - join forces to punish Ammu, kill Velutha and shatter the lives of her children. Those with power, the perpetrators, the ones "who have obliterated all connection with childhood [are the] men without curiosity, without doubt, [who] looked at the world and never wondered how it worked, because they knew. They worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine."

Roy's depiction of the different layers of Kerala society chafes bitterly against traditional morality and its gatekeepers. Comrade Pillai is the local Marxist-in-office, who, when not printing labels for his client, the Kochamma pickle factory, tries to organise the workers there against the Kochammas. Roy describes communism as creeping into Kerala "insidiously", because, as a reformist brand of communism, it never overtly questions the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community and never really challenges the communal divisions, yet tries to appear not to accept them. Her pen mercilessly exposes Pillai, the mis-leader for whom combating the class enemy doesn't seem to include defending an "Untouchable" falsely accused of Sophie Mol's disappearance, even though Velutha is a member of his own party, albeit a "troublemaker".

Roy concentrates her revulsion for Indian upper-caste hypocrisy in Chacko and Baby Kochamma (Ammu's aunt). Baby Kochamma is a manipulative, self-serving warden of reactionary tradition and caste privilege, who eventually threatens the seven-year-olds with sending their mother to jail unless they tell a police inspector that Sophie Moll was killed by Velutha (whom they adored and had frequently sneaked away to play with). This forced betrayal scars them for life, creating a bond shared with their mother of "a certain, separate knowledge that they had loved a man to death".

Velutha knowingly risks his own annihilation, as he puts it, to love a "Touchable". Through her different, but bitter life experiences as a woman, Ammu acquires the daring to break away from inhibitions and taboos and cross the divide from the other side. After the tragic ending of their affair and her aunt's foul complicity with the police inspector, Ammu insists on telling the truth and pleading Velutha's innocence. In turn she becomes further outcast from her family for this and for a myriad of past violations as a divorced mother with, in Roy's words, an "unsafe edge".

Yet beyond moments of wonder at small things shared with the children and beyond this illicit relationship that is their undoing, Velutha and Ammu's tunnel has no egress, little glimpse of what History might require of people like them to make things different - to break through its darkness. With Ammu's death, the book retreats inward.

One of the great strengths of Roy's writing is her ability to contrast the innocence and humanity of the children and her adult heroes who become victims of the social order they don't obey, with society's mundane, oppressive customs and feudal beliefs that wound or kill them. Her "edge", too, is refreshingly unsafe for the lords and masters, ancient and modern, under her scrutiny.

About the Author
After winning the United Kingdom's most important literary award, the Booker Prize, Arundhati Roy has become a celebrity in India, and her book has been translated into numerous languages. But she has expressed disappointment that this pride stems from Indian nationalism, as she sees it, rather than the impact of the novel itself. The revisionist leader in Kerala of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was stung by the novel's crisp reference to him by name, alternately as "the Brahmin high priest of Marxist electoral politics in Kerala", and as "Running Dog, Soviet Stooge, who expelled all the Naxalites from his party and went on with the business of harnessing anger for parliamentary purposes". He tried to counter-attack in a critique of God of Small Things, which feigns shock at the morals of Roy's characters, as though Ammu's rebellion were neither necessary nor genuine. By refusing to differentiate between the moral values of the oppressed and the oppressor, he inevitably sides with the latter.

Roy also wrote a paper sharply denouncing the Indian and Pakistani governments' nuclear bomb explosions of May 1998. She ridiculed the celebration of the nuclear bomb in India's streets and the way in which, in an anti-Western mood, people emptied crates of Coke and Pepsi into the streets. "I'm a little baffled by their logic, Coke is Western culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?" Also opening fire on "Western Hypocrisy" and the US "Masters of the Universe", she called them "the inventors of colonialism, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, germ warfare and chemical weapons".

In the last few years Arundhati Roy has become an activist and organiser against the Narmada Valley Development Project, which plans to construct 3200 dams on 419 tributaries of the Narmada River. Begun several years ago, the dams will forcefully displace 25 million poor people whose livelihoods depend on the river valley, a majority of whom are Dalits ("Untouchables") and Adivasis (tribal people). Too vulgar for fiction, as Roy says, the project reveals, "in relentless detail, a Government's highly evolved, intricate way of pulverising a people behind the genial mask of democracy".

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

By N. P.

It is 1959 in a small village in the Congo on the eve of that nation's independence from Belgium and the release of Congolese national liberation leader Patrice Lumumba from prison for exploratory "talks". Within two short years the CIA and the Belgian secret service will together brutally depose and assassinate Lumumba. Into this important nodal point of history, seething with undercurrents of political tension, walks bible-toting Reverend Price with a mission not short of bringing salvation and civilisation to the heathen "natives". His wife and four daughters begrudgingly follow him, in turn burdened less with God's word (which "weighs nothing", as one of the adolescents quips) than with the racial and cultural prejudices of the 1950s southern United States, streaked with that era's rank anti-communism and flush with their own ignorance of the world and their country's pernicious role in it.

The mother and daughters narrate the story, each with a distinct voice and interpretation of events, while voiceless Nathan Price towers in the forefront of their reflections on their new surroundings and presence in Africa. He is the overbearing and oppressive father and husband preacher, an unambiguous symbol of "cultural arrogance and misunderstanding" in the author's words, of the way the European and US imperialists have invaded and dominated Africa. So this work of epic fiction winds masterfully around the triple themes, and rebellion against them, of patriarchal tyranny in the family, religious missionary zeal as historical companion to colonialism, and the big powers' plunder of Africa and their establishment of neo-colonial regimes.

Although the Christian family is the microcosm for Kingsolver's exposure, some aspects of women's oppression might easily be echoed in other parabolical forms in religions and cultures throughout the world. Nathan Price, pondering the wastefulness of educating daughters, which he likens to "pouring water into shoes", asks rhetorically whether it is worse to waste the water or ruin the shoes. Price is extreme but not atypical, certainly no more extreme than the Western imperialists he symbolises in the realm of force-fed Christianity. His god-given male authority shapes the stifling relations in the family, which also reach their breaking point in the story around the time that the colonised Congo wins formal political independence.

The teenaged daughters gradually open their eyes, beginning to understand cultural differences and the terms of the struggle for survival in a country under the boot of their own. They come to see that "truth" in the Congo is not the same as in the white middle-class southern US, leading them also to question life under "Our Father", as one of the twins mimics him. Here the family are the outsiders, the intruders with the strange customs, discovering that they know little compared to those they came to "civilise", who in turn neither want nor have much use for their American righteousness. Their simplified but amusing reactions as they learn from the local people about survival become mixed with the bitter taste of reality as the story unfolds.

After Lumumba wins the first national elections and as Nathan Price rails against the Africans' "ignorance", their inability to decide their future and certainly to rule, the village chief - in a comical twist against the many programmes white men brought to try "to improve our thinking" - announces an election for or against Jesus Christ, in the "office of personal God". Jesus loses.

In church the reverend misprounounces the Kikongo word bängala, screeching alternately Jesus is "precious" and Jesus is "poisonwood" to his congregation. His obsession with baptism, blended with his total ignorance and contempt of local life and customs, backfires at first humorously and then tragically as he blindly tries to force the people into the dangerous river where children have been eaten by crocodiles, in turn spreading the image of Jesus as a "child-eater". This ultimately leads to the turning point of the first part of the story, when his own child is "eaten", bitten by a snake placed by a local spiritual leader who is angry at the American preacher's incursion into his territory. The result is a spiralling loss of faith in the Reverend, whose continual mantra that "the Lord will protect me" proves pathetically inappropriate on every level.

As the "drums in the forest" grow louder, beating a background rhythm of the Congolese masses' rising for political independence "against centuries of affliction", the Price family's contradictions are also coming to a head. Ultimately the mother decides to take the giant step of breaking loose from the affliction of an oppressive marriage and the powerful grip of her traditional role as unquestioning servant to husband and Lord.

Some 15 years later, reading the report of the US Senate's investigation of US covert operations in the Congo, namely Lumumba's murder in January 1961, the mother is awed at how a "roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs" could have considered a man like Lumumba, who wanted freedom for his people, so dangerous. She describes the now well-known facts of the US purchasing an army to carry out a coup under their hand-picked puppet, Joseph Mobutu, who overthrew Lumumba only four months after he was elected prime minister. Lumumba escaped from prison but was captured after giving a speech. He was then handed over to the reactionary secessionist movement in the copper-rich Katanga province, which was based on Belgian, French and South African mercenaries. Mobutu took control of the central government, marking a new period of domination by the United States, which lasted until he was finally run out of the country in 1997.

Kingsolver's characters recount at different moments of the story how the hated and corrupt Mobutu loyally sold the country's rich diamond and mineral resources to foreign powers, whilst politically carrying out their behest. He quickly built up a huge personal fortune, whilst the people of Zaire went hungry. He made a show of replacing colonial names with African ones, as his regime ruthlessly repressed thousands of liberation fighters and political opponents. One of the Price daughters, who "survives on outrage", describes the creation of debt-dependence on the West through phoney power projects like the failed Inga-Shaba, which used up a "loan" of a billion dollars, to be repaid in decades of cobalt and diamonds. She is sickened by the realisation that the US went on to "do it all over again" in neighbouring Angola, spending $30 million to arm opposition forces to try to kill pro-Soviet national liberation figure Augustino Neto and protect US oil interests in that country.

The last 30 years of Kingsolver's epic tale of the Price family - which brings us roughly to the end of the 1980s, a period of increased upheaval by the masses to bring down Mobutu - are told through the prism of each daughter's path of response to the Ordeal/Experience/Revelation of the prophetic implosion of their once all-American Christian family.

The eldest, Rachel, refuses deeper introspection, clinging to the small closed-minded and narcissistic material world that is her looking glass. Her first in a series of convenience marriages is to a mercenary who was most probably involved in the disappearance of Lumumba. The twins separately come to terms with their father and his debacle in Africa: the physically disabled sister, Adah, astutely ironic beyond her years as narrator but outwardly silent, successfully fights to conquer her handicaps and devotes her life to tropical medicine, side-stepping the Christian nuclear family. Leah, the daughter most loyal to their father as an adolescent, marries a teacher involved in the liberation movement and remains in Zaire, seriously grappling with the political dimensions and stakes of the people's right to a different future, not under the boot of Western plunderers. This in turn brings both a major transformation of her outlook and her renunciation of any claim on America as her "homeland".

The mother interjects retrospectively as she combs through the past, the depth of her adherence and obedience to her husband's Christian dogma which shaped and strangled so much of her life, her assumptions about truth as personified by President Eishenhower, and the safe happy homemaker's simplicity of her conception of the family: "I was his instrument, his animal… I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation goes off to conquer another in war." Recalling the village congregation's singing of Tata Nzolo!, meaning in Kikongo, Father in Heaven or Father of fish bait, depending on how you pronounce it, she surmises: this was my quandary, not knowing whether religion was "a life insurance policy or a life sentence". Her recurring guilt about the death of her youngest child in Africa (the daughter bitten by the snake) is the pivot of her anger and self-reproach for not being able to shield her daughters from the "scorching light" of her husband, for not herself awakening earlier to and overcoming her own submissiveness.

Kingsolver was trained as a biologist, and her novel argues that all forms of life are continually in motion. A tendency for a gradualist view to spill over into the conception of changes in the social realm, in which the species adapt "gracefully" to their dispossessed and "conquered" environment, is evident, especially in the Mother's perspective. Kingsolver portrays the rapacious predator in its entwined three-dimensional form with artful skill, but rebellion against him is like a rolling river, moving past. The mother has a vision that "his kind" will always lose in the end: "Whether it is wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same; they stand still and their stake moves underneath them."

People who like Kingsolver's books say they are challenged by the complexity of her characters coming to terms with a social reality very different to their own and to what they were taught. The Price women don't fit into simple categories of politically more and less aware, but rather reflect the fact that social consciousness is not gained through a single lens nor by taking a single step. In fact Kingsolver has engaged, and very poetically, in a battle against the consequences of one's stand and ideas, both for the individual's choices in life, and for the social world they act upon.

Whilst a minority of Kingsolver's readers and a few rabid critics motivated by different politics than hers object to her bringing too much social content into her literature, she openly espouses the need for politicising her readership, for making the complexity of the world accessible to the broadest public imaginable. At the same time she thinks they deserve a good story. She says that, for her, writing is a form of political activism. She has told interviewers she aims to put the politics back into literature and has encouraged others to do so by establishing a literary prize (delivered on 1st May) to unpublished novels addressing issues of social injustice and change. In her preface, Kingsolver thanks US political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal for his critical reading of her manuscript of The Poisonwood Bible.

Kingsolver has chosen literary fiction to open eyes about history, whilst illustrating with both humour and depth in The Poisonwood Bible the social narrowness that helps keep them shut or partially shut. One of the reasons her writing is so appealing to read (and she has become extremely popular, with a number of her books now translated into several languages) is her optimism - the vital sense that humans can understand, change their world and rise above the ugliness of relations cast by the oppressor in various forms - which is inseparable from a clear conviction that her heart is with the people.