The God of Small Things basically deals with the complicated relationships between members of the Ipe family in Ayemenem, India. Each family member has different factors weighing on their relationships, like social obligation, familial duty, and personal dislike. Baby Kochamma, one of the book’s most negative characters, allows her personal grudges and preoccupation with society’s approval to lead her to betray her own family. Outside of the Ipes, Vellya Paapen also chooses his duty to society over familial love when he offers to kill his son, the Untouchable Velutha, for sleeping with Ammu. It is this tension between internal love and social obligations that makes up most of the novel’s conflict.
The most important relationship of the book is between the twins Estha and Rahel and their mother, Ammu. The twins see themselves as almost one person, and their closeness is a shelter from the harsh political and social forces of their world. The twins’ relationship with Ammu is also very complex, as Ammu is both a loving mother and an unpredictable woman who sometimes says and does things that hurt her children deeply. The very existence of the twins in her current state of divorce is also a disgrace for Ammu in Indian society. Mammachi deals with social and personal issues with her children as well, as she loves Chacko with a repressed sexuality and forgives his affairs, but disowns Ammu when Ammu sleeps with an Untouchable. Familial love is always struggling with society and duty in the novel, and it is rarely victorious.
Family and Social Obligation ThemeTracker
Family and Social Obligation Quotes in The God of Small Things
It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol… slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. It was always there. Like a fruit in season. Every season.
They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Products Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said… 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… 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.
What was it that gave Ammu this Unsafe Edge? This air of unpredictability? It was what she had battling inside her. An unmixable mix. The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber. It was this that grew inside her, and eventually led her to love by night the man her children loved by day. To use by night the boat that her children used by day. The boat that Estha sat on, and Rahel found.
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.
“Stop posing as the children’s Great Savior!” Ammu said. “When it comes down to brass tacks, you don’t give a damn about them. Or me.”
“Should I?” Chacko said. “Are they my responsibility?”
He said that Ammu and Estha and Rahel were millstones around his neck.
“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”
A cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps. Six goosebumps on her careless heart.
A little less her Ammu loved her.
And the Air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.
She was aware of his libertine relationships with the women in the factory, but had ceased to be hurt by them. When Baby Kochamma brought up the subject, Mammachi became tense and tight-lipped.
“He can’t help having a Man’s Needs,” she said primly.
Surprisingly, Baby Kochamma accepted this explanation, and the enigmatic, secretly thrilling notion of Men’s Needs gained implicit sanction in the Ayemenem House. Neither Mammachi nor Baby Kochamma saw any contradiction between Chacko’s Marxist mind and feudal libido.
In her growing years, Ammu had watched her father weave his hideous web. He was charming and urbane with visitors, and stopped just short of fawning on them if they happened to be white. He donated money to orphanages and leprosy clinics. He worked hard on his public profile as a sophisticated, generous, moral man. But alone with his wife and children he turned into a monstrous, suspicious bully, with a streak of vicious cunning. They were beaten, humiliated and then made to suffer the envy of friends and relations for having such a wonderful husband and father.
As the door was slowly battered down, to control the trembling of her hands, Ammu would hem the ends of Rahel’s ribbons that didn’t need hemming.
“Promise me you’ll always love each other,” she’d say, as she drew her children to her.
“Promise,” Estha and Rahel would say. Not finding words with which to tell her that for them there was no Each, no Other.
“Because of you!” Ammu had screamed. “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here! None of this would have happened! I wouldn’t be here! I would have been free! I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born! You’re the millstones round my neck!”
Vellya Paapen began to cry. Half of him wept. Tears welled up in his real eye and shone on his black cheek. With his other eye he stared stonily ahead. An old Paravan, who had seen the Walking Backwards days, torn between Loyalty and Love.
Then the Terror took hold of him and shook the words out of him. He told Mammachi what he had seen. The story of the little boat that crossed the river night after night, and who was in it. The story of a man and woman, standing together in the moonlight. Skin to skin.
“Sophie Mol?” she whispered to the rushing river. “We’re here! Here! Near the illimba tree!”
On Rahel’s heart Pappachi’s moth snapped open its somber wings…
There was no storm-music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. No shark supervised the tragedy.
Just a quiet handing-over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam. With a silver thimble clenched for luck in its little fist.
The twins looked up at her. Not together (but almost) two frightened voices whispered, “Save Ammu.”
In the years to come they would replay this scene in their heads. As children. As teenagers. As adults. Had they been deceived into doing what they did? Had they been tricked into condemnation?
In a way, yes. But it wasn’t as simple as that. They both knew that they had been given a choice. And how quick they had been in the choosing! They hadn’t given it more than a second of thought before they looked up and said (not together, but almost) “Save Ammu.” Save us. Save our mother.
This was the stuff their dreams were made of. On the day that Estha was Returned. Chalk. Blackboards. Proper punishments.
They didn’t ask to be let off lightly. They asked only for punishments that fitted their crimes. Not ones that came like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. Not ones you spent your whole life in, wandering through its maze of shelves.
There was very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next. Nothing that (in Mammachi’s book) would separate Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings…
But what was there to say?
Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons… Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.