The God of Small Things

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Indian Politics, Society, and Class Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family and Social Obligation Theme Icon
Indian Politics, Society, and Class Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Change vs. Preservation Theme Icon
Small Things Theme Icon
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Indian Politics, Society, and Class Theme Icon

The members of the Ipe family deal with a variety of social and political influences that cause much internal and external struggle in the novel. In the larger society of Kerala, India (in the 1969 portion of the novel), Marxist ideas have taken root and begin to upset the class system of landlords and laborers. This directly affects Paradise Pickles and the characters of Velutha, Chacko, and Comrade Pillai. The ancient Hindu caste system is another important factor – this system was officially abolished years earlier, but it still remains strongly imprinted on the minds of the public. The “Love Laws” of the caste system are of particular significance, particularly the divide between Touchables and Untouchables (a caste seen as vastly inferior).

Most of the Ipe family is also “Syrian Christian,” and Mammachi and Baby Kochamma in particular use their faith to justify many of their actions. Estha and Rahel, who are half-Hindu, half-Syrian Christian, must then struggle with this conflicting identity. The gender double standard of Indian society is another large factor in the plot, as Pappachi and Chacko’s sins are generally overlooked, while Ammu is disgraced and scorned for being divorced. Overall, the “small things” that occur between the characters of the novel serve as a microcosm for the “big things” happening throughout India, as many political and social forces struggle against each other and the country leans towards violence and unrest.

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Indian Politics, Society, and Class ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Indian Politics, Society, and Class appears in each chapter of The God of Small Things. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Indian Politics, Society, and Class Quotes in The God of Small Things

Below you will find the important quotes in The God of Small Things related to the theme of Indian Politics, Society, and Class.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative moves quickly around in the first chapter, Roy gives us a brief overview of Rahel's adult life leading up to her return to Ayemenem. At college in Delhi, Rahel met and married Larry McCaslin, an American, and then moved with him to Boston. As is described in this passage, Larry eventually leaves Rahel because he cannot understand her detachment and depression. Roy emphasizes here that Rahel's personal struggles (here seemingly personified as "Small God," an echo of the "small things" of the title) reflect the turmoil of India itself (the howling "Big God"), as within the country "various kinds of despair competed for primacy." Furthermore, Rahel's despair is increased by the thought that for an Indian, "personal despair could never be desperate enough." This shows Rahel's lifelong guilt and pessimism, and is also an early example of a theme Roy brings up again and again: "small things" (like objects, moments, names) both echoing and encapsulating "big things" (like historical or social forces, love, hatred).

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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.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe
Related Symbols: Paradise Pickles & Preserves
Explanation and Analysis:

In the narrative present, Rahel, who has returned to Ayemenem, looks out at her family's old pickle factory and ruminates on its significance. This passage is a good description of how Paradise Pickles & Preserves acts as an important symbol in the novel.

On the simplest level, pickling things is about preserving them, and as Roy has already shown, many things are preserved for years in Ayemenem and the Ipe household (most notably "the Loss of Sophie Mol"). The symbol is complicated, however, with the mention of the illegal banana jam—which is illegal because it can't be defined as strictly jam or jelly. This absurd and humorous fact becomes significant to Rahel in hindsight, as it brings up ideas of breaking boundaries, and shows how far society will go to maintain the status quo: even banning a food just because it doesn't fit into a convenient category. This "small thing" then connects to the "big thing" of love: "who should be loved and how...and how much," a phrase repeated many times in the novel, and one that will become much more important later on.

Chapter 2 Quotes

The marchers that day were party workers, students and the laborers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse. There was an edge to this anger that was Naxalite, and new.

Explanation and Analysis:

In the 1963 portion of the narrative, the Ipes make a "pilgrimage" to go see the movie The Sound of Music (and pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma afterwards). On the way, their car is stopped by a political protest: a march of Naxalites, a more radical wing of the Communist Party in India.

As Roy describes here, the anger the marchers carry is "ancient," directed not just at the wealthy landowners, but also at the caste system (as exemplified by the description of Touchables and Untouchables marching together) and a general sense of injustice. The anger is ancient, but this march has an "edge" that is new, and associated with the Naxalite movement. Chacko is himself a wealthy landowner, but as an academic he also likes to play at being a Communist—yet the Naxalites threaten the very basis of the old order, and thus Chacko's position of privilege and power.

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.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Mammachi, Shri Benaan John Ipe (Pappachi)
Explanation and Analysis:

The character of Velutha first appears at the Naxalite march, briefly glimpsed by Rahel. The narrator then discusses the "Untouchable" caste, of which Velutha is a member (as a Paravan). The caste system, which divided classes of people into a rigid religious and social hierarchy based on birth, was officially abolished in 1950, but in many parts of India it still existed in all but the letter of the law at the time the novel is set.

Tellingly, it's Mammachi, the oldest remaining family member and "preserver" of pickles, who remembers the more rigid and oppressive traditions of the past. She and Baby Kochamma, then, go on to uphold these social divisions later in the novel, even when the human cost is tragically high.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mammachi (speaker), Navomi Ipe (Baby Kochamma), Chacko Ipe
Explanation and Analysis:

Mammachi loves her son Chacko intensely, even with a kind of quasi-romantic love, and so she is initially hurt by his many "libertine relationships" with his factory workers. She eventually decides to accept these affairs, however, although she even goes so far as to pay money to Chacko's lovers so that she can see them as "prostitutes" and thus more easily scorn or ignore them. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma's acceptance of Chacko's affairs as "Men's Needs" that "he can't help" then highlights the extreme double standard in the house and society in general. Chacko's "Men's Needs" are seen as something almost sacred, while Ammu's sexuality (particularly later in the novel) is seen as shameful, sinful, and hateful.

The narrator also rather sarcastically points out Chacko's hypocrisy in these affairs, as he likes to play at being a Marxist, but still enjoys his "feudal" powers. He is the wealthy factory owner, and so can exploit his workers even sexually, undercutting any ideals of worker equality he might profess to hold.

Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him that Rahel saw in the march… She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against… The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ammu watches Velutha play with the children, and she sees him as a man, a sexual being, seemingly for the first time. Ammu then thinks about Rahel supposedly seeing Velutha at the Naxalite march, and hopes that he was there—Ammu hopes that even behind his "careful cloak of cheerfulness" Velutha shares her anger at the unjust society that oppresses them both.

As Ammu watches Velutha, then, centuries of caste and gender roles "telescope" into this single moment—another kind of "small thing" affecting many big things. This scene plants the first seed of their forbidden romance, which will break many of the strict rules that Ayemenem society clings to so tightly.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Velutha shrugged and took the towel away to wash. And rinse. And beat. And wring. As though it was his ridiculous, disobedient brain.
He tried to hate her.
She’s one of them, he told himself. Just another one of them.
He couldn’t.
She had deep dimples when she smiled. Her eyes were always somewhere else.
Madness slunk in through a chink in History. It took only a moment.

Related Characters: Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

Velutha discusses the Naxalite march with his brother, and then goes about his chores. He knows he should be afraid that the Ipes (his bosses) saw him there, but he isn't—his anger and the rising anger of exploited workers like him seems to give him new confidence and fearlessness. As he works, Velutha also thinks of Ammu. He tries to hate Ammu because she is wealthy (and an Ipe)—is "just another one of them"—but he finds that he can't. This suggests that Ammu's moment of admiring Velutha was not one-sided—Ammu has also become stuck in Velutha's mind. With this glimpse into Velutha's thought process, then, the narrators shows that he has both the sense of anger at injustice that Ammu hoped he did and a special sympathy (and unwilling romantic attraction) for Ammu herself.

Chapter 13 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mammachi, Vellya Paapen
Explanation and Analysis:

Vellya Paapen, Velutha's father, weepingly confesses to Mammachi what he has seen—that Velutha and Ammu are having a secret affair. Vellya Paapen surely knows that something terrible will happen to Velutha as a result of this revelation, but in this tragic moment social obligation and the power of cultural norms win out over familial love. As the passage itself says, the conflicted Vellya Paapen ultimately chooses "Loyalty" over "Love." It is because of this confession that "the Terror"—the novel's tragic climax—truly begins.

The scene again shows the lingering strength of the caste system in places like Ayemenem, even though it has technically been abolished for years (at this point in the novel). Vellya Paapen, like Mammachi, remembers the old days when castes were even more rigidly divided, and Untouchables even more ostracized and oppressed, and he has clearly internalized this external oppression to the point that he truly feels that he and his sons are inferior to people like Mammachi. Thus he is willing to betray Velutha to his fate, feeling that Velutha has truly broken a sacred social law by daring to love Ammu.

Chapter 14 Quotes

With a street fighter’s unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straitened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match.
He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head.

Related Characters: Chacko Ipe, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai
Explanation and Analysis:

Chacko visits Comrade Pillai, a local Communist leader who also prints labels for the pickle factory, to discuss the Naxalite march and whether or not Velutha was there. Once again Roy shows Chacko's hypocrisy, in that he supports Communism intellectually, and can speak its jargon and play the part of a "comrade," all while trying to maintain his privilege and still exploiting his position of power.

In the upset of order inherent in Communist revolution, however, Pillai's "proximity to the toiling masses" (his lower class, essentially) makes him more powerful than the wealthy, educated Chacko. In these troubled times of sometimes-violent worker revolts, Pillai's poverty becomes a "gun" he can use against the newly-vulnerable Chacko.

Note also that while Chacko is a hypocrite, so is Pillai—he takes Chacko's money (for new labels for the pickles) even as he plots to overthrow him for the sake of "the masses." In a similar way to Chacko himself, Pillai talks about ideals of equality while simultaneously trying to do what's best for himself at the expense of others.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all.
They were opening a bottle.
Or shutting a tap.
Cracking an egg to make an omelette.
The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha)
Explanation and Analysis:

The twins, unknowingly asleep near Velutha at the History House, wake up to see the police brutally beating him. Baby Kochamma has told the police that Velutha tried to rape Ammu and kidnapped the children, and so they find him and administer their "justice" swiftly and efficiently.

In this moment Estha and Rahel don't understand what is happening, but the narrator steps back to show that the beating is as much a result of larger social and historical forces as it is an individual instance of violence and brutality. The police aren't personally angry or passionate, and the narrator, taking a tragically detached tone, describes them as just acting as they must to preserve the status quo: "cracking an egg to make an omelette." Roy then goes on to clarify just what this status quo is, the social and historical forces the policemen are trying to maintain with their violent actions: the hierarchy of civilization over nature, men over women, and power over powerlessness.

Chapter 19 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe (speaker), Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha) (speaker), Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Ammu, Navomi Ipe (Baby Kochamma)
Explanation and Analysis:

Baby Kochamma tries to convince the twins to lie and say that Velutha indeed kidnapped them and killed Sophie Mol: repeating the lies that Baby Kochamma herself first told to the police. Baby Kochamma is trying to protect herself, because if it's determined that she lied and Velutha was beaten without reason, then she would be punished—but here she cleverly frames the twins' choice as one of "saving Ammu" or not. If they lie, Baby Kochamma suggests, Velutha (who, she says, will die either way) will take all the blame, and Ammu will be saved—but if the twins deny Baby Kochamma's story, then both they and Ammu will go to jail (supposedly for the murder of Sophie Mol).

When faced with this choice, Estha and Rahel quickly decide to go along with Baby Kochamma, offering just a whisper of "Save Ammu." This small, two-word phrase has vast repercussions, then, as the narrative suddenly steps back and defines this as the moment the twins truly lose their innocence. Their decision to "Save Ammu" clearly haunts Estha and Rahel for years, as they question whether they were really tricked and innocent, or if they knew what they were doing—if they freely chose family over honesty, loyalty over truth, and comfort over suffering.

Inspector Thomas Mathew squatted on his haunches and raked his jeep key across the sole of Velutha’s foot. Swollen eyes opened. Wandered. Then focused through a film of blood on a beloved child. Estha imagined that something in him smiled. Not his mouth, but some other unhurt part of him…
The Inspector asked his question. Estha’s mouth said Yes.
Childhood tiptoed out.
Silence slid in like a bolt.
Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared.

Related Characters: Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Velutha, Inspector Thomas Mathew
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel it's apparent that Estha ends up even more traumatized by the "Terror" than Rahel does, and here we finally see why. Both twins decide together to "save Ammu," but Estha is the one who has to actually betray Velutha to his face. Inspector Mathew asks Estha a question (presumably, did Velutha kidnap the children and kill Sophie Mol?), and Estha says "Yes." Estha eventually stops speaking altogether after uttering this fatal "yes," to the point that he is totally silent in the scenes from 1993.

This is perhaps the tragic climax to the novel, as Estha truly loses his innocence and Velutha becomes the complete and helpless victim of all the sins of the other characters and of society itself. Yet again Roy describes the monumental events through "small things," and small things end up having the greatest impact. Velutha is portrayed only through fragmentary descriptions, and the small word "yes" comes to haunt Estha for the rest of his life.

Chapter 20 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Mammachi
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene is the climax of the novel's 1993 storyline—the day when Estha and Rahel are finally reunited after twenty-three years. After acting distant and wary for a while (and Estha remaining silent, as he now has for years), the twins here lie down together and cry, and then they have sex.

The narrator presents the twins' act as, like their Ammu's affair with Velutha, breaking the "Love Laws" (through committing incest, in this case), but also describes it as being like one person who was split in half becoming whole again. This controversial and ambiguous act is not a "happy ending," certainly, or even a resolution to all the tragedy Estha and Rahel have experienced, but is at least a definitive expression of the "hideous grief" that has haunted the twins for so long. As described in an earlier passage, they never used to even consider themselves separate individuals, but only two parts of one whole, and now they have at least been fully reunited—and can hopefully begin to heal together after this expression of grief.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Even later, on the thirteen nights that followed this one, instinctively they stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things.

Related Characters: Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

The final chapter describes Ammu and Velutha's brief love affair, ending on a note of hope and romance despite all the tragedy that we know will follow these events. Once again the "small things" hide the "big things" here, as Ammu and Velutha cling to each present moment, each tiny fragment of their surroundings, to avoid facing the many social, cultural, personal, and historical forces that would divide and crush them. When the two lovers only see the small things, they can briefly forget that he is an Untouchable and she from a wealthy, upper-caste family; that she is a divorcee with two children and he a poor factory worker; that she represents the ruling class and he the rebelling worker class. This is the beauty of Ammu and Velutha's love, and also its downfall—it was only ever a fragile, fleeting thing, and so could never survive the larger forces that seek to destroy it.