The God of Small Things and Transnationalism

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a novel that tells the story of a family spanning generations and continents. This text approaches many issues that are relevant to transnational literature, including the mediascape, indigenization, and various forms of empire.

Although most of the novel is set in India, Western media pervades the narrative, allowing for an interesting exploration of the mediascape. For example, the family goes to see The Sound of Music. While Chacko sees this as an “extended exercise in Anglophilia”, Ammu believes that the film is a “world hit” that transcends national and cultural boundaries and identities. This clash in perspectives represents some of the divergent stances on increasingly globalized media, and raises the issue of whether media can truly be transnational. Later in the novel, the family gets a television. While seeing The Sound of Music involved a day trip to Cochin and staying overnight in a hotel, Western media is now available in their home at any time. As a result, the family, particularly Baby Kochamma, becomes more familiar with Western media, such as American talk shows. This is an interesting example of the intersection between the technoscape and the mediascape; as the technology of television becomes more widespread, the amount and type of media that is consumed changes. Another incident that allows for comment on the mediascape is Latha’s recitation of Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar”. Due to linguistic issues, her recitation sounds like she is imitating the sounds of the poem more than she understands its content. She is reciting the poem for Chako, who went to Oxford, and therefore had access to an education that would allow him to understand the poem. This suggests one way in which the mediascape and financescape interact; money can help “buy” a certain understanding of the cultural objects in the mediascape. This scene is reminiscent of the children singing American pop songs in We Need New Names, and perhaps points to uneven development. The presence of Western media allows the novel to explore ideas relating to the mediascape.

The God of Small Things also presents the process of indigenization, particularly in relation to Christianity and Marxism. When Christian missionaries arrive, many members of the scheduled caste (referred to in this book as “untouchable” or “dalit”, even though those terms are not used anymore) convert, as the Church offered them food and the possibility of transcending their social status. However, it later emerges that Christianity does not allow them to move beyond the construction of castes. This can be seen when they have separate services, priests and even bishops for scheduled castes. When the country becomes independent, they become “casteless” because they are Christian, which means that they have less access to government services that could allow them to become more financially secure. This indigenization can also be seen in Marxist groups in Ayemenem; the novel explicitly states that one of the main reasons why Marxism became popular in that area is because it did not attempt to undermine the idea of castes. Thus, both Christianity and Marxism became indigenized, and therefore more readily accepted.

The novel also presents different forms of empire, perhaps most effectively through the use of the metaphor of the “History House”. When Chako uses a house as a metaphor for history, the children assume that it is a physical house; the house that belonged to Kari Saipu, a British man in the colonial era who “turned native” who eventually committed suicide. In this way the house can be seen as a representation of British colonial influence. However, later, the house becomes a hotel, which presents a more modern form of imperialism based on cultural and economic control. The guests at the hotel are treated to truncated and diluted versions of local history, and kathakali performances that are shorted from six hours to twenty minutes. Thus, Indian culture and history has been commodified. Relating both of these forms of domination to the same house emphasizes the evolution of imperialism.

The God of Small Things uses the story of a family as a way of highlighting issues relating to “scapes”, indigenization, and imperialism.

-Tanya

One thought on “The God of Small Things and Transnationalism”

  1. Your post, and this book, have really brought to my attention the aptness of the house metaphor to a discussion of transnational media and literature. Just looking at what became of the character Kari Saipu’s house, the transition it made from having a sole occupant to being presumably divided up in preparation for hosting a range of international guests, suggests the nature of imperialism – which seeks to place a paternalistic “roof” over the heads of not only the indigenous populaces, but the interlopers, providing shelter and division from the true extent of culture existing beyond their walls. More fundamentally, the plot line involving the The Sound of Music, which Ammu proclaims is a “world hit” while Chacko deems it an “exercise in Anglophilia”, incites some analysis of what makes American media appealing across borders, and what can even remotely be said to be globally encompassing in a film like the one mentioned. Perhaps it again goes back to this idea of placing a “roof” over the head of the world, where The Sound of Music, in providing entertainment in an especially receivable way (through music, which is arguably more universally accessible than mere dialogue), forms a reprieve; maybe even sheltering the characters from their particular realities, to the extent that they are willing to travel out of their way for such a reprieve. It’s always interesting to me when American mass media is picked up so readily by other nations, and even re-imagined in the scope of diverse cultural contexts, because this suggests that something in our shows, movies and music is permeable across borders – that it seeps past barriers and into the ground water of other nations. But in reality, I think it’s less about seeping than it is simply generalizing the human experience; placing an umbrella or again a roof over concepts that are sure to hit home with the general individual, regardless of the differences that persist on the actual ground floor of their lives.

    Tayryn

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