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How Big Is Arundhati Roy's Conscience?

The Kaavya Vishwanathan episode : a young Harvard student writes a book called How Opal Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life and it gets published by Little, Brown. The writer is accused of plagiarizing from Megan McCafferty’s book. Kaavy apologizes and her books are pulled off the shelves.

It all reminds me of when in 2001, I compared Arundhati Roy’s book The God of Small Things to “To Kill a Mocking Bird’’(published by The New Indian Express) and later in 2003 compared Roy’s book to Ulysses by James Joyce (published in the Vijay Times). There are marked similarities but it didn’t bother Roy’s big and magnanimous conscience –even a whisker.

This is not to bash Roy. I had heard about Roy a long time ago, in 1984, when she was a little Ms. Nobody. And from then on admired her guts and loved her style. Five of my friends had spent years of study under Mrs. Roy, Susie's mother in the school called Corpus Christi. And they extolled her "virtues'' on and on and on... I lapped it all up. Even now I do.
Now who the hell is Susie? That is Arundhati Roy.

But in the late 80s, I happened to see a film scripted and directed by her called “In which Annies gives it to those Ones” and I was shocked to find there were similar ideas and almost the same theme as that of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. When her book came out and won the prize it was easy to see how she made it to the Bookers. It seems that Ms. Roy and I went through the early part of our lives reading the same stuff. But I read them over and over again. And I knew the lines. Check it out for yourself....

While reading the 1997 Booker prize novel The God of Small Things there is a sense of deja vu so strong-lines and images hit you from all directions- maybe it is because Roy has put down scenes from movies, tv shows, lines from poetry etc... but the story line in one book To kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee clearly stands out from the rest of the clutter andbears a remarkable resemblance to that of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small of Things.

Is it possible two authors of different periods in two different places can pen similar books and express the same ideas using much the same words [sometimes]but in a different context. Let's take a look at both the books-To kill a Mocking Bird is set in the mid 1930s in the state of Alabama, USA ,in a small town called Maycomb. The story revolves around two children Jem and Scout Finch brought up by a single parent their father Atticus who is a lawyer. Dill their friend comes visiting. The story is set at a time when Black Americans had very few rights and a negro Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman Mayella Ewell , when in actuality she had thrown herself on him. Atticus takes up the case and what unfolds is a courtroom drama and a jury's verdict that upholds the whiteman's lies not the blackman's truth. Atticus says during the case "she tempted a negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable:she kissed a blackman. Not an old uncle, but a strong young negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards".

A similar thread of thought  runs through GOST. Setin Kerala in a small village Ayemenem, the protagonists are the twins Estha and Rahel brought up by a single parent their mother Ammu. Sophie mol their cousin comes visiting. It was a time when the caste system was in place and Ammu their mother does the unthinkable. She beds a paravan an untouchable in a land [to qoute the text] "where love laws lay down who should be loved. And how .And how much'.

In both the novels the victims of the unequal societies Tom Robinson in To Kill a mocking Bird [TKMB] and Velutha in God of Small Things [GOST] pay with their lives. Besides the plot , characters and lines too are similar. Take the opening paragraphs in TKMB. "He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing,it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson had'nt run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama and where would we be if he had'nt?" Now take alook at similar lines in GOST."Still, to say 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 Ascendency, before Vasco da Gama arrived......"

Some lines have used ditto. In TKMB- "Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps' and by nightfall were like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." Read GOST- Terror, sweat and talcum powder blended into a mauve paste between Baby Kochamma's rings of neck fat."
Descriptions of the church in both books have a similar ring. TKMB- "Miraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo's words. Music again swelled around us." GOST-"And once more the yellow church swelled like a throat of voices". There are many more similarities in Kari Saipu's house and the Radley place in TKMB,between the descriptions of the court house in TKMB and the police station in GOST. Now take a peek at the gifts given in both books. TKMB-"I pulled out two small images carved in soap. One was the figure of a boy, the other wore a crude dress"......"These are good" he said.
GOST- Velutha had remarkable facility with his hands... "he could carve perfect boats out of tapioca stems and figurines on cashewnuts."

Baby Kochamma, the twin's grand aunt, in GOST bears semblance to two characters in TKMB that of Maudie Atkinson and her passion for gardening and the other of Aunt Alexandra who is caught up in her missionary teas and her rigid attitude. In TKMB the Finch's neighbour is Maudie Atkinson. "She was a widow, a chameleon lady who worked in her flowerbeds in an old strawhat and men'scoveralls..... and elsewhere.."Miss Maudie's sun hat settled on top of the heap I could not see her hedge clippers". Now read GOST. "Baby Kochamma spent her afternoons in her garden. In sari and Gumboots. She wielded an enormous pair of hedge shears in her bright orange gardening gloves." In TKMB Aunt Alexandra had very rigid ideas about how the children should be brought up and she definitely did not approve of the children visiting Calpurnia's (the coloured cook) house. Baby Kochamma had a similar attitude. She tells Rahel when she sees Velutha and Rahel together "And please stop being over familiar with that man!"

In TKMB TOM Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman, has only one arm."His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side." In GOST incoherently Roy writes about a one armed man or god in Ammu's dreams. To qoute Roy "isolated things that didnt mean anything... Who was he the one-armed man? Who could he have been? The God of Loss? The God of Small Things?

And finally take the case of Arthur Radley or Boo in TKMB who withdrew into his house after being pulled up by the law for disorderly conduct, assault and battery etc.... and he rarely stepped out again. Finally when he steps out time for a brief time notice how Dr. Reynolds never notices Arthur Radley in the room. "Everybody out, he said as he came in the door. Evenin' Arthur, didnt notice you the first time I was here." Then again Scout Finch says of Arthur "Having been so accustomed to his absence, I found it incredible that he had been sitting beside me all this time, present. He had not made a sound." Now look what Roy did to Estha. She made him gravitate towards total silence in GOSt."Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background of where ever he was- into bookshelves, gardens, curtains, doorways, streets- to appear inanimate, almost invisible to the untrained eye. It usually took strangers a while to notice him even when they were in the same room with him. It took them even longer to notice that he never spoke. Some never noticed at all."
And finally the way Roy ends the book brings echoes of another classic. "She turned to say once again :
'naaley.' Tomorrow.'
Does that ring a bell? Gone with the wind perhaps?

Part Two
One of the most talked about books in recent years is Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”. Roy’s style of writing is considered so unique that it has become a genre in itself. But what is interesting is that “The God of Small Things” resembles two books in its style and storyline. “The God of Small Things” resembles Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mocking Bird” in many ways. In both the books the plots are similar - the story revolves around two children in both books who are brought up by a single parent. “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is set in the mid 1930s in the State of Alabama, USA at a time when Black Americans had very few rights and Tom Robinson a Black is accused of raping a white woman. Like wise “The God of Small Things” is set in Aymenem in Kerala when the caste system was rigidly in place. In this case the children’s mother beds Velutha an untouchable. In both books the underdogs - the victims of unequal societies pay with their lives. Besides the plot, the characters and some of the lines in both books bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.

While the plot and characters of “The God of Small Things” is similar to that of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” the language and style of “The God Of Small Things”(GOST) is similar to another book “Ulysses” by James Joyce, which was first published in the year 1922. James Joyce made use of mostly very short sentences in Ulysses. He experimented with the language construction and sometimes Joyce would place the full stop in the middle of a sentence or after a single word. He often strung words together, to quote Joyce “The flow of the language it is.”

Look at some of the words he strung together. “scrotumtightening,” “loudlatinlaughing,” “glowlamps,” “steelpen,” “David Byrne smiledyawnednodded all in one.” Arundhati too experiments with punctuation marks and the full stops often pop up after a single word “Is. That. Clear?” Sometimes even in the middle of a word, for example she splits the word eiderdowns with periods - “They were clean, white children, and their beds were soft with Ei.Der.Downs.” Roy too is a joiner of words, she has liberally sprinkled GOST with joined words. Some of the words are “bluegreyblue,” dearohdear,” whathappened,” “whatisit,” deadlypurposed,” etc…

The way, Joyce transposes letters employing the spoonerism technique, is intellectually stimulating. To quote from Ulysses “Hush Lenehan said. I hear feetstoops.”Elsewhere “Clamn dever, Leneham said…..” While Roy has transferred the last letter of a word to the beginning of the word that immediately follows it. To quote from GOST “A Nowl (not Ousa) mired in sticky
jam.” Another line is “Ousa the Bar Nowl.” James Joyce questioned the trivial and gives it a philosophical air. In Ulysses, Joyce asks “But then why is it that saltwater fish is not salty?” So does Roy in GOST “Chacko, where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall from the sky.” In Ulysses Joyce was not explanatory about the lines that could be read forward or backward. “Lenehan bowed to a shape of air, announcing:- Madam, I’m Adam. And Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Now look at similar lines in GOST. “They showed Miss
Mitten how it was possible to read both Malayalam and Madam I’m Adam backwards as well as forwards.” Then again in Ulysses “He stayed in his walk to watch a typesetter neatly distributing type. Read it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require practice that. MangiD. KcirtaP.” In GOST “The red sign on the red and white arm said STOP in white ‘POTS’ Rahel said.”

Joyce’s characters quoted lines from books out of the blue. In Ulysses Buck Mulligan does that but it is not clear which book it is from. “Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling :- So I do, Mrs Cahill, says she. Begob, ma’am says Mrs Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the pot.” Then at the end of the page Mulligan says “…he growled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf: - For old Mary Ann
She doesn’t care a damn,
But, hising up her petticoats….”
So did the character called Chacko in GOST :-
“For instance, that morning, as they drove out through the gate, shouting their goodbyes to Mammachi in the verandah, Chacko suddenly said: Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams……”

Now that the similarity in style has been fairly established let’s look at the similar lines in these two books. A take on Homer’s description of the sea “wine-dark barrens of the deep,” Joyce wrote in Ulysses “Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snot green sea.” Read Roy’s description of the sea “The sea was black, the spume vomit green.”
Read the descriptions of Jesus in both the books. In Ulysses “Our Saviour: beardframed ovalface...Jesus Mario with rougy cheeks, doublet spindle legs. Hand on his heart.”
In GOST: “On the wall behind him there was a benign, mouse-haired calendar- Jesus with lipstick and rouge, and a lurid, jewelled heart glowing through his clothes.”

Look at the description of the sunshine in both the books. In Ulysses “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”
In GOST: “The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body.” The description of a boy reciting poetry in Ulysses is similar to a girl reciting poetry in GOST: “ He looked at them, his well shaped mouth open happily, his eyes, from which he had suddenly withdrawn all shrewd sense, blinking with mad gaiety. He moved a doll’s head to and fro, the brims of his panama hat quivering and began to chant in quiet foolish voice.”
Now read the description of the girl reading poetry in GOST: “She clasped her hands behind her back. A film fell over her eyes. Her gaze was fixed unseeingly just over Chacko’s head. She swayed slightly as she spoke.”

Joyce was adept in playing with words. Joyce displays his mastery over the language when he writes “O, for a fresh of breath air” In GOST, Roy writes a similar line but leaves the construction unchanged “She used her windows for specific purposes. For a Breath of Fresh Air.” Then again in Ulysses “O, it’s only Dedalus whose sweet mother is beastly dead.” In GOST Roy’s version is “Rahel saw that her eyes were a redly dead.”

The similarities have been carefully put together but then again it depends on how each individual looks at it. Do. You. See. The. Similarities?
(Ulysses by James Joyce – A Flamingo Modern Classic 1994, HarperCollins
The God of Small Things By Arundhati Roy –IndiaInk 1998 )

Comments

Anonymous said…
so i'm guessing you're unfamiliar with literary allusions?

good grief.
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