Arundhati Roy, in his tale of “two-egg twins,” weaves a story that will stay with you and grow long after you’ve put it down. Roy brings the Indian valley around Ayemenem to life with a power and depth that reminds me of Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Salinas Valley. Its heat, smells, wildlife suck you with an intensity far deeper than the “vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.” It is a book for those who love being carried deep into the time and place that shape the destinies of the characters.
Rahel and Estha who, though they are “two-egg twins,” share each other’s inner lives as they grow up in a world shaped by their mother, Ammu, their Uncle Chaco, their grandaunt, Baby Kochama, and the Paradise Pickle and Preserves factory owned by their grandmother, Mamachi. The world of Small Things. As the story opens, they are returning to Ayamenem as adults split from each other by a past shaped in some way by the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol.
We then return to the world of seven-year-olds on their way to the airport to meet Chaco’s British ex-wife, and their cousin, Sophie Mol. Through their eyes, we learn with them the adult world, where western culture has descended via television onto the already chaotic colonial mix of Indian and British. Estha wears his “Elvis puff.” His “Special Outing Puff.” Rahel’s hair is held by a “Love in Tokyo,”—two beads on a rubber band—and her “Airport Frock.”
The story of the tragedy that ended that visit unfolds slowly through the lives of the household as each stumbles through the incoherent mix of language and custom—The God of Big Things. The children learn the mix of English and Indian culture, whose edits are always capitalized as are other adult axioms (control your Hopes, not doing so is a Bad Sign). This gives them an innocence that makes its incoherence hilarious and heartwarming. They fill us with joy and dread. They are, as their mother sees them, “small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs.”
And inevitably, it happens. The mix childish misadventure and Big God tabu that comes crashing down in an afternoon on the river is horrifying and devastating. We have come to love these people and feel a part of their struggle to make sense of the world. You will carry them in your mind long after you’ve gone on to other things.