September 21, 2014 kb

The Body, The Nation: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Only three chapters into the novel, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things offers up a disquieting scene: Baby Kochamma, the grandaunt of the novel’s main protagonists, and her servant, Kochu Maria, sit together in the living room, eating peanuts from the same bowl as part of a “television-enforced democracy” (84). They’ve gathered to watch The Best of Donahue, a spin-off of the popular American talk-show that ran from the late sixties to the mid-nineties and featured Phil Donahue as its host. In this moment, the reader sits outside a double screen: that of the paper (or virtual) pages of the novel and that of the television screen. This double framing gives the reader the flexibility to dismantle what follows.

The Donahue episode features a clip of a black busker singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a subway station:

“[The busker] sang sincerely, as though he really believed the words of the song…[He] threw his head back his head when he hit the high notes…his missing teeth and unhealthy pallor of his skin spoke eloquently of a life of privation and despair. He had to stop singing each time a train arrived or left, which was often.
Then the lights went up in the studio and Donahue presented the man himself, who, on a pre-arranged cue, started the song from exactly the point that he’d had to stop (for a train)…The next time the busker was interrupted mid-song was only when Phil Donahue put his arm around him and said ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
Being interrupted by Phil Donahue…was a pleasure. An honor…It had been his dream to sing on the Donahue show, [the busker] said…”
(The God of Small Things, 85)

 

In “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson argues that in “Third-world texts…the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” While I do have some reservations over Jameson’s self-admitted oversimplification of Third-world literature (indeed his invocation of a metanarrative), his essay nonetheless 1) offers a way to approach the duality of nation and body in the (post)colonial state and 2) exemplifies the very thing that The God of Small Things works against, a point I shall return to later.

(I say histories precisely for the fact that no one character’s life stands wholly for the nation in The God of Small Things (a la Midnight’s Children). The plurality of focalizing characters, each with their distinctive narratives reflects a similar plurality of history in the Indian sub-continent, one that can often be overlooked for simplicities sake.)
 Taking Jameson’s argument as it is, it is easy to envision the body as nation in The God of Small Things. After all, the novel is a narrative genealogy of an Indian family, a family plagued by one tragic flaw: forbidden love. For successive generations, family members have engaged in forbidden loves that have, one after the other, failed and left the family more broken than before. There’s Rahel and Esta, a pair of twins who engage in an incestuous relationship when they’re adults, after years of estrangement and our main focalizing characters; Baby Kochamma, the grandaunt to the twins, a devout believer in caste and decorum; Sophie Mol, the half-white, half-Indian cousin to the twins, who drowns in the river near the twin’s home; Ammu, mother to the twins, who engages in forbidden love not once, but twice; and Velutha, the Untouchable carpenter who begins a relationship with Ammu, just to name a few. Their tales reflect histories of India that can’t be ignored.

In this case, I refer to the viewer on three levels: the level of the studio audience, the level of Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria, her servant and the level of the extradiegetic reader.
 As differentiated from postcolonialism. In the interests of this paper, post-colonialism refers to a temporal status; postcolonialism refers to the intellectual discourse surrounding legacies of colonialism and imperialism.

If the body is indeed nation in The God of Small Things, then the scene with the busker (at first glance heartwarming, even in its heavily scripted production) becomes a more eerie fiction. “Pre-arranged cue” immediately signals that viewers are being sold a carefully crafted, carefully distorted, truth. We are intended to regard this “truth” with the same feeling of pleasure and honor that the busker himself feels about being on the show. The viewer is compelled to buy—and more importantly, invest in—an ideal (read: ideal for the colonial, Western, power) image of post-colonialism. The disenfranchised subaltern (the busker) hopes for a tomorrow where “the dreams you dare to dream really do come true”. No one seems to care about his plight—until he finds himself released from his destitution and inferior status and welcomed to the world stage (the stage of the show) by the new-and-improved, colonial power (represented by the white show host, who has unending sympathy towards the plight of Others). On this stage, the subaltern is allowed to finish airing his grievances and is received into the fold with an arm around his shoulders. He is now an equal. He is now an agent in his own destiny.

In this case, I refer to the reader on two levels: Baby Kochamma, as well as the reader of the novel.
 But the center cannot hold. Even as the episode constructs, packages, and markets a desirable product, “pre-arranged cue” offers just enough space to fracture the illusion. The reader hesitates. The longer we read on, the more we recognize the post-colonial image as the nostrum it is. In short, the scene perfectly exemplifies attempts to “flatten out” past injustices by offering the disenfranchised the chance to join the “all-boys” club (a club that is still defined by Western standards). What seems to be an act of altruism is staged: the subaltern appearing on the world stage has been given cues, has been coached by the colonial power. His story, as legitimate as it might be, has an “end” that has been scripted by the dominant power.

Inseparable from this fiction of postcolonialism is the unspoken fiction of postcolonialism. If the body equates with the nation and if the post-colonial nation is simultaneously postcolonial, then the body of the busker stands in for postcolonialism—as a field, as a practice, as a consciousness. But there is only one of him. He has been distributed as the over arching tale of postcolonialism, and for this reason, is the only kind of postcolonialism we’re allowed to experience.

The busker, like the studio audience, buys the lie he’s helping to sell–to his own detriment. Even though the media distributes the metanarrative, it’s nonetheless a metanarrative that the field itself subscribes to. And like the busker, it is hard to see the trees for the forest.

Roy herself makes this explicit with the last line of the scene:

“Being interrupted by Phil Donahue…was a pleasure. An honor…It had been his dream to sing on the Donahue show, [the busker] said, not realizing that he had just been robbed of that too.” [Emphasis my own.]
(The God of Small Things, 85)

 

The reader, outside the power structures embedded into the television show, experiences the loss of the busker’s voice—but only through the eyes of the “real” subaltern subject, Baby Kochamma. She is the one to note the busker’s role in enhancing structures of oppresion are the ones who can see the lie for what it is: a cover up for the fact that long after the corpus of colonial power has vacated government buildings, its soldiers still remain in the bedroom, its shadow in the streets of the bazaar.

 

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