Sunday, January 1, 2012

Estha and Rahel

Happy New Year! The first book we will be reading this year is The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. The book was published in 1997. It is Roy's first and so far her only novel.

It tells the story of an Indian family from the perspective of its two youngest members,Estha and Rahel. They are a brother and sister who are in their thirties when the story begins. Roy soon flashes back to their childhood. She spends the entire book shifting from one time period to another, recasting events through Rahel's eyes (though not in Rahel's voice).

The first thing we learn about Estha and Rahel is that they have had some kind of trauma in their lives. Estha never speaks and spends most of his time walking his neighborhood or doing household chores. He still lives at home with his English father. The father retires and has to send Estha back home to Ayemenem, the Indian town of his birth. The implication is that Estha cannot take care of himself, even though he is an adult.

Rahel comes home, too, leaving her job at an all-night gas station in the United States. We can tell from Roy's description of her that Rahel is intelligent and could be successful. She trained as an architect, just as Roy did. But she was often in trouble at school, and has ended up at a job where "drunks occasionally vomited into the till... pimps propositioned her with more lucrative job offers... she saw men being shot through their car windows. And once a man who had been stabbed, ejected from a moving car with a knife in his back" (p. 21)

It is not clear, in the first chapter, why Estha and Rahel act the way they do. There are some clues.

On page 12, we learn that Estha's parents were embarrassed when he began sweeping, mopping, washing laundry and buying groceries for the household. These are seen as women's tasks, and Estha seems to be pushing against the limitations placed on him. Rahel is expelled from three different schools for rules violations. First she assaults senior girls by hiding behind doors and running into them. She explains that she wants to find out if breasts hurt, as if she is rebelling against school norms that do not acknowledge or value women's bodies.

At her next school, Rahel is expelled for smoking. The last school expels her for setting fire to her Housemistress's wig. These incidents lead her teachers to say this about Rahel:

"It was, they whispered to each other, as though she didn't know how to be a girl" (p. 18).

Another clue to Estha and Rahel's behavior comes on page 7. The children attend a funeral, where they and their mother Ammu are ostracized and have to stand apart from the rest of the family. This incident takes place in another flashback, when Estha and Rahel are seven years old.

What happened to Estha and Rahel to ruin their lives? Why are they incapable of forming intimate relationships or finding fulfilling work? Have they made a conscious effort to refuse their gender roles, or is that just a by-product of their overall approach? These are some of the questions we will answer as we explore this complex and challenging book.

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