I received the best news I could imagine last year – my school was entering me (little old me!) in a competition to write a piece for a national newspaper. Naturally, I got straight to work brainstorming. By the next day, I had come up with no fewer than five fleshed-out ideas, and was buzzing with energy; that is, until I found out what it was that we would be writing. In a twist that would have shocked no one else but me, the newspaper was government-affiliated – and there was no way I was writing any of my ideas.
Rather than give us free rein of the articles, allowing us to eloquently convey what we, the people, felt to be most important, a topic list had been given to us. Every word on it spoke of patriotism, of national strength and how my country was doing its utmost in practically every field. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Living in a monarchy had always felt pleasant enough – in large part due to the luck of having a benevolent ruler – but that wasn’t always the case, and I knew it might not be in the future. I had a jarring realisation that of course, the biggest newspaper in the country would be censored. Of course we wouldn’t have true freedom of speech.
In a world with the internet and where information feels so easily available, it’s fighteningly easy to forget the truth. Blocking critical websites, using public media as propaganda, and outright lies online are still issues we face today. And maybe we’re not doing enough to solve them.
I thought long and hard about what book would receive my inaugural review, and it came down to this one. It was a tough one to finish, and is proving even harder to review. After all, it feels deeply personal: as a Keralite whose first language has always been English, I never grew up reading books about character anything like me. This was the first full novel I’d ever read by an Indian author in fact – and with that came the natural pressure to like it.
“If you’re happy in a dream, does that count?”
What worked for me
The culture: had you asked me 10 years ago, I doubt I could’ve imagined an English book so eloquently describing the minutiae that makes Kerala what it is. To see Indian history (the so-called ‘Love Laws’, from the outdated but still prevalent caste system) and Keralite politics (including the move towards communism) was both shocking and revealing. It reads beautifully as an ode to the state much in the same way ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is a love letter to Colombia. I would recommend this without a doubt to a friend who wanted to get to know my country, as long as they’re willing to have Google on hand!
The writing style: though this one is undoubtedly subjective, I’d say the focus on description over plot or character works in this book’s favour. Even devastating experiences – like one child fearing losing love – expressed in Roy’s stunning prose become small marvels. Throughout my reading, I was sure that with a hot cup of chai, sitting on porch swing, I could’ve pored over my novel word-by-word and been delighted each time. Artfully crafted statements are why this book was recommended to me; on that front, it did not disappoint.
“That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.“
And… what didn’t
The sequence: I can admit that this book hit at a pet peeve of mine. I detest the common trope to include both perspective before and far after a murder. Books that fall in this all too common trap seem to me as if they wouldn’t be worth a read, were they in chronological order. It feels like a cheap emotional hook – but a good enough mystery will keep readers guessing without resorting to two confusing timelines. To make matters worse, ‘The God of Small Things’ follows three main timelines (before the murder, directly after, and several years in the future), as well as many main characters. Perhaps this is for some, but it was definitely not for me.