This is a guest post written by Meg Hayes Fisher.
‘It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol … slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. It was always there. Like a fruit in season. Every season.’
With a death at the beginning and a death at the end, Arundhati Roy drapes her wonderful novel between these two tragedies. Through young twin eyes we see Rahel and Ester’s childhood, presenting the uncomfortable collision that occurs when a child tries to make sense of a very adult and upsetting world: a world of communism and caste systems in Ayemenem, and under the soft, sensuality of the Indian setting of bluebottles and ripe mangoes, lies bitterness, familial resentment and child-sized coffins. At the start of the novel we are given the end, so to speak, or rather, the devastation that followed the tragedy at the heart of the novel. It is a scene of silence, decay and twins torn in two; reunited after 25 years and finding a new found intimacy. Throughout the novel Arundhati Roy relays back and forth between past and present, and between each eccentric family member as the plot develops and the family feuds that run deep and dark beneath the surface and bubbles up through the fissures of the novel.
As the plot moves back and forth, it circles a single day, an event, and closes in on it from all angles. It is this ‘small thing’, this one awful occurrence that the novel pivots upon; the savage and fatal beating and of Velutha, an ‘untouchable’ who dared to love and be loved by the twins mother, Ammu, who was wrongly accused, and the subsequent drowning of five year old Sophie Mol. Ammu had come to “love by night the man her children love by day” and through this, brought shame and tragedy upon her family. The love laws have been broken, the laws that dictate”who must be loved, and how, and how much”, and like a single crack in a pane of glass it spreads outwards, sending hairline rifts through the family tree and shattering whatever childhood Rahel and Ester had experienced.
The separation of the twins after this fateful day, who subsequently live out their lives each as one half of a whole, stands as a symbol for the destruction of the tragedy that resonates from beginning to end. Roy’s prose strains such poetry through this tattered family portrait; she pays attention to the small things, the sounds and shapes of words, the smell of blood on a broken man, the ceiling of the church at a child’s funeral. The plot composition rises from the pages and reads like music not words, meshing English and Malayalam words. It is so rich, so bitter sweet and so unbearably sad, completely compelling all the way through, and steeped in the lush and fertile India spanning 1933 to 1969. It is grief that this novel leaves you with, a saturating grief that permeates the novel, the pages, skin, flesh and bones.
Originally published by Indiaink in 1997, and reprinted by Harper Collins in 2004.