by Arundhati Roy, 1997
Excellent writer but such a tragic tale, and no redemption in the end. Seven year-old twins (“two-egg twins”) and their beautiful mother, Ammu, live with their Uncle Chacko, their grandaunt Baby Kochamma, and their grandmother, Mammachi, in their beautiful home and Paradise Pickle factory by the river in Ayemenem, India. Something very, very tragic happens but you don’t know exactly what, only that it kills their beloved cousin from London, Sophie Mol, and their beloved friend and mother’s lover, Velutha. Velutha is a handsome, talented, loving, kind young man who is a father the children need and he and Ammu fall in love. The problem is, he is a Paravan, an untouchable.
Everything is magical and fun around these precocious twins until they go to see, The Sound of Music, and Estha (the boy twin) is sent out to the lobby for singing loudly and while out there is molested by the OrangedrinkLemondrink man. Disgusting, evil man. Unfortunately, Estha thinks it is his fault and he carries the secret within him and it leads him to feel the need to run away from home because he is so afraid. If only he would have told his mom what happened, or told Velutha, but he didn’t. That leads him to tell Rahel (his twin sister) they need to run away. They take a boat and their cousin, Sophie Mol, and try to cross the river at night after a huge rainstorm. The boat capsizes, Sophie Mol is drowned, and Velutha is blamed and beaten to death. Tragic, tragic tale. The evil of one man ruins so many lives. In the end, there is no hope – An adult Rahel (the girl twin) returns to Ayemenem where her beloved twin brother is living a completely silent life with his fat, disgusting greataunt, Baby Kochamma, who is really the cause of the death of Velutha because of the lies she told. The last two chapters are a love scene between the twins (!) and the love scene between their mother and Velutha years and years ago. Here’s what she says about the twins love:
…Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.
Arundhati Roy is an excellent writer. She can write from the perspective of a child really well and her descriptions of the people, homes, flora and fauna put you right there.
What humans do to one another, the evil of the caste system, and the evil of humanity is so sad and tragic.
Here are some words from the middle of the book that show how wonderful Velutha was and how happy the twins were with him and the deep pain they are living with because of what happened to him, and to Sophie Mol, and to their beautiful mother:
They visited him in saris, clumping gracelessly through red mud and long grass (nictitating ictitating tating ating ting ing) and introduced themselves as Mrs. Pillai, Mrs. Eapen and Mrs. Rajagopalan. Velutha introduced himself and his paralyzed brother Kuttappen (although he was fast asleep). He greeted them with the utmost courtesy. He addressed them all as Kochamma and gave them fresh coconut water to drink. He chatted to them about the weather. The river. The fact that in his opinion coconut trees were getting shorter by the year. As were the ladies in Ayemenem. He introduced them to his surly hen. He showed them his carpentry tools, and whittled them each a little wooden spoon.
It is only now, these years later, that Rahel with adult hindsight recognized the sweetness of that gesture. A grown man entertaining three raccoons, treating them like real ladies. Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction, taking care not to decimate it with adult carelessness. Or affection.
It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain.
To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do.
Three days before the Terror, he had let them paint his nails with red Cutex that Ammu had discarded. That’s the way he was the day History visited them in the back verandah. A carpenter with gaudy nails. The posse of Touchable Policeman had looked at them and laughed.
“What’s this?” one had said. “AC-DC?”
Another lifted his boot with a millipede curled into the ridges of its sole. Deep rust-brown. A million legs.
The last strap of light slipped from the cherub’s shoulder. Gloom swallowed the garden. Whole. Like a python. Lights came on in the house.
Rahel could see Estha in his room, sitting on his neat bed. He was looking out through the barred window at the darkness. He couldn’t see her, sitting outside in the darkness, looking in at the light.
A pair of actors trapped in a recondite play with no hint of plot or narrative. Stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else’s sorrow. Grieving someone else’s grief.
Unable, somehow, to change plays. Or purchase, for a fee, some cheap brand of exorcism from a counselor with a fancy degree, who would sit them down and say, in one of many ways: “You’re not the Sinners. You’re the Sinned Against. You were only children. You had no control. You are the victims, not the perpetrators.”
It would have helped if they could have made that crossing. If only they could have worn, even temporarily, the tragic hood of victimhood. Then they would have been able to put a face on it, and conjure up fury at what had happened. Or seek redress. And eventually, perhaps, exorcize the memories that haunted them.
But anger wasn’t available to them and there was no face to put on the Other Thing that they held in their sticky Other Hands, like an imaginary orange. There was nowhere to lay it down. It wasn’t theirs to give away. It would have to be held. Carefully and forever.
Esthappen and Rahel both knew that there were several perpetrators (besides themselves) that day. But only one victim. And he had blood-red nails and a brown leaf on his back that made the monsoons come on time.
He left behind a Hole in the Universe through which darkness poured like liquid tar. Through which their mother followed without even turning to wave good-bye. She left them behind, spinning in the dark, with no moorings, in a place with no foundation.
Powerful writer but a very tragic, sad tale. Thank you, Jesus, that you overcame sin and death and evil and they don’t have the last word. Praise You and thank You forever!