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Weekly Alibi Devil in the Details

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

By Patrick Sullivan

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  India has a distinguished record of pitching in to bail out English literature. Some of the most vibrant, innovative work in our language today is coming out of the subcontinent. That tradition continues with The God of Small Things. First-time author Arundhati Roy has successfully married her unique, emotionally evocative cadence to a cunningly crafted story. The combination is a powerful blast of fresh air that blows away the postmodern literary detritus like dead leaves in a strong wind.

Perhaps the author's training as an architect helped her design this careful plot, which carves such wide circles as it spirals reluctantly down into the dark heart of the story. Past shades into present, dreams mix with reality, but slowly the old skulls come to light, and the unmentionable is at last given full mention.

It's a story from India's recent history. Strange bonds link a brother and sister growing up in a fractured family in the 1960s. Rahel and Estahappen are disygotic twins. Physically they don't resemble one another, but there is a strange confusion in a deeper place: "In those early amorphous years," she writes, "when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. "

Together, the twins enter a world inhabited by their lonely mother and the rest of their cruel, wounded family: Their befuddled uncle, their domineering grandmother and their scheming great-aunt. In the hot-house atmosphere of the family estate, secret love and secret betrayal bloom suddenly into life.

No small controversy was aroused in India by the novel's frank depiction of a very physical affair between Ammu, the twins' beautiful mother, and a hand-some young Untouchable man. American readers might pretend not to understand the force of this broken taboo, but really it should be crystal clear to us. An excellent parallel would be a wealthy Southern white woman falling in love with a black man. Of course, the power of the rigid Hindu caste system is much diminished in modern India, but the Untouch- able stigma is still strong enough that Roy was sued for corruption of the public morals over The God of Small Things.

Rahel, Estahappen and their mother are small leaves swirling atop a fierce river of racial, economic and religious conflict. Besides the suddenly shaky caste system, there is a burning friction between the haves and the have-nothings. Disturbing, too, is the odd spell cast by the white child who comes to visit this post-colonial household. But the whisper-soft subtlety with which the author treats these issues ensures that politics undergird the story rather than obscure it.

The devil is in the tragic details of these crippled lives. Kick over a small stone from this fam- ily's past, and you'll see feral yellow eyes staring back at you. Roy's characters are maimed by their most intimate tragedies and frustrated into madness by situations no one around them can understand. The author's soft, rhythmic prose is the perfect tool for depicting these struggles against suffocating isolation. In fact, language is the key to this book's power. Roy doesn't wield words like tools; she grows them in some wild garden. Her phrases quickly creep their way into the reader's head. Here is Rahel's mother at 31: "Not old. Not young. A viable, die-able age."

Seen mostly through the eyes of children, the world has a strange, ambiguous shape exquisitely relayed by the author's well-wrought metaphors and rich descriptions. It's the language of heartbreak, but also of ironic laughter. For all the tragedy of the book, there is a powerful countervailing current of playful humor, much of which springs from the twins' quirky relationship.

Most of all, Roy's idiom perfectly captures the fleeting, contingent nature of life's sublime joys--love, family, hope. In a world built on little bones, happiness can't last forever. But The God of Small Things dares to celebrate it anyway. (Random House, cloth, $23)

--Patrick Sullivan

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