December 6, 2013
Recognizing Your Soul in Another: Trauma in The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things presents, through the lives of a colonized people, a solemn truth of the human condition. People break one another and themselves; any pleasure experienced in life is exponentially brief compared to pain and tension that precedes and follows. Should one remain unbroken, and, in this case, personify The God of Small Things, the world finds a way to brutally shatter him, tearing holes in those who depended upon him, never to be filled or mended. Traumatic experiences haunt the central characters of Ammu, Rahel, and Estha, each displaying individual sets of post-traumatic symptoms. In an attempt to heal themselves and one another, they seek the comfort of their soul’s counterpart, which, as expressed in Plato’s Symposium, dwells in the being that he or she had split from before birth–left to forever seek permanent union with the other half. Through examination of the characters’ trauma and endless search for healing through their soul’s counterpart, the novel dissolves social and political boundaries relating not solely to the colonized, but to all human beings.
Applying Western philosophy to the trauma of colonization requires a shift in our understanding of said philosophy and its ability to effectively articulate the suffering of Roy’s characters. As Stef Craps and Gert Buelens explain in “Introduction: Postcolonial Trauma Novels,” “Rather than assuming that Western theoretical and diagnostic models can be unproblematically exported to non-Western contexts, [we must] investigate the extent to which these models are culture-bound, and ponder how they might be modified with a view to wider applicability” (3). To successfully use Aristophanes’ theory of human trauma and comfort expressed in Plato’s Symposium, we first must evaluate the philosophy and its possible connections to postcolonial trauma. Aristophanes expresses his belief that “The shape of man was quite round, back and ribs passing about it in a circle; and he had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces on a round neck, exactly alike; there was one head with these two opposite faces, and four ears, and two privy members,” until, after angering the gods, Zeus split the being in half.
[When] the original body was cut through, each half wanted the other, and hugged it; they threw their arms round each other desiring to grow together in the embrace, and died of starvation because they would not do anything apart from each other… But Zeus pitied them…and moved their privy parts in front, for these also were outside before…[allowing sexual embrace.] So you see how ancient is the mutual love implanted in mankind, bringing together the parts of the original body, and trying to make one out of two, and to heal the natural structure of man. (91-3)
The theory of the splitting of the human form into two bodies can be viewed as the fractured identity of a colonized people, and the desire for embrace and comfort from one’s other half surely relates to the need for healing after experiencing a trauma. Separation and displacement are common themes in Roy’s novel, allowing us to stretch Aristophanes’ philosophy to accommodate the formation of a postcolonial posttraumatic identity.
Viewing postcolonial trauma as strictly an individual reaction to displacement and suffering does not account for the collective consciousness of the people. As Craps and Buelens state, “Colonial trauma…is a collective experience, which means that its specificity cannot be recognized unless the object of trauma research shifts from the individual to larger social entities, such as communities or nations” (4). As a collective experience, colonial trauma forces individual sufferers to endlessly seek comfort in others, desiring to fill absences within themselves by nurturing and caring for one another. Furthermore, to properly assess the level of trauma experienced by Roy’s characters, we have to take into account the political and social constraints that result from colonization. When such constraints are ignored and punishment (with resulting trauma) ensues, the strength of the human desire for comfort and the merging of the soul becomes clear.
Ammu’s connection with Velutha crosses India’s political and social caste system, proving the sincerity of the soul’s recognition of its counterpart. Ammu’s painful memories of a childhood fragmented by abuse, her confinement as a mother of twins without a father figure, and her realization that “She was twenty-seven that year, and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived” stir her desire for comfort in physical companionship (38). The restlessness inside of her led her to Velutha. Upon first seeing one another, “He saw…that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him, too. This knowing slid into him cleanly, like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It only took a moment” (149). The “knowing” referenced in the passage refers to the mutual recognition of the self in another, finding comfort, love, a soul’s counterpart in another human being. Ammu’s physical connection to Velutha undoubtedly represents the fleeting experience of pleasure versus the life spent in pain. Even before they make love, “…they knew already that for each tremor of pleasure they would pay with an equal measure of pain. As though they know that how far they went would be measured against how far they would be taken. So they held back. Tormented each other. Gave of each other slowly” (276). The mutual recognition of the gravity of their connection and the need to slowly partake in pleasure echoes the theory outlined in Symposium. They see themselves in one another, but cannot become close enough to merge back into one being. Sensing the danger of intertwining for extended periods of time, they know that in order to preserve sanity, they must savor small moments spent together. The consequence that results from the affair, however, shatters either of their hopes for remaining unscathed by the cruelty of a postcolonial, posttraumatic world.
Velutha’s death thrusts Ammu into a state of posttraumatic distress, causing her to ignore the passing of time and finally escaping the temporal realm through death. The disregard for sequential time in the novel as a whole represents the life fractured by phantasmagoric images and memories. As Elizabeth Outka explains,
…stylistic and political readings of the novel have so far missed [the] central role of trauma in creating the temporal mix experienced by the characters. One of the most noted aftereffects of traumatic experience is, in fact, a disordering of time, when past events threaten to take over the present, returning repeatedly to haunt the current moment in the form of flashbacks, hallucinations, or dreams. (22)
Throughout the entire novel, we clearly see that not one character escapes trauma, but Ammu certainly resists the passing of time with the most fervor. When visiting Rahel with gifts,
They were presents for a seven-year-old; Rahel was nearly eleven. It was as though Ammu believed that if she refused to acknowledge the passage of time, if she willed it to stand still in the lives of her twins, it would…If Rahel tried to say something, Ammu would interrupt with a new thought or query. She seemed terrified of what adult thing her daughter might say and thaw Frozen Time. (133-4)
By attempting to live outside of time, Ammu clearly is prolonging her realization that life must continue without Velutha. We see the desire for all worldly pursuits leave Ammu because her soul’s counterpart has died, and all she longed for with Velutha can no longer be, facing her to live wait for death in an aging body–a human shell. Death envelopes her view on life, and
It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself…No twists, no turns or hairpin bends obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with an awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. (186)
Her desperate wish to have the ending obscured from her reveals her post traumatic suffering. She wishes to disorder time to the point that she becomes oblivious to her own lonely end, knowing that when she had lived she had only lived while Velutha was near enough to her: a living, breathing, loving representation of her soul in another.
After Velutha’s death, Ammu recalls her dream of the God of Small Things, who she takes to be a form of Velutha: “If he touched her, he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her he couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win. Ammu longed for him. Ached for him with the whole of her biology” (272). Longing for him with all of her “biology” reinforces the concept that the connection between the two severed souls does not exist solely in the mind, nor even the heart, but manifests itself in the human form itself, with every cell reaching toward its soul and former bodily counterpart. Using this Western theory to analyze postcolonial post traumatic stress would not be complete unless we observed that not only are Ammu and Velutha one another’s soul-counterparts, but they are ranked in different castes–a love viciously prohibited by law. The consequence of their love perpetuates the trauma experienced by their permanent separation.
Rahel and Estha, equally traumatized, also must break Love Laws in their desire to be melded back into one being. Being telepathically connected, the relation between the two souls has not been fully severed, perhaps granting the twins a miniscule padding of comfort that softens the blow of trauma enough not to result in the withering and premature death of either Rahel nor Estha (such as Ammu had to die). Estha and Rahel both share the memory of Estha’s molestation through the bridge of telepathy, and after the incident, “Estha convulsed, but nothing came. Just thoughts. And they floated out and floated back in…Life went on” (93). At a very young age, Estha learns that thoughts cannot be vomited out, they never flood out, and for both he and Rahel, the dark thoughts always resurface. For instance, even when Rahel marries Larry, he cannot make love to her because of the look in her eyes. We learn that her eyes reflect Estha’s silence; her eyes display the repressed, inexpressible horror of the trauma they live with day-to-day. After Sophie Mol’s drowning and Velutha’s brutal beating, Chacko channels his rage toward Ammu, forcing her out. With this memory, “For years Rahel would dream this dream: a fat man, faceless, kneeling beside a woman’s corpse. Hacking its hair off. Breaking every bone in its body…a pianist killing the piano keys” (187). Deeply afflicted with the pain of her mother’s heartbreak, she views human connection as a savage ritual, but notice how the dream destroys the body (corpse) of a woman–the pianist kills the piano keys–while the woman’s soul (we can assume) remains unbroken, and the music remains intact and whole, both are simply without a body.
After having to identify Velutha as an abductor deserving criminal punishment, Estha silences himself in an attempt to put the unspeakable trauma to rest. “The Inspector asked his question. Estha’s mouth said Yes. / Childhood tiptoed out. / Silence slid in like a bolt. / Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared.” Turning off the light refers to the darkness that sweeps over Estha, Rahel, and Ammu’s lives after Velutha dies, leaving them to grope in the dark for a sliver of light, comfort, and relief from the posttraumatic nightmare they now all share. Estha’s silence represents the unspeakable devastation of trauma, and “What is ‘unspeakable’ remains unspoken, and yet the unspeakable remains and gains agency, engaging in violent and even desperate attempts to vacuum or strip or pare or hide or numb or entomb or tranquilize the persistent memory” (29). For this reason, forcing trauma to remain unspoken does not comfort Estha or numb his pain at all. Finally, the twins realize that in order to find a trace of comfort in the world, they must return to their natural form, to one being that was separated (literally) in the womb: they must make love to one another. Even with the pleasure of a brief unity, they knew “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” (270). The “Love Laws” of course are the social constraints placed upon individuals, dictating who may be and who cannot be the soul’s counterpart and crossing such boundaries brings devastating consequence.
Both acts of sex in the novel break social and political constructs about love and sexuality, proving that the soul’s bond to its counterpart cannot be broken by law or discrimination. In fitting form, Roy ends the novel by detailing the two embraces. Though time is disordered throughout the novel to display the effect of trauma, the novel must end with our desperate need for comfort and unity, our desire to no longer stalk the earth a single entity, a shivering soul without the warmth of its counterpart. Studying The God of Small Things through Western trauma studies is justified through the recognition of specific political and social constraints that further bound the sufferers. The tension mounts in a colonized country such as India, but the novel reaches beyond the colonized and speaks truths about human beings’ need for love and comfort as relief from trauma.
Buelens, Gert and Craps, Stef. “Introduction: Postcolonial Trauma Novels.” Studies in the Novel. Vol. 40 (Spring 2008). University of North Texas, Denton (2008).
Outka, Elizabeth. “Trauma And Temporal Hybridity In Arundhati Roy’s “The God Of Small Things.”Contemporary Literature 52.1 (2011): 21-53. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
Plato. “Symposium.” The Great Dialogues of Plato. 70-130. Signet Classics: New York, 2008.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. Random House: New York. E-book.