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2017-02-07
Small Things

Communism is Velutha. In Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things, Velutha is a carpenter in a pickle factory in the town of Ayemenem in Kerala. He is an Untouchable. In the novel, he first appears fleetingly in the midst of a communist demonstration, waving a red flag. Then he disappears.

His life is one of tragic destiny and conviction: he loves Ammu, a high caste woman who he has known since childhood and who is now divorced with two children. Their relationship is scandalous. When opportunity arises, Velutha is falsely accused of having raped and murdered a woman who actually drowned. He is imprisoned; he never returns.

Together with his lover Ammu, Velutha has indeed collided with an unwritten law, the 'love law':

...the law that determines who should be loved and how. And how much. The law that makes grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jams jams and jelly jelly.

But the law cannot keep on oppressing people. In the late 1960s, Kerala, the state in India's south, was changing fast. The lowest social strata, the Untouchables who called themselves Dalit (the oppressed) no longer remained silent. For centuries, and even after India's independence, they had been marginalized. In Kerala, the majority of them were Syrian Christians, which made them doubly a minority, a totally ostracized group

Along came the Communist Party to help them.

The Party tried to change destiny in that area. From the mid 1960s, the communists were democratically elected to rule. They did good work: they improved the people's health, they raised the level of popular education-making the literacy rate the highest in all India-and they built equality between women and men...

They were impressive. But limited.

Arundhati Roy's novel actually depicts them as gentle fighters: they never challenge the tradition that entrenches caste differences. Pillai, the Party official who also works for the pickle factory, is a communist who makes compromises. He names his son 'Lenin', but is polite to Chako, the boss. He renews the contract to print the factory labels. He avoids Velutha the Dalit because the other workers do not like him.

Velutha is indeed no normal Untouchable. He studied carpentry and behaves as someone who deserves to be noticed. He believes that communism gives him hope. But we know his tragic end.

Even so, he leaves an impression in Ammu's life as 'the god of small things' she met in a dream.

Small things: the toys Velutha made Ammu when they were children. Small things: simple hopes between the two of them. Not Great Things, not strident ideals of social change-which are always hidden inside, invisible, unattained.

The God of Small Things, with its wonderful language and its clever storytelling, expresses suspicion of big agendas. History proves that such 'Great Things' end in broken hopes. Particularly in India, which is constantly dogged by social inequality, shackled by religion, and wounded by history. In the body of its society 'various kinds of despair competed for primacy'.

The novel says there is a 'Big God [who] howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance'. This God offers, for instance, Eternal Revolution with programs of sufficiency. It feels strong, but distant. On the other hand, the 'Small God' brings simple, practical ideals 'cozy and contained, private and limited'. This God even laughs at his own temerity.

In other words, the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Mao-who 'howl like hot wind and demand obeisance'-are no longer convincing. Communist parties indeed demand that their followers be loyal to the determined path. But still, history is full of sudden turns. The Communist Party of India eventually broke apart.

The Communist Party of Kerala, one of the broken shards-which was once a 'Big God'-attacked the God of Small Things. But we know what has happened: just like Comrade Pillai in the pickle factory, today the party lives with compromise, not the spirit of revolution. Under the government of Pinarayi Vijayan, a member of the Communist Party of India's Politburo, Kerala has invited in big capitalists to build industry and grand infrastructure. The Times of India wrote, "The Left goes Right."

In the novel, Velutha once waved the red flag. But then he died. And in real life, his party is succeeding in improving Kerala with a white flag.

Like everywhere, communism has changed to become a word not understood.

Goenawan Mohamad



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