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The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things Summary


Here you will find a The God of Small Things summary (Arundhati Roy's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The God of Small Things Summary Overview

Rahel reunites with her twin, Estha, in their hometown Ayemenem, after years apart when Estha was sent to live with his father. The story is frequently told through flashbacks, such as when the twins attended their cousin Sophie Mol's funeral at age seven. Rahel imagines events in an intensely vivid manner and is deeply affected by their mother, Ammu's cryptic mutterings during their return journey from the funeral. The story oscillates between past and present, revealing snapshots of their lives, like their grandmother's pickle factory, a communist rally they encountered, and a traumatic event in a theater where a young Estha was assaulted. The narrative seamlessly weaves between Rahel's current encounters, like her meeting with a communist leader, and memories of their attempts to impress their cousin Sophie Mol. The story also recalls Ammu's death, a moment that echoes the refrain "Things can change in a day." The plot thickens as secret affairs, family scandals, and tragic mistakes unfold. Ammu and a factory worker, Velutha, begin a clandestine relationship that leads to severe consequences when it's discovered. Velutha is banished from the family and falsely accused of a crime he didn't commit. The same day, a boat ride turns fatal, resulting in Sophie Mol's drowning. In a twist of fate, Velutha is found nearly dead from a brutal beating, falsely linked to Sophie's death, and Estha is coerced into implicating him. Years later, the twins reconnect in a moment of shared sorrow, harking back to the poignant "Small Things" - moments from their past, signifying their shared grief and unbreakable bond.

chapter 1

Rahel, an Indian expatriate, is going back to India after living in the US upon learning that her twin brother, Estha, has also returned home. The two share a deep, psychic connection, often experiencing each other’s thoughts and feelings. Although originally born in Assam where their father was employed, they moved to their grandparents' Kerala residence after their parents divorced. Their father later insisted that Estha be sent back to him, causing a lengthy separation between the twins. The story moves to a past event—the twins attending their cousin Sophie Mol's funeral. The kids were seven then, and Sophie was nine. The latter, the offspring of the twins’ uncle, had come for a visit to Ayemenem with her mother and tragically drowned. At the funeral, Rahel’s thoughts wander from the church's sky-painted ceiling to morbid thoughts of the painter’s fatal fall and an imagined bat attack on her great-aunt. She also envisions a horrifying scene of Sophie screaming in her coffin. After the service, they go to a police station where their mother, Ammu, reports a mysterious “mistake.” During the visit, a policeman assaults Ammu, and she becomes delirious, repeatedly murmuring “He's dead... I've killed him.” The family residence is now inhabited solely by Baby Kochamma, the twins' great aunt. When young, she harbored feelings for an Irish monk and even entered a convent to win his love, which didn't succeed. She later moved to New York to study ornamental gardening. While she initially maintained a beautiful garden, she now spends her time idly watching TV with the house help, Kochu Maria. She is displeased about the twins' return, fearing they might claim the house, which rightfully belongs to their grandparents. Rahel, now grown up, dwells on her family's pickle factory, and muses on its past scandal of a banned, unclassifiable banana jam. She contemplates on her family's own life inconsistencies and feels a lingering darkness and enigma in the house, which she attributes to Sophie Mol’s death.

chapter 2

We step back into 1969 when Rahel, Estha and their young mother, Ammu, are taken by their grandmother, Mammachi, to Cochin. They're journeying to fetch Sophie Mol, who is coming from England with Margaret Kochamma, her mother and Chacko’s former wife. Ammu's past is unveiled. She married Babu, the twins' father, at eighteen after a chance meeting at a wedding in Calcutta. Initially elated by her plush wedding and improved lifestyle, Ammu quickly finds herself in a troubled marriage when they relocate to Assam for Babu’s job at a tea estate. Babu’s drinking habits lead him to the brink of job loss, with Mr. Hollick, his boss, proposing a distasteful deal involving Ammu. Babu’s attempt to make Ammu comply results in him being beaten by her. She takes the twins and heads back to Ayemenem, quickly becoming known for her emotive and unpredictable nature. The story of Mammachi and Pappachi also unravels. Mammachi, though blind, is the force behind the family's pickle business, while Pappachi is an Imperial Entomologist in Delhi. Pappachi's abusive behavior towards Mammachi ceases when their son, Chacko, intervenes. The downtrodden Pappachi attempts to assert his dominance by buying a car and refusing to let anyone else drive it. An unacknowledged discovery of a new moth species leaves him bitter until his death from a heart attack. Chacko, a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford, lacks the drive to keep his lecturing job, so he returns home to manage the family business. He insists the twins need to visit the History House to understand their heritage. Returning to the 1969 car journey, the family encounters a disrobed man and a group of Communist protesters which includes Velutha, a lower caste worker from their pickle factory who is also a skilled handyman. The twins' attempt to interact with Velutha annoys Ammu, and Baby Kochamma is humiliated by being made to wave the Communist flag. An exasperated Chacko labels Ammu, Estha and Rahel as burdens.

chapter 3

In the present, Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria occupy a grimy, insect-infested house in Ayemenem. Their daily routine involves watching television side by side. On the TV, Rahel sees a busker who reminds her of an old Bihari worker from the train station. His phrase “Big Man the Laltain sahib, Small Man the Mombatti,” which refers to different types of dreams, sticks with Rahel. Soaking wet, Estha enters, prompting Rahel to silently follow him to his room. She observes him undress, recalling their childhood innocence when nudity wasn't shameful. However, now they are considered “old.” Rahel wipes a raindrop from Estha's ear. His reaction is unknown as he maintains his lifelong silence, not acknowledging her. This silence is rooted in a childhood event. Estha continues his laundry, ignoring Rahel's presence.

chapter 4

Before Sophie Mol’s impending arrival, the family pay a visit to the Abhilash Talkies. Here, Baby Kochamma, Ammu, and Rahel head to the restroom, where they share a moment of laughter during Rahel's bathroom break. Estha navigates the men's restrooms independently, standing on cans to match his height with the grown men. However, once inside the theater, Estha’s enthusiastic singing prompts Ammu to send him to wait in the lobby. In the lobby, Estha encounters the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man.” Spotting him alone, the man lures Estha to him under the pretense of a free drink, and proceeds to sexually assault him. The traumatic event leaves Estha feeling nauseous and deeply confused. When the family reunites in the lobby, Rahel, sensing something off about the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, lashes out at her mother, prompting Ammu to retaliate, causing a rift between them. The incident at the theater deeply affects Estha, leaving him anxious about the potential for future intrusions by the man. Later, at the hotel, Chacko muses over his daughter Sophie Mol, whom he hasn't seen since she was a baby. Chacko used to observe Sophie Mol at night to confirm his paternal bond. Meanwhile, Estha is dealing with his own emotional turmoil by vomiting in the bathroom. A conversation ensues between Chacko and Rahel about Velutha seen at the Communist march, leading Chacko to reflect on a political issue involving Comrade K. N. M. Pillai, a Communist leader threatening to mobilize the already financially vulnerable Paradise Pickles' workers. Interestingly, Rahel later recalls Velutha being the only factory worker who was a Communist but was disregarded by Comrade Pillai due to his lower caste. The day ends with the twins asleep, clutching each other, their dreams filled with imagery of the river near their home.

chapter 5

The narrative shifts to the current state of the river, now sluggish and polluted from years of misuse and colonisation. Where it once was intimidating with its force, it now resembles a garbage-filled drain, thanks to constant dumping, bathing, and defecation. A luxury hotel, ironically named "God's Own Country," has sprung up on its banks. It tries to shield guests from the sight of the degraded river with barriers and a pool, but the stench persists. Traditional Kathakali dances, usually six hours long narratives, are performed here in abbreviated versions to accommodate tourist preferences. Rahel encounters Comrade K. N. M. Pillai, who mentions a past scandal and tragedy related to her family. He shows her photographs of his son, Lenin, named for the renowned Marxist leader. His pictures trigger a memory for Rahel from their childhood. Both she and Lenin had ended up at the doctor's office to remove items lodged in their noses. Rahel, fearing the doctor who she now recognizes as a sexual predator, opted to expel the object herself while Lenin let the doctor assist him. Comrade Pillai also shares a photo of Rahel, Lenin, and Sophie Mol in their youth. It depicts Sophie Mol in a playful pose, her eyelids inverted, a yellow rind on her teeth, and her tongue protruding with a thimble on its end. Rahel remembers Sophie Mol suggesting they were all "bastard" children, just before the photo was taken. This was a day before Sophie Mol's untimely death.

chapter 6

The story returns to the past at Cochin Airport where Margaret Kochamma and her daughter Sophie Mol are expected. Rahel is still bothered by her mother's admission of loving her less. The family, dressed in their finest attire, eagerly await the British guests with welcome signs. They are instructed by Ammu to consider themselves as India's representatives for Sophie Mol. As Sophie Mol and her mother approach, an air of anticipation is palpable. Chacko greets Margaret as his wife, but she insists they're divorced. Sophie Mol, with her tall stature, blue eyes, and fair skin, grabs Rahel's attention. To appear refined, Baby Kochamma compares Sophie to Ariel from Shakespeare's The Tempest, a remark that confuses the nine-year-old girl. Rahel retreats behind a curtain, causing Ammu to reprimand her for smudging her outfit. Sophie Mol is serenaded with English songs by Rahel and Estha during the journey home. The narrative whimsically mentions the car colliding with a cabbage-green butterfly, or perhaps, it was the other way round.

chapter 7

Rahel is rummaging through Pappachi's old study where she spots deteriorating butterflies, moths, and an interesting book series, The Insect Wealth of India. She also stumbles upon hidden notebooks titled Wisdom Exercise Notebooks belonging to Esthappen and herself. As she flips through them, she giggles at Estha's childlike errors and his inclination towards grim subjects, until a stern letter from Ammu to Estha asking him not to disrupt her while conversing dampens her mood. In a flashback to when they were eleven, Estha is away living with his father while Rahel remains back with Ammu. Every time Rahel mentions Estha, Ammu changes the subject, unwilling to accept her son's absence and her worsening respiratory ailment. The story then fast-forwards to Ammu's death at thirty-one, dying alone while waiting for a job interview. Rahel and Chacko are left with the responsibility of collecting her body for cremation, and subsequently, the ashes. Throughout this, Rahel doesn’t cry or inform Estha, feeling it would be akin to communicating with another part of herself. Presently, Rahel finds herself on the verandah of the Ayemenem house, lost in memories of the past when they welcomed Sophie Mol singing “Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol”.

chapter 8

On Sophie Mol's arrival day, Mammachi, known for her violin skills, is found playing the instrument on the porch. However, her tune turns bitter when she thinks of Margaret, whom she blames for her son, Chacko's divorce. Still, she's loyal to her son, perhaps because he once saved her from her husband's beatings. Symbolically, she transferred all her affection to Chacko, even tolerating and compensating his numerous affairs. As part of the welcome, Kochu Maria bakes a cake inscribed with “Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol.” The family behaves nervously, hiding their true feelings and focusing on trivial matters. Rahel slips away to meet Velutha, earning a fond look from her mother, Ammu, who also notices Velutha's striking physique. Velutha, in turn, acknowledges Ammu's charm. Inside, Margaret innocently asks if sniffing is a customary practice in India when she sees Kochu Maria sniffing Sophie's hands. Ammu retorts sharply, refusing to be seen as a primitive tribe. The narrative reveals Ammu's own traumatic past with her abusive husband, Pappachi. As the family enjoys the cake, Ammu orders Rahel to maintain a distance from Velutha. Annoyed, Rahel heads outside to squash ants.

chapter 9

We delve into Rahel's mind as she visits the marsh near her Ayemenem home. She recalls an afternoon with Estha and Sophie Mol, where they met Velutha, faces painted with Ammu’s makeup like “raccoons.” Velutha indulged their childish imagination without passing judgment. She sees the grown-up Estha in his room staring into the abyss, both feeling imprisoned in a play they didn't script. Rahel ponders on their inability to escape these predetermined “roles,” even with assistance from a counselor to help them realize they were victims, not culprits. Although their “sin” remains unspecified, it seems to involve Velutha and Sophie Mol. Rahel's thoughts shift to the pickle factory, remembering the day Sophie Mol arrived. Estha had "Two Thoughts" he “pickled and sealed” in a scarlet jam jar. The chapter concludes with a recurring line in the novel - “Things can change in a day.”

chapter 10

During young Estha and Rahel's time at the pickle factory, on the day Sophie Mol arrives, Estha's "Two Thoughts" he kept in a jar are unveiled. These thoughts, "Anything can happen to anyone," and "It is best to be prepared," stem from his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. With the fear of the man finding him again, Estha is plagued by grim thoughts, only to be interrupted by Rahel's arrival. He shares with her his intention to visit the haunted History House, once home to Kari Saipu, to prepare for any possible threats. Believing in the Communist view of disbelieving in ghosts, they plan to place a Communist flag, belonging to Velutha, outside the house to deter any spirits. The twins discover a boat on the river that Velutha uses for his nightly visits to Ammu. The boat takes a dip as they try to launch it, leading them to clean it and take it to Velutha's place for repair. There, they meet Velutha’s paralysed brother Kuttapen who spends his days lying on his back listening and chatting with passersby. He guides the twins on fixing the boat and warns them of the deceptive nature of the river. Velutha, noticing the Communist flag outside his hut, connects the dots that the twins saw him at the protest when they were on their way to meet Sophie Mol. He briefly allows himself to imagine Ammu's children living in his hut but quickly dismisses the thought and his burgeoning feelings for Ammu.

chapter 11

The story stays in the past, during Sophie Mol’s arrival day. Ammu dreams of a one-armed man she desires but there are people stopping her. She and the man swim in a turbulent sea without touching. The twins mistake her dream for a nightmare and wake her. Ammu clarifies that she was dreaming pleasantly. She scolds the twins when she understands they've visited Velutha’s hut. They cuddle with her, exploring the stretch marks on her belly from her pregnancy. She gets annoyed, dismisses them, and evaluates her aging and distressed reflection in the mirror. She cries, contemplating about herself, her twins, and the “God of Small Things.” The story then shifts to Chacko, grief-stricken from Sophie Mol’s recent passing, demolishes the door to Ammu’s room and evicts Ammu and the kids. The same room is where Rahel will later watch Estha clean himself and his clothes, a “silver raindrop on his ear.”

chapter 12

We find Rahel at a temple, gazing at Kochu Thomban, a ceremonial elephant that carries coconuts from the locals. Both the elephant and Rahel have aged, evident from the sagging skin of Kochu. Rahel leaves a coconut for Kochu and turns her attention to a group of Kathakali dancers illustrating a tale of a poverty-stricken man murdered by his brother. The narrative resonates with her, especially the themes of maternal affection and obligation. She is engrossed in this unabbreviated performance, unlike the modified versions presented at the riverside hotel. The narrator observes the degradation of Kathakali, with performers selling the "only thing he owns," their passion for storytelling, to entertain tourists. These Kathakali Men are now India's "Regional Flavor," men adorned in makeup who resort to domestic violence every night. Rahel feels Estha's presence at the temple and their thoughts begin to intertwine within the storyline, as if they are under a spell. Kochu Thomban's breaking of the coconut Rahel offered breaks their shared reverie. At this point, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai makes his entrance. It is revealed that he was the one who introduced Kathakali to the twins. He praises Rahel and Estha for maintaining their cultural interest, to which they respond with silence and a quiet walk back home.

chapter 13

The story harks back to the past. Sophie Mol is in her mother's room, Margaret, who's asleep. She's looking at their wedding photo. The narrative then delves into Chacko and Margaret's first encounter. Chacko, an Oxford University scholar, meets Margaret, a self-reliant waitress, in her restaurant. He breaks ice with a joke about Pete and Stuart. Margaret doesn't find the joke amusing, but shares a laugh with Chacko. His charm and intellect bewitch her, and they tie the knot. However, she soon discovers Chacko's laziness and their stagnant life. After Sophie Mol's birth, she divorces Chacko for another man, Joe. Upon Joe's demise, Margaret and Sophie Mol head to India to seek solace with Chacko. Margaret is tormented by the decision to bring Sophie to India, realizing Sophie would still be alive if she hadn't. The narrative then moves on to the circumstances leading to Sophie Mol's demise. When the children fail to attend breakfast, Ammu recalls her outburst from the previous night, calling them "millstones" around her neck. Fear grips her as she ponders the children's whereabouts. We learn that Velutha's father, Vellya Paapen, had visited their house, admitting to Mammachi about Velutha, a Paravan, and Ammu's illicit relationship. He offers to kill Velutha, as such a union is deemed a grave offence. Mammachi, in rage, shoves him down the stairs. Baby Kochamma amplifies Mammachi's anger, delighted with Ammu's disloyalty, and locks Ammu in her room. Simultaneously, when a fisherman finds Sophie Mol's body and Baby Kochamma is at the police station reporting Ammu's and Velutha's affair, Baby Kochamma dramatizes the incident claiming that Ammu was sexually assaulted. Back at home, Margaret is shattered on seeing Sophie Mol's lifeless body and accuses Estha, as the river trip was his idea. Despite landing a slap on him, she repents later. The story then circles back to Sophie Mol in her mother's room. Sophie opens Margaret's suitcase to fetch the gifts for the twins. The narrative concludes by alluding to the enduring impact of Velutha and Sophie Mol's deaths.

chapter 14

Chacko visits Comrade Pillai's residence, hoping to secure a new contract for printing labels for his Synthetic Cooking Vinegar. He also hopes to gather information about a Communist march they saw earlier. Pillai's humble abode is a flurry of activity, as Pillai tries to impress Chacko with his children's recitations and his own manner of multitasking. Upon Chacko's mention of Velutha participating in the march, Pillai mistakenly assumes Chacko is upset, since Velutha is an employee at Chacko's pickle factory. Chacko, however, has faith in Velutha, but Pillai advises him to fire Velutha due to his Paravan status and the discomfort it causes other employees. The narrative fast forwards, revealing the downfall of the family's pickle factory, and the fact that the last person to see Velutha alive was Pillai, who withheld this information from the police. The readers witness Velutha's confrontation with Mammachi, who threatens to have him killed. Velutha responds with defiance, saying, “We’ll see about that.” Attempting to seek Pillai's support, Velutha visits him, but Pillai dismisses him, reciting vague Communist slogans and clarifying that the party can't intervene in personal matters. As Velutha leaves, Pillai notices his nails painted red - the twins' handiwork from earlier. Velutha then heads to the river, intending to swim to the History House.

chapter 15

Velutha embarks on his final swim across the river. His physique is depicted by the narrator as striking and robust, easily navigating the water under the moon's glow. Despite this, his actions are driven by instinct and unawareness, a reaction to the looming threat and unpredictability of his life ahead. Velutha is referred to by the narrator as the "God of Small Things."

chapter 16

A few hours post Velutha's final swim, Estha, Rahel, and Sophie Mol gather at the river. The twins' motive behind deciding to use the History House as a sanctuary is revealed: it's to escape the burdens they've become to Ammu, as she referred to them as “millstones” around her neck. The encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man has solidified this plan in Estha's mind. Sophie Mol, slightly nervous but determined, joins the twins, carrying pilfered food from the Ayemenem home. She believes her absence will make their eventual return more significant. The trio embarks on their journey in the boat, which unfortunately capsizes after hitting a log. Rahel and Estha manage to swim to safety, but Sophie Mol is lost. The twins search for her for hours before falling asleep by the History House, unaware that Velutha is snoozing nearby.

chapter 17

Further insight is given into Baby Kochamma's doomed infatuation with Father Mulligan. Despite maintaining a lengthy correspondence, their relationship breaks down when Father Mulligan abandons Catholicism to embrace Hinduism, disappointing Baby Kochamma. She continues to pen letters to him posthumously in her diary, always starting with "I love you, I love you", thereby establishing an imagined bond that feels more genuine and satisfying to her. The story then shifts to the grown-up twins, Estha and Rahel, sitting on a bed. Estha's memories drift back to the final moment he saw Ammu before being sent to his father Assam. It is revealed that Velutha was apprehended and accused of kidnapping and killing Sophie Mol. Comrade K. N. M. Pillai only steps in after Velutha's arrest, rallying at the pickle factory while asserting Velutha's unjust treatment due to his Communist Party affiliation.

chapter 18

The story transitions to Sophie Mol's demise day. Officers are at the river for investigation, with the surrounding nature bustling with creatures. They locate the History House where Estha, Rahel and Velutha are asleep after an all-night search for Sophie. Velutha faces a harsh, merciless beating from the police as the twins eavesdrop. In order to deal with the situation, they imagine it's Velutha's sibling being assaulted. Overcome by a mix of curiosity and dread, the twins observe Velutha's battered form, discovering that "Blood barely shows on a Black Man" and it "smells sicksweet, like roses on a breeze." The police's violence is portrayed as methodical and practical, akin to halting a disease spread with their brutal actions. Despite Velutha's severe injuries preventing him from moving, he's handcuffed and transported to the police station. The officers, satisfied they've protected the twins from a Paravan, pocket some toys from the History House for their offspring as they depart.

chapter 19

At the police station, Inspector Thomas Mathew calls for Baby Kochamma, visibly irritated. This is because the twins have stated that their trip to the river was self-initiated and Sophie Mol’s tragic death was unintentional. He regrets his hasty belief in Baby Kochamma’s insinuations that Velutha was guilty, especially since there was no formal complaint against Velutha from anyone, including Ammu. Now, he fears he is responsible for an innocent man's potential death. He warns Baby Kochamma that if the twins or Ammu fail to confirm her allegations, she may face charges for falsely accusing Velutha. Baby Kochamma, wanting to protect her reputation, schemes to convince the twins to back her accusations against Velutha. She solemnly kisses her crucifix before meeting them. She accuses them of causing Sophie Mol’s death out of jealousy, and asserts that they, and their mother, could be imprisoned if they do not accuse Velutha of kidnapping. Fascinated and confused, the twins agree to accuse Velutha in an attempt to protect their mother. Estha, being more pragmatic, is selected to identify the severely beaten Velutha. He's instructed to only answer the officer's questions affirmatively. As Estha identifies the dying Velutha, he believes he perceives a message from Velutha's beaten face. Velutha passes away that night. Baby Kochamma, wary of Ammu revealing her secret, persuades Chacko to eject Ammu and the kids from the house.

chapter 20

The story rewinds to the twins' younger days. Estha is dispatched to reside with his dad, Babu. A lady on the train praises his English and offers him sweets. His departure causes Rahel to shriek in distress. It's only in their adulthood that they discover their mother's involvement in Velutha's demise. They both carry the burden of guilt over Sophie Mol’s and Velutha’s deaths throughout their lives, but Estha more so as he was compelled to testify against Velutha. Flash-forward to the present, Rahel visits Estha's room in the Ayemenem house, addressing him by his old pet name, “Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon.” Estha caresses her lips, finding them to be similar to their mother's, whom he considered beautiful. They hold each other in bed and become intimate. The narrator describes it as an act born more from “hideous grief” than affection. Rahel's mind drifts to the night of Sophie Mol’s arrival and how her mother, Ammu, had put her to bed, then left the room, yearning for Velutha.

chapter 21

The previous section concludes with the depiction of Ammu and Velutha's clandestine romance. During Sophie Mol's arrival day, Ammu leaves Rahel asleep and steps onto the house verandah and towards the river with her radio, hoping for Velutha's company. Velutha, initially unaware of Ammu's presence due to his stargazing in the river, finally spots her and approaches her, uncertain but hopeful. Their encounter on the river bank culminates in a passionate exchange that momentarily eclipses time. They secretly reconnect thirteen times prior to Velutha's demise, indulging in the "Small Things" such as their mutual physical pleasure and minor nuisances like insect bites, knowing well that the "Big Things" like their caste disparity, will forever separate them. They share a pet spider, bestowed the name "Lord Rubbish" by Velutha. Every night, before parting, they confirm their next meeting with "Tomorrow? Tomorrow." On the eve of Sophie Mol’s arrival, their final night together, Ammu echoes "Tomorrow" one final time before heading back home.

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