Roy’s novel was published 1996, quickly became a best-seller, and won the prestigious Booker Prize in October, 1997.

Roy often denies in interviews that she has been influenced by Salman Rushdie, but it is difficult to see how she could have avoided his influence, pervasive among younger South Asian writers. Particularly notable here are such typically Rushdean stylistic tricks as capitalizing Significant Words and runningtogether other words. More importantly, her novel is filled with the same sort of insistent foreshadowing as occurs throughout Midnight’s Children, and like Rushdie (and models Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez) uses an incongruously jaunty tone to relate tales of horror and tragedy. Like his Shame, her novel is partly a protest against South Asian prudery which stands in the way of love.

Her most original contribution in this novel is her portrayal of children, entering into their thinking in a way which does not sentimentalize them but reveals the fierce passions and terrors which course through them and almost destroy them.

Arundhati Roy blog


In the notes below if a term is used more than once it is usually defined only upon its first occurrence, but you can use the “find” command in your browser to locate the definition. Roy herself provides translations in context for some of the Malayalam words and phrases she uses, and those are not covered below.

Cast of Characters

Rahel (girl) and Esthappen Yako (Estha): fraternal (“two-egg”) twins.
Ammu: their mother, born 1942. Married to “Baba” (“father”: his real name is never given) and divorced.
Baby Kochamma (born Navomi Ipe): Rahel and Estha’s grandfather’s sister–their grand-aunt. “Kochamma” is not a name, but a standard female honorific title.
Sophie Mol (“Sophie girl”): the twins’ cousin, daughter of their Uncle Chacko and Margaret Kochamma. Throughout the novel, “mol” is “girl” and “mon” is “boy.”
Margaret Kochamma: daughter of English parents, former wife of Chacko, then of Joe, mother of Sophie Mol.
Mammachi (Shoshamma Ipe): blind grandmother of Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol, founder of the family pickle factory. “Mammachi” simply means “grandmother.”
Pappachi (Benaan John Ipe): late abusive husband of Mammachi. (“Pappachi: of course means “grandfather.”)
Chacko: son of Mammachi, divorced first husband of Margaret.
Joe: second husband of Margaret, died 1969.
Kochu Maria: “Little Maria”: the tiny cook of the household.
Larry McCaslin: Rahel’s American husband.
Velutha Paapen: Paravan untouchable around whom much of the action revolves.
Vellya Paapen: his father.

Kerala is well known for its relative freedom for women. Despite the fact that Western readers are likely to feel the female characters in this novel are intolerably constrained, they are in fact generally a highly assertive and energetic bunch; though Roy clearly seeks to depict as well the various ways in which they have been hurt by male domination. As you read, try to identify acts of female courage and assertiveness as well as instances in which women are oppressed.

The Dedication

Mary Roy is the author’s mother, who struggled to raise Arundhati on her own while teaching in the rural village of Aymanam (called “Ayemenem” in the novel) in southwestern India, in Kerala State. Arundhati left home at age sixteen to study architecture in Delhi.

Chapter One:

The story begins twenty-three years after the main events which will be covered by the novel, with flashbacks to that earlier period which culminated in the funeral of Sophie Mol. References to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man and the death of Sophie Mol will be explained later in the novel.


A very large sweet fruit common in South and East Asia.

Public Works Department (local utilities department).

the scurry of small lives
The first of many references that echo the theme of the title.

Syrian Orthodox bishops
More than a third of the population of Kerala consists of Christian families, some dating back many centuries. The Syrian Church is one of the older branches of Christianity.

zebra crossing
Striped pedestrian crossing.

Crimplene bell-bottoms
Wrinkle-resistant knit polyester jersey fabric which can be woven and impressed with various textures. The main action of the novel is set in 1969, when bell-bottomed pants were popular.

go-go bag
“Go-go” started as an expression in mangled English used by French speakers to express the idea of “without limit,” as in “Whisky à go-go.” In English it was associated with the sort of dancing done in “go-go bars,” and–by extension–with the clothing worn by the dancers, e.g. “go-go boots,” etc. Sophie Mol was hip to the current fads.

Ende Deivomay! EEE sadhanangal!
My God! What creatures!

curly beards
Orthodox Priests, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, wear full beards.

What evidence is there that Rahel’s startling visions during the funeral service may be imaginary?


And now, twenty-three years later
This refers to the reunion of the adult twins in the “present.”

After Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Estha was Returned
Refers to the earlier period, when he was a child; not to be confused with the time in the present when he was “re-Returned.”

In the northeast, about as far as it could be from Ayamenem.

pesticides bought with World Bank loans
Agricultural production in India was greatly boosted during the sixties by the development of new high-yield varieties and the application of large amounts of fertilizer which had the unfortunate effect of often damaging the environment. The World Bank offered loans to support such intensive agriculture, which has often been blamed for its socially damaging side-effects.

the Ayemenem office of the Communist Party
Communism has been especially successful in Kerala, where Marxists have often dominated a famously effective government. (Other states where Communist governments have been formed are West Bengal and Tripura in the northeastern region of India.) Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India and a low infant mortality rate.

Aertex vest
An inexpensive brand of undershirt.

A single piece of cloth arranged as a sort of loose pair of trousers, tied at the waist, worn by both men and women (though women add upper garments to it). Longer than the dhoti.

The old omelette-and-eggs thing.
Napoleon famously justified his uses of violence by saying “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Violent revolutionaries of all stripes are fond of repeating this slogan.

Garcinia mangosiana L.
A tropical fruit with a thick, dark-red skin.

Insulting British term for foreigners considered inferior.

What do the stories so far about the twins suggest about them? What kind of children were they?

a mediocre college of architecture in Delhi
Roy herself studied at the Delhi School of Architecture, though she was not strongly drawn to the subject and never practiced as an architect.

a nice athletic run
Roy enjoys running, and has worked as an aerobics instructor.

Then Small God . . 
How does this passage explain the title of the novel?

Black eye-liner, used to darken the inner rim of the eyelid.

When she was eighteen, Baby Kochamma fell in love
Since she is now eighty-three, this would have been around 1930.

In 1876, when Baby Kochamma’s father was seven years old
Just as Baby Kochamma seems to have lived her life backward, in Rahel’s view, we are told her history in a sort of reverse fashion, receding more and more into the past.

Since charity had not produced any tangible results, the distraught young Baby Kochamma invested all her hope in faith.
An allusion to First Corinthians 13:13.

An enormous diamond now part of the crown jewels of England; but it orginally belonged to the Mughals, Muslim rulers of India.

Anthurium andraeanum
A large, waxy flower which originated in Colombia, but which is now common in Hawaii and other tropical locales. The most popular varieties are red (“rubrum”). .

cannae and phlox
Canna indica originated in tropical America, but has been commonly cultivated in England, under the name “Indian shot.” Canna indica. None of these flowers is native to India. Why is Baby Kochamma bent on growing such an “exotic” garden?

gum boots
Rubber boots.

The word literally means “green.”

Ooty cupboards
Ooty is the popular name of Udhagamandalam, a luxurious “hill station” in the Nilgiri Mountains of Tamil Nadu, just across the border from Kerala in the northeast. Furniture from there would have belonged to wealthy visitors.

willow-pattern dinner service
An imitation Chinese ware manufactured in England and formerly extremely popular.

stuffed, mounted Bison head
The term “bison” is used here to designate a wild Indian water buffalo, displayed here as a hunting trophy.

kunukku earrings
A type of ancient Christian Keralite jewelry, usually gold earrings consisting of a short, thin chain with a small ball hanging from it.

Paradise Pickles & Preserves
The fact that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has a protagonist who owns a pickle factory has been much commented on. Roy claims not to have been much influenced by Rushdie, and in fact spiced and pickled chutneys and other preserves are so common in India that she need not have taken the idea of featuring a pickle factory in her novel from Rushdie. Her uncle George Isaac (model for Chacko) actually runs a pickle factory (Palat Pickles) in real life.

And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food products Organization) banned it
Indians often complain about their vast bureaucracy which promulgates all manner of restrictive rules.

Note the repeated references to Sophie Mol’s funeral which identify the passages in which they occur as being set in the “past.”


As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Galatians 6:7

tiffin carrier

Vacuuming. Hoover was one of the first manufacturers of vacuum cleaners, and the name of the firm became a verb, fallen into disuse in the U.S. but still common elsewhere.

mango hair
Mangos contain fibers which easily become caught between teeth.

By the end of the first chapter, Roy has given us all manner of dark hints about the events leading up to Sophie Mol’s death. What do you make of them?

Before the British took Malabar
Malabar denotes the southwestern coast of India from Goa southward, including most of Kerala. The British conquered it in the late 18th century.

before the Dutch Ascendency
In the 17th century the Dutch had seized the same territory.

before Vasco da Gama arrived, before the Zamorin’s conquest of Calicut
On May 20, 1498, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, India after having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, and became the first European to reach this region. After many struggles, some of them bloody, the Portuguese established a colony.

before the Zamorin’s conquest of Calicut
The Zamorin was the hereditary ruler of Calicut when da Gama arrived.

Syrian bishops murdered by the Portuguese
When the Portuguese gained trading concessions in the area, they tried to impose Roman Catholicism on the members of the older Syrian Church which predated them. The Syrians, resenting this attempt at domination of their community, decided to send a couple of their priests to Rome as representatives. Their mangled corpses were found washed up on the shore of Kerala a few weeks later. This incident played an important role in the eventual reassertion of Syriac Christianity in Kerala.

Christianity arrived in a boat
Tradition says that St. Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, brought Christianity to this region in 52 CE. Whatever the truth may be, it is well documented in Persian that there were Christians in Kerala by the late 7th century.

Keep the last three sentences in the chapter in mind as you read the rest of the book. What is their significance?

Chapter Two:

Epigraph: “however, for practical purposes, in a hopelessly practical world . . .
In the previous paragraph, Roy has been ruminating over when her story can be said to have really begun. This phrase introduces the sentence which continues at the beginning of Chapter 2, so she is saying that, for practical purposes, it all began on “a skyblue day in December sixty-nine.”

when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see.
Figure out what this means at the appropriate point below.

Further east, in a small country . . .
Why do you think Roy alludes to the Vietnam War here?

The Sound of Music
The film had been released in the U.S. in 1965.

The chief language of Kerala.

Elvis puff
This “puff” of hair becomes his symbol; whenever it is mentioned, we know that Estha is being discussed.

Love in Tokyo was a 1964 hit movie directed by Pramod Chakravorty featuring a young woman whose ponytail was held by two beads on a rubber band. Like Estha’s puff, her “fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo” becomes Rahel’s symbol.


Chetan and Cheduthi
Older brother and older brother’s wife (Malayalam).

Uncle; mother’s brother.

Appoi and Ammai
Mother’s brother and mother’s brother’s wife (Malayalam).

Gatsby turned out all right
From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby (1925).

migrated to Calcutta from East Bengal after Partition
In 1947 the Subcontinent was partitioned into a northern Muslim-dominated state called “Pakistan” and and southern Hindu-dominated state called “India.” Masses of people fled in both directions, encountering bloody violence on all hands. East Bengal fell to Pakistan, and later became Bangladesh. Calcutta is in West Bengal.

They didn’t reply.
At this point arranged marriages were still the norm, and for a young woman to agree to marry a man without her parents’ advance permission would have been shocking behavior.


intercommunity love marriage
An interreligious marriage, in this case between a Christian and a Hindu, entered into by the individuals involved without it being arranged by their parents.


Koshy Oommen
A typical Syrian Christian name.

kathakali dancer
The classical folk dance of Kerala, performed, unlike Bharata Natyam, exclusively by men playing both male and female parts.

What does Chacko mean by calling his relatives a family of Anglophiles?

After reading at Oxford you come down.
Originally “come down” referred to the graduated student traveling south, home to London; but since Chacko is from India, the term simply reinforces his alienness.

His oar (with his teammates’ names inscribed in gold)
Announcing to the world that he had been on a rowing team at Oxford.

sleeping partner
A business partner who provides some of the financing, but is not allowed to participate in actually managing the company. Americans say “silent partner.”

Kipling’s Jungle Book
The twins learn about their own land through the eyes of an English Imperialist writer.

Can you see any symbolism in the fact that the twins like to read backwards?

What is symbolized by the bridal party in the ambulance?

Zoroastrians, called “Farsis” in Persia (Iran). They have only small communities in India, necessarily somewhat inbred.

A devotional song

parippu vadas
Also vadai: spicy fried patties made of ground lentils. A common street food.

Onner Runder Moonner One, two, three.

An Oxford avatar of the old zamindar mentality
An English-influenced reincarnation of the traditional landlord.

the Congress Party
The party which governed India beginning with independence, continuing until the late 90s, here representing the establishment.

land reforms
Redistribution of farmland from rich landlords to poor peasants.

accused him of “providing relief to the people and thereby blunting the People’s Consciousness and diverting them from the Revolution.
Rigid Marxists often accuse liberal reformers of alleviating the sufferings of the oppressed just enough to make them reluctant to engage in revolution.

The first occurrence of this untouchable caste name. Velutha is a paravan.



“Thanks, keto!” said. “Valarey thanks.”
Roughly: “Thanks a lot, OK?”

Over here!

Ammu is angry with Rahel, not because she has called out to a communist, but because she has publicly made it clear that she knows an untouchable.

What is the point of the passage about the old woman on the train outside of New York?

toddy tapper
Toddy is the sweet, fermented sap of various palm trees, tapped to provide a cheap alcoholic drink.

converted to Christianity  . . .  to escape the scourge of Untouchability
Untouchables have been ready converts to foreign religions like Islam and Christianity which promised to relieve them of the burdens of inegality; but as often as not, informal Muslim and Christian caste systems evolved along the lines of the old Hindu one.


government benefits
The Indian government has engaged in strenuous affirmative action on behalf of untouchables ever since independence, but these measures have not reached all of them.

A highly influential German style emphasizing sleek modernity, clean lines, simplicity.

What sorts of skills does Velutha possess? What is the nature of his conflicts with his father?

In the “flash-forward” which begins “At least not until the Terror took hold of him,” what is it that Vellya Paapen has seen that he feels the need to tell Mammachi about? (This will be spelled out later, but you may be able to guess, just from this passage.)

A reddish type of stone.

For American readers, the attraction of Velutha to the Ipe children will be reminiscent to many accounts of the attraction of slaves for young white children in stories about the pre-Civil War South.


She was looking down at the floor of the car. Like a coy, frightened bride who had been married off to a stranger.
This is not an unusual image, but the very stereotype of an ideal Indian bride, who would not dare brazenly to stare her fiance in the face until after they were married, though she might glance at him covertly before then.

Inquilab Zindabad!
Long live the Revolution!

scree bed
Scree are pebbles, so this refers to part of her rock garden.

Remember Baby Kochamma’s rage against Velutha when the crisis starts later.

Et tu, Brute?–then fall, Caesar.
The Latin phrase means roughtly “And you too Brutus?” The English phrase was added to Caesar’s last words by Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar.

biscuit crumbs
cookie crumbs

Chapter Three:

This chapter begins by once more interrupting the story of the trip to see The Sound of Music to tell us more about an encounter between Rahel and Estha which took place in later years, after both had returned to Ayamenem.

Big Man the Lantern. Small Man the Tallow-stick.
Big and small lights. A tallow-stick is a stick daubed with fat which can serve as a sort of torch.

Poda Patti!
Get lost, you dog!

Trash can.

A Qantas koala
The Australian airline Qantas featured a kaola as its foreign ads for many years.

Two ballpoint pens with silent streetscapes and red London buses that floated up and down in them.
Souvenir “floaty pens” like these, with images that slide through an oil-filled barrel against a fixed background are sold all over the world, but most are manufactured in Denmark by the Eskesen company.

Drownable in, as Larry McCaslin had said and discovered to his cost.
This sentence establishes clearly, even if earlier clues are disregarded, that the twins are adults in this scene.

Chapter Four:

Estha alone.
This phrase comes to stand for Estha’s vulnerability and withdrawn nature in the rest of the novel.

Rahel was too short to balance in the air above the pot.
Some people try to use this posture to avoid sitting on an unclean toilet seat.

The Emperor Babur had a wheatish complexion
Babur (1483-1530) was the founder of the Mughal Dynasty which ruled much of India until the British arrived. “Wheatish” means “wheat-colored,” a golden brown. This adjective is commonly used in matrimonial advertisements in India to indicate the person being described is not dark-skinned.

napthalene balls
Deodorant balls commonly placed in men’s urinals.

Eda cherukka!
Hey you, boy!

Ominous foreshadowings earlier in the novel have pointed to this encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. Many books have been built around such incidents, but in The God of Small Things, it is just the first of a series of disasters that destroys the happiness of the family. For Estha, it is the dividing point between his innocent, relatively happy childhood, and the haunted years that will follow.

Elvis the Pelvis
Because of his hip-swivelling performances in the late fifties, Elvis Presley was dubbed “Elvis the Pelvis” by the newspapers. Here the phrase ominously sexualizes little Estha.

Childish euphemism for penises.

What are the main characteristics of the scene of the Estha’s molestation? Does any of it strike you as surprising or unusual?

Notice how Roy avoids explicitly describing Estha’s feelings. How do are you made to realize that Estha has been traumatized by this encounter?

What about the scene with Ammu and the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man makes Estha so frightened?

Ammu’s reaction to Rahel’s offhand comment about marrying the man starts a self-destructive process in her parallel to Estha’s. Thus their twinship is reflected, but their closeness is about to be destroyed.

Up to the scene in which they part in the hotel, only Estha has been called “alone,” but his sister is called “Rahel Alone” for the first time.

Fried flatbread, often stuffed with spiced vegetables, and generally an unsuitable companion to chocolate sauce.

Why is Rahel so chilled by Chacko looking at the photo of his daughter?

Chapter Five:

Note how the image of the river unites the ending of the last chapter with the beginning of this one, though it is set years later.

Severed torsos soaping themselves
All of the images associated with the River here are negative in some way or other, even this description of people standing waist-deep in the water as they bathe.

fresh tandoori pomfret
Fish baked in a traditional clay oven (tandoori)Ñvery Indian.

crêpe suzette
Properly crêpes suzette, sugared crepes cooked in butter and flamed in an orange liqueur sauce–very European.

transplanted in the Heart of Darkness
Whereas in Conrad’s famous novel the heart of darkness was symbolized by its distance from Europe, here it is the European-style intrusion into the Indian landscape that creates darkness.

Note the irony of the former’s communist leader’s house being used as a luxurious dining room for tourists.

While Kunti revealed her secret to Karna on the riverbank.
That Karna is her eldest son, and thus the older brother of his sworn enemies, the Pandavas (from the Mahabharata). Kunti tries in vain to convince him that he should not fight the Pandavas. However, he rejects her advice and eventually becomes the commander of the Kaurava army arrayed against his brothers, the Pandavas. Because she had abandoned Karna in infancy and he was brought up as a commoner in ignorance of his noble heritage, he suffered many indignities which might be compared to those of Velutha in the novel. The full story is told in Chapter 12. Karna is eventually slain by his brother Arjuna.

Poothana suckled young Krishna at her poisoned breast.
Poothana was a demon who tried in vain to kill the infant Krishna. Although his astounding powers allowed him to thrive despite her attempts on his life, her poison turned his skin dark blue or black.

Bhima disemboweled Dushasana and bathed Draupadi’s hair in his blood.
In the Mahabharata, an apocalyptic world-spanning war is triggered when the five Pandavas foolishly wager their joint wife, Draupadi, in a rigged game of chance against their enemies, the Kauravas. Dushasana, one of the most important Kauravas, is responsible for dragging Draupadi forward just after their side has won her and attempting to strip her naked (though this attempt is foiled by a miracle). Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers married to Draupadi, and especially noted for his strength (he was the rival of Dushasana in wrestling prowess), swears to take vengeance on Dushasana by drinking his blood. Draupadi, however, says she wants to bathe her hair in Dushasana’s blood, and does not fasten up or wash her hair until she can do so. Toward the end of the climactic battle, Bhima exacts the revenge described in this passage, in the process killing a man who, like all the Kauravas, is his cousin. Roy tells her version of this story in Chapter 12.

What characteristics do these myths have in common? How do they relate to the rest of this section?

the History House
This is how the children think of the old, abandoned mansion of Kari Saipu on the abandoned rubber plantation in Akkara, across the river.

Spiced, marinated meat, ground or in cubes, usually grilled on a skewer. The children are twenty-five years too late in calling Rahel a hippie because the heyday of the hippies was a quarter-century ago.

General strike used as a political protest.

An expression of dismay.

Don’t you remember?


Aiyyo paavam
What a pity!

a DDA flat
Delhi Development Authority apartment.


Traditional Indian medicine.


By the end of the chapter we begin to understand why Sophie Mol had inspired such jealousy in the twins.

Chapter Six:

Like well-whipped egg white.
This is a somewhat strained reference back to the Orangedrink Lemondrink man’s semen, which had been compared to egg white.

The chewing of betel leaf causes the saliva to turn red.

chakka velaichathu
Jackfruit jam.



sweeper class
Members of an untouchable caste. Note that the Christians depicted here share their Hindu neighbors’ prejudices against untouchables.

Traditional Indian gesture of greeting, palms together and upright, a little like traditional “prayer” posture in the Christian west.

Cassava root, cooked in various ways.



What are the mixed feelings of the Foreign Returnees?

What do you think is the twins reaction to Ammu threatening to send them away?

Laughing. “Jolly Well” is one example of a common pattern in the twins’ thinking in which they convert metaphors into concrete images involving plays on words.

A common sort of cookie made of lentil flour, ghee, raisins, nuts, and spices.

Note how all kinds of random events and words trigger Estha’s memory of his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink man.

Why do you think Sophie Mol’s words, “Recover from the Shock,” are capitalized in the way they are?

Note how both adults and children are jockeying for position in this encounter at the airport.

Chapter Seven:

We are now back in the “present,” shortly after Rahel has returned home as an adult. Why is the old school essay by Estha on the Odyssey that Rahel reads appropriate at this point?



Little Nehru
Dressed like the first premier of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Locusts Stand I
A misunderstanding of a Latin phrase [locus standi] meaning “no [legal] standing, but it comes to signify something like “homeless” in the novel.


The church refused to bury Ammu.
The usual reason for refusing burial is suicide; but in this case it is more likely that Ammu refused to repent the “sin” of her affair with Velutha.

Chapter Eight:

Why does Mammachi despise Margaret Kochamma so much?

chatta Blouse.

Chacko Saar vannu
Mr. Chacko has arrived. “Saar” is a phonetic spelling of an Indian pronunciation of the English word “Sir.”

kodam puli tree
A variety of tamarind tree bearing fruit shaped like a kodam or round bowl.

his What Happened to Our Man of the Masses? suit
Allusion back to the beginning of Chapter 6, when Ammu noted Chacko’s unusually formal clothing.

like the English dairymaid in “The King’s Breakfast”
Refers to an illustration to A. A. Milne’s 1925 poem by that title. The complete poem with its original illustrations by E. H. Shepard.


What does it mean that Amma “had gifts to give him, too.”

Aiyyo kashtam
Literally, “Oh, what a pity!” but used here as a reproach: “How could you say that!”

Why doesn’t Rahel want Velutha to see Sophie Mol?

Kando . . .
Translated in the text: “‘Can you see her?’ ‘I can see her.'”

Sundari kutty
Lovely little girl.

the Scarlet Pimpernel
Allusion to a once-popular 1905 novel by the Baroness de Orczy (recently made into a Broadway musical) featuring a daring aristocrat who works to save nobles in Revolutionary France, and a rhyme that features in the novel.

Jealous woman.

Explain the relevance of the ant-killing scene to the themes of the novel. What is the difference between things as the adults perceive them and as the children perceive them?

Chapter Nine: 

We are back in the “present” at first, but quickly slip back in Rahel’s memories into the past.

What does Rahel mean by her musings on whether there is room for her and Estha in the house?

The loose end of a sari which is draped over the shoulder.

Red dots worn on the foreheads of women.

How did Sophie Mol reveal herself to be human, and how did that revelation affect the twins?


Chapter Ten:

Pectin, Hectin and Abednego
Alluding to the three Jewish heroes who were thrown into the firey furnace by Nebuchadnezzar’s servants along with Daniel: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Note the flood imagery which foreshadows much that is to come.

Twins were not allowed.
What is the significance of this thought?

She heard a nun’s voice singing the boat song.
Singing like Maria in The Sound of Music, who became, like Estha, a refuge from danger.


In central Burma.

Small boat.

Aiyyo, Mon! Mol!
Aiee! Boy! Girl! (Literally, “Son! Daughter!.)

Earthenware water jar.

idi appams
Steamed rice noodle cakes.

Rice soup.


How have Velutha’s feelings toward the children changed?

For the first time it is confirmed that it was Velutha the children saw in the march.

Chapter Eleven:

What qualities draw Ammu to Velutha in her dream?

What does the title of the chapter seem to refer to here?

a song from a film called Chemmeen
Note the ominous associations of this song from the 1965 film directed by Ramu Karia. The film was made in Malayalam, and its English title was The Wrath of the Sea.

burning ghat
Funeral pyre.

Why does not mentioning Velutha’s name to the twins make Ammu feel more attached to him?

Describe the children’s relationship with their mother in this scene.

Can you guess why Chacko will threaten and drive away Ammu?

The “silent stranger” is, of course, the grown Estha.

Chapter Twelve:

Inner part of the Hindu temple, just outside of the inner sanctum.


See the note above, on Karna and Kunti. The story Kunti tells him is her own. Note that Estha joins Rahel just as the twins are mentioned in the story. What else does this story have to do with Estha and Rahel’s story?

It is not unusual for Indian classical performances to last all night.

Why is it mentioned that the Kathakali men went home to beat their wives?

The rose bowl
The pink arch of the dawn sky.

Chapter Thirteen:

Traditional narrow, tight-fitting trousers with folds near the ankles; worn by both men and women in North India.

“Nehru jacket”: long formal jacket with stand-up collar.

Why does Roy tell us the story of how Margaret and Chacko met at this particular point in the novel, do you think?

Why does Margaret love Chacko? Why does he love her?

secretly pawned her jewelry
It is traditional for Indian brides to be given lavish jewelry which is normally only pawned or sold in the direst emergencies.

Person who washes clothes for a living.

At this point a section break is indicated by the image of a small fish.

Note how we keep circling around the incident of Sophie Mol’s drowning, looking at events which led up to it and events that followed it, slowly tightening the circles to focus in at last on what actually happened. What effect does this technique have on you?

Keep in mind as you watch Baby Kochamma trying to take her revenge those aspects of her own history which have made her the kind of woman she is.


Modalali Mariakutty
Landlord Mariakutty.

They were both men whom childhood had abandoned without a trace.
What do you think this sentence means?

What is Comrade Pillai’s main motivation in saying what he does and does not about Velutha to Inspector Thomas Mathew?

Why does Margaret Kochamma never think about Velutha?

A second fish occurs at this point.

What is the significance of the various things that Margaret Kochamma has taken with her and Sophie Mol to India?

Chapter Fourteen:

The brand name of an audio equipment company in Kerala, named after the famous Buddhist cave site.

Top part of a two-piece sari, draped diagonally across the upper body.


O, young Lonchin varhas scum out of the vest
Here is the original text of the lines Latha mangles:

O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And, save his good broadsword, he weapons had none,
He rode all unarmed, and he rode all alone.He swam the Eske River where ford there was none,
But, ere he alighted at Netherby gate,
The bride had consented, the gallant came late

The poem tells, of course, of another illicit romance, and a dangerous crossing by water.

Friends Romans countrymen lend me your
Antony’s funeral oration over the body of the slain Julius Caesar, another ominous tale.

Why does his poverty give Comrade Pillai an advantage over Chacko?

Oru kaaryam parayettey?
Shall I tell you something?

Have you heard?

Allay edi
Isn’t that so? (rudely)

As a Communist, Pillai should be in favor of equality, but he shares the same prejudices as others in the village against the untouchables.

He broke the eggs but burned the omelette.
See above, note on the The old omelette-and-eggs thing in Chapter 1.

Another fish marks the end of the scene at Comrade Pillai’s and a shift back to Velutha.

Chickens would come home to roost.
“The chickens have come home to roost” is an old expression meaning someone has received punishment for what he or she has done. Doom.

Koo-koo kookum theevandi
Kooki paadum theevandi
Rapakal odum theevandi
Thalannu nilkum theevandi

This is a rhyme about a train which was printed in a popular Malayalam reader for children:

The train screams koo-koo-koo
The train sings and screams
The train runs day and night
The train stops, exhausted.

A spicy vegetable stew cooked in coconut milk, a typical Malayali dish.

What is it?

Comprador capitalist
A Marxist insult suggesting that Velutha is a sellout, one who collaborates with the exploiters of the working class. But it almost certainly not the fact that Velutha has crossed class lines that so offends Comrade Pillai, but that he has crossed caste lines.

“Spring Thunder Over India” is the title of an editorial hailing the Naxalite Communist rebellion in the People’s Daily, organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China July 5, 1967. It was reproduced in Liberation, Vol. I No. 1 (November 1967). Since then the phrase has come to stand for Keralite Communism generally. .

Chapter Fifteen:

The action of this chapter follows immediately upon that of the preceding one.

Chapter Sixteen:

What pattern have events taken on at the end of this chapter?

Chapter Seventeen:

Back to the “present.” His trauma of that night seems to have extended a quarter century into the future.

Hindu spiritual center.

The very popular fall Hindu festival of lights. Also known as “Deepavali.” How does this scene affect your perception of her in relation to the Velutha-Ammu love affair?

in saffron
In saffron-yellow robes, traditionally worn by holy men.

Hindu ascetics.

Senior members of a Hindu religious order.

What effect does it have in the novel to have the end of Velutha’s story told indirectly, in retrospect, at the end of this chapter?

Chapter Eighteen:

We now leave the retrospective narrative to plunge back into that fateful night.

civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.
Relate these various fears to elements of the novel.

Is it enough?

Madi aaririkkum
It may be enough.

Chapter Nineteen:

“First Information Report,” the initial report of illegal activity at a local police station.

Expression of disgust used as a euphemism for excrement.


Childhood tiptoed out.
What does this mean?

How does Baby Kochamma manipulate Chacko into getting Ammu and the twins out of Ayamenem?

Chapter Twenty:

Why is Rahel concerned that there be “proper punishments” in the imaginary school Ammu is imagining?

After another fish, we return to the “present.” Why do you think Roy has the twins “break the love laws” at the end of her novel?

Chapter Twenty-one:

There’s no time to lose
One of the verses from “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones. The song concerns parting from a loved one, but this particular stanza emphasizes the urgency of acting on love in the present.

Why do you think this pivotal love scene has been postponed to the end of the book?

It is no coincidence that Roy has placed two scenes of lovemaking (between Rahel and Estha and between Ammu and Velutha) in close proximity to each other at the end of the novel. What relationships do you see between these two scenes?

What does it mean that “they stuck to the Small Things”?

Chappu Thamburan
A spider.

Why is the last word of the novel “Tomorrow”?

What messages do you think Roy was trying to convey in writing this novel?

More Study Materials for World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean

Notes by Paul Brians

Thanks for help to Arindam Basu, Arnab Chakladar, Priya Chandra, Sundeep Dougal, Paula Elliot, Chandra Holm, Jayashree Mohanka, Gary Williams, and Sumathy Sivamohan. Special thanks to Raji Pillai for many translations of Malayalam and Hindi words and phrases.


Modern South Asian Literature in EnglishFor more about Arundhati Roy and other South Asian writers, see Paul Brians’ Modern South Asian Literature in English .






First mounted November 28, 1998.

Last revised, April 19, 2006.