In chapter seven of “The God of Small Things” Arundhati Roy uses Rahel’s encounter of the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks to underlie many recurring themes throughout the novel. Through setting, imagery, and symbolism, Roy is able to further establish the impact of neglect and abandonment on the Ipe family relationships, and on India’s traditional society as a whole.
The passage is set in Pappachi’s study, which is created as a metaphor for Indian society at the time. India, experiencing all the post-colonial social influences of the West, is amidst a social and political revolution heavily defined by the central caste system. Pappachi, a stereotypical capitalist devotee, followed a career in entomology-classifying his “mounted butterflies and moths” in the same way he categorizes humans by status. His study used to be his hub of career achievements and a sanctuary for Western knowledge; essentially it was his attestation of superiority. Over time the records of his progress, further represented by his leather-bound set of ‘The Insect Wealth of India’, rot as burrowing Silverfish reduce the books from “organized information into yellow lace”.
His attributes are insignificant now. Roy’s elaborated image of the abandoned setting as “rank with fungus and disuse” parallels the corruption and failure of India in its current social state. The diction in the word ‘rank’, however, suggests a double entendre with the more direct denotation of the word referring to status and class. It is as if Roy is blaming the state of the study on the social injustice of society. The once beautiful, delicate butterflies and moths are a perfect example of the ‘small things’ in society that are often disregarded, or merely used to the advantage of the more powerful ‘big things’. Captured and confined, the insects have eventually “disintegrated into small heaps of iridescent dust that powdered the bottom of their glass display cases”.
The luminous quality associated with the diction in the word ‘iridescent’ and the passive tone in the word ‘powdered’ remind the reader of their past splendor. Having undermined and forgotten the insects for too long, the “pins that had impaled them” are left “naked”. The laws that once kept India’s social order are now merely empty restrictions, subjected to a population rid of its beauty and innocence. The artificial connotation of “neon-green hula hoop” is compared to a “saint’s discarded halo”-the oppressed saint of the people.
This theme of India’s social structure is continued through the imagery of the “column of shining black ants”. When describing the ants, Roy’s allusion to the “line of mincing chorus girls in a Busby Berkeley musical” hints at Berkeley’s renowned ‘parade of faces’ technique in which he individualized each chorus girl with the tribute of an esteemed close-up. The “buffed and beautiful” procession is given similar qualities to the butterflies and moths, but this time the ants are recognized individually and equally-representing the powerful upcoming communist parade of India’s lower class.
The way in which Rahel interacts with the study describes her role in her family, and in society. Rahel’s “clear footprints” against “the dust of the floor” contrast her vivid presence with her grandfather’s forgotten past. Her highlighted path leading from “the door to the table (dragged to the bookshelf) to the stool (dragged to the table and lifted on to it)” marks her organized determination in recovering her own past. Her initial lack of “size and shape” in her life shows how her lack of participation in India’s social battle allows her to maintain her a clean, carefree outlook on life. However, when it becomes clear that she is searching for “something”, the “half-moons” under her eyes are noticed and the “team of trolls” is waiting “on her horizon”. The ‘half-moons’ suggest her weariness in searching for purpose in her life.
The negative connotation of ‘trolls’ foreshadows the adverse future consequences of the “size and shape” that her life does eventually acquire. The current uncertainty of that “size and shape” is shown through her arbitrary collection of items (“a smooth seashell”, “a spiky one”, “a plastic case for contact lenses”, “an orange pipette”, “a silver crucifix”). The lack of focus in her life is partly related to her separation from Estha. On his return, Rahel once again reveals the “hidden things” from the past that she tried to forget.
The main object, Baby Kochamma’s rosary, is a symbol for Baby Kochamma’s dead dream of winning love. As “each greedy bead grabbed its share of sun” it casts a contrasting dark “shadow”, much in the same way Rahel views Baby Kochama’s selfish lifestyle as having drained the rest of the family of their happiness and well being. By stealing it, she was punishing Baby Kochamma. While revisiting the past, Rahel also encounters “something else”. The Wisdom Exercise Notebooks her mother, Ammu, had given them were “tattered” but still intact. Ammu, like Rahel, had had the idea of hiding the past, and denying its influence on the future.
Estha, although remaining speechless, has a significant impact on further establishing the themes of rejection and negligence. Consumed by the thoughts of “trains”, a metaphor for abandonment, Estha makes an “Estha-shaped Hole in the Universe”. Estha is merely a walking shadow of life. Much like the rosary, he “blocked the light”; he is present in the world only by his contrast to life itself.
Estha is the embodiment of the idea of ‘death of dreams’. Since his childhood, his visions have been “lucid” but he has lacked control over his life in the same way his handwriting showed signs of “struggle for control over the errant, self-willed pencil”. Life has objectified him and his once inimitable relationship with Rahel, treating the twins as “library books”-stories to simply be “borrowed and returned”. He is angry at life for abandoning him, for straying from its expected course, and most of all for not letting him go-for keeping him pinned down like the empty spaces of the once beautiful butterflies and moths.
The passage explores many of the prominent themes evaluating India’s social society throughout ‘The God of Small Things’. On a more internal note, it further establishes the complex relationship of Estha and Rahel as they uncover the past and face its inevitable impact on the future. Although stolen and hidden for many years, the past, as Rahel realizes, is “still here”. It always will be, reminding them of the love and life they had, of the mistakes and dreams they lost, and of the challenges they still face.