- The Backwaters Sphere:Ecological Collectivity, Cosmopolitanism, and Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things is a book which connects the very smallest things to the very biggest. Whether it's the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water in a pond or the quality of moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom, your bed, into the most intimate relationships between people.—Arundhati Roy, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile
Throughout her literary career Arundhati Roy has suggested that narratives of connection are weapons against the bedfellows of global capitalism and state control. Where the latter coupling gleans power from the privatization and domination of nature and the hierarchal separation of human beings, Roy's narratives challenge institutions that wield power through the creation and subjugation of human and nonhuman others. The God of Small Things is arguably her most complex narrative of connection, organized on a terrain of illicit intimacies, caste politics, corporate globalization, and what I call ecological collectivity. As the epigraph above states, the novel strives not only to address several spheres of existence—the biotic, [End Page 522] the public, and the private—but also to develop formal strategies that enable readers to see these spheres as overlapping.
To fully explore the revolutionary potential of Roy's narratives of connection, this essay asks how literary interrogations of the human and its concomitant institutions bring about epistemic shifts in our understanding of community, civic duty, and environmental obligation at the local and transnational levels. Approaching this question requires situating Roy's work at the intersection of ecocriticism and cosmopolitanism, two fields that share an asymmetrical relationship to one another. As ecocriticism grows, it becomes more attentive to the transnational contexts from which ideologies of nature emerge. Recent studies have internationalized nature by locating specific landscapes within imperial, postcolonial, or globalized networks of interdependence.1 However, cosmopolitanism in its resurgent form has yet to contend with ecocritical challenges to the human. Many of its foremost cultural critics remain untroubled by the field's anthropomorphic lens and humanist aspirations as long as they take a multicultural and minoritarian form that includes peoples once designated less than human.2 This complacency is unfortunate and even dangerous as human survival is increasingly threatened and perpetual peace infinitely deferred by ideologies and practices that permit humans' treatment of the earth to take lastingly destructive forms toward nature and those associated with it.
Roy brings ecological concern and cosmopolitan outlook together in ways that few scholars have by showing how self-enclosed constructions of the human depend on the ideologies of development and progress that permeate hegemonic narratives of globalization. Her project begins at home, specifically her native state of Kerala that is the setting for her only novel, The God of Small Things. Kerala has historically been a crucial center of India's environmentalism versus development debates. It is globally renowned for its beautiful backwaters—a network of rivers, lakes, manmade and natural canals, and estuaries that run between the Arabian Sea (Malabar Coast) and the Western Ghats, and approximately from the cities of Kollam to Kochi. The region is richly biodiverse, containing ecotones between freshwater and saltwater ecosystems and two internationally recognized Ramsar wetlands—the Vembanad and Ashtamudi. Although fishing and agriculture have historically been the backwaters' primary industries, tourism is now the primary source of economic growth, according to the state government. Advertised by Kerala's Department of Tourism as "God's own country," the backwaters have been hailed by the National Geographic Traveler as one of the two must-see spots in India (the other being the Taj Mahal). Yet, Kerala's tourism earnings are low and remain a negligible proportion [End Page 523] of its domestic economy. Tourist development in the state has been primarily the result of a particular interest group, the hotel industry, benefiting from subsidies, tax exemptions, and credit facilities at low interest rates (Sreekumar and Parayil 530). Using such incentives, the state government has created several models of public-private partnerships with such star hotel conglomerates as the Taj, Oberoi, and Casino groups (Mathew), while successfully lobbying...