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Sounding Ecologies in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

This essay engages with the social, cultural, and environmental legacies of colonialism and globalization by investigating acoustic ecologies in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It draws on sound studies, postcolonial ecocriticism, and new materialist perspectives to reveal an aesthetic that combines the act of listening with an environmental awareness in ways that transform matter into both the receptacle and the bearer of silenced indigenous voices. Countering ocularcentric paradigms, it shows that modernity is characterized as much by particular ideas about sound as it is by regimes of visuality and induces a more viscerally engaged, ecologically sensitive humanism.

As part of a larger physical phenomenon of vibration, sound is a product of the human senses and not a thing in the world apart from humans. Sound is a little piece of the vibrating world.

—Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Imperialism and the culture associated with it affirm both the primacy of geography and an ideology about control of territory. The geographical sense makes projections—imaginative, cartographic, military, economic, historical, or in a general sense cultural. It also makes possible the construction of various kinds of knowledge, all of them in one way or another dependent upon the perceived character and destiny of a particular geography.

—Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

Edward Said and Jonathan Sterne alert us, albeit from different angles, to the close entanglement of the environment and human experience.1 The environment, a singular flow of “vibrant matter” (Bennett viii), is anything but a blank slate waiting to be inscribed by culture and history. Rather, it is the condition whereby human bodies [End Page 115] relate to each other, the very foundation of human development and imagination. And yet, the critical task of finding imaginative forms that render the reciprocal relationship between the human body and the natural world poses challenges inextricably tied to what Rob Nixon calls “the geographies of concealment in a neoliberal age” (“Neoliberalism” 444). The rhetorical treatment of the natural environment as reservoir of usable elements, as mere resource and commodity, in the late twentieth century tends to occlude its complex ecologies, its liveliness, and, above all, its conjunction with subaltern and marginalized human beings. If this imaginative difficulty has been cast, in decades past, in both visual and aural terms in the name of countering historical erasures and of revealing silenced voices, it has been done without sufficient regard to the concrete sounds of the material environment: the sounds of water, air, and land. What we might call the missing link between matter and human perception—that which expands our connection with the environment—is, I will argue, the act of listening.

Against the disintegrative forces unleashed by colonialism and corporate globalization, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things offers grounds for a sensory engagement in which the human body turns from a bounded and detached entity into one that is highly responsive to and intimately entwined with its environment. Set in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, the novel captures the region’s sociopolitical climate in the 1960s and 1990s through the eyes of seven-year-old twins, Rahel and Estha, and thirty-one-year-old Rahel. Leaping across narrative fragments of a largely silenced family history—from the twins’ upper-caste Syrian Christian mother’s exile for marrying and divorcing an abusive Hindu to the brutal beating of the untouchable Dalit carpenter, Velutha, for allegedly raping their mother—the novel sheds light on stringent caste and marriage codes, on illicit intimacies, and on acts of violence perpetrated and condoned by the state. While Roy’s use of visual imagery is striking for the glimpses it allows into events that shattered the presumed fullness and coherence of the twins’ childhood, this study endeavors to glean the author’s sensitivity to acoustic ecologies: the sounds of the material environment and the clues to the past it harbors.2

What precisely is at stake when history makes itself heard in and through matter? What does it mean to access history through sound? “Smiling out loud,” “listening with one’s eyes” (20): Roy’s allusions to an intermingling of the senses throughout the novel inscribe sound in a sensory continuum that encompasses multiple senses simultaneously.3 While primarily associated with the ear, the sensation of sound in fact mingles with other modes of perception. As Don Ihde suggests in his work on auditory experience, “The gradations of hearing [End Page 116] shade off into a larger sense of one’s body in listening. The ears may be focal ‘organs’ of hearing, but one listens with his whole body” (135–36). Sound is here understood as a physical phenomenon, as the fluctuation of air pressure resulting from the vibrations of objects, that affects the human body on various sensory levels; it suggests not merely an aural but also tactile, visual, and olfactory experience.4 An emphasis on sound and, by extension, on the interdependence rather than isolation of different sensory modalities counters capitalist and colonial discourses that strategically parsed out the senses into distinct perceptual modes and sensual processes. In his studies on nineteenth-century Paris, Walter Benjamin speaks of technologies of display that enabled the entry of the commodity into the realm of the visual in modern life, manifest in advertisements, window displays, and store design, and that focused consumption through an isolated sense organ: the eye. Bill Ashcroft, too, points to the primacy of visual knowledge, particularly its role in enforcing structures of dominance and mastery. He alerts us to the suppression of local or indigenous ways of knowing beneath what he calls “the passion of the ocular,” a passion that profoundly influenced “the conception, representation, and experiencing of place in the colonized world” (127). Roy’s aural poetics offers a critique of the domination of visual knowledge over other ways of knowing and, by implication, of semiotic ideologies whose representational practices privilege abstraction over concrete embodiment. Policing elements at risk of falling outside these abstract representational paradigms is what lies at the heart of the tragedies ensuing in The God of Small Things. Here, following Aarthi Vadde, a strict adherence to ocularcentric taxonomies results in “aesthetic, scientific, and social forms of violence” (533)—ranging from Baby Kochamma’s horticultural ambition to transform a perceived wilderness into a meticulously designed landscape to Velutha’s violent beating in the name of semiotic boundaries that determine “who should be loved, and how” (33).

Roy employs sight’s privileged status in dominant Western philosophical traditions, along with touch as a sense of direct contact, to orient the reader’s attention toward hearing by turning both into sites of auditory encounters. Rather than reinscribing the kind of sensory hierarchy Roy’s novel aims to dismantle, the reading offered here posits sound as the privileged figure of sensory exchange. As Steven Connor puts it, “The self defined in terms of hearing rather than sight is a self imaged not as a point, but as a membrane; not as a picture, but as a channel through which voices, noises and musics travel” (207). Associated with principles of resonance, traversal, and transference, sound pervades and reconfigures space in ways that dissolve distinctions between spatially separated points and planes. [End Page 117] What is more, it manifests itself most powerfully when bouncing off solid forms, a phenomenon exemplified in the invention of the telephone that “literally succeeded in making iron talk” (208). It is precisely the interconvertibility of sound and matter that helps Roy turn the world of matter into a bearer of meaning throughout her novel.

Roy’s emphasis on the intermingling of sound with the other senses both destabilizes the authority of vision and induces a more viscerally engaged and ecologically sensitive humanism that recognizes the body’s potential to extend into and be transformed by the external world. Moreover, the semantic openness of sound’s material textures and nuances turns the act of listening into one that is highly receptive to new, potentially surprising, experiential encounters. To fully explore the potential of Roy’s aural poetics requires an attention to her doubling of aural signals into physical motions that literally animate the natural world and that prompt the reader to reconsider prevalent notions of the environment.5 An engagement with the visceral materiality of acoustic ecologies ultimately offers a “path through history” (Sterne 3) that not only resists ocularcentric paradigms but also joins the emerging fields of sound studies, postcolonial ecocriticism, and new materialist perspectives that recalibrate critical understandings of matter, bodies, and agencies.6 All these frameworks help illuminate an aesthetic in which silenced voices are mediated through the material environment and in which agency emerges in the form of a reconfigured act of reading.

Allusions to sight—or, rather, to the loss or distortion thereof—dominate The God of Small Things from its very opening pages. Forming part of Roy’s introduction to the novel’s various characters—including the twins’ mother, Ammu; their grandparents, Mammachi and Pappachi; and their grandaunt, Baby Kochamma—one of our first impressions of Estha, “barely awake, his aching eyes glittering like glass” (7), renders eyesight as compromised by fatigue and discomfort. It also reminds us of the medieval conception of the eye as a mirror shattering the idea of direct, immediate vision. Mammachi’s near-blindness and the dark glasses she wears in public, in turn, point to a lack of both vision and visibility. Roy’s character portrayals not only expose the possible limitations of sight but also suggest the conflation of the visual with the aural. For instance, when she describes the tears Mammachi sheds in response to the death of her grandchild, Sophie Mol, as “[trembling] along her jaw like raindrops on the edge of a roof” (7), she shifts attention away from visual clues to Mammachi’s grief toward the vibratory, trembling motion that her tears impart to the air particles around them. Both the tears’ association with vibration and their metaphoric equation with raindrops encourage the reader to simultaneously visualize and [End Page 118] auralize the scene and mark the beginning of Roy’s subtle immersion of her readers into a sonic, vibrating universe.

Touched by Sound

For an analysis to be sonically attuned to submerged histories in The God of Small Things, it must go beyond reading for human voices and open the fabric of the text to voices mediated by what David Abram calls the “more-than-human” world (Spell x). For instance, Mammachi’s resistance to dominant constructions of Indian femininity becomes apparent only from a perspective that recognizes the entanglement of material culture and human experience and that attends closely to the role of bodily perception and the different qualities of the entities implicated in that process. At first glance, Mammachi’s voice fails to resonate within a patriarchal and imperial vacuum of vocal oppression. She is a talented violinist and yet forced to withdraw from violin lessons as a result of her husband’s efforts to stifle her musical ambitions. Continuing to pursue her passion in private, she appears to give in to a particular South Indian model of domesticity that views musicianship as a spiritually uplifting domestic activity and a bonding agent between husband and wife (Weidman 138). Moreover, both her appearance as a light-skinned beauty—“Her pale, fine skin . . . creased like cream on cooling milk” (158)—and the pieces she plays on her violin, pieces written by Western and Russian composers, literalize imperial ideals still lingering in postcolonial India. Mammachi’s choice of the violin as her favored instrument, too, is telling insofar as the violin was introduced to South India by British and French colonial officials.

And yet, the violin provides Mammachi with a means of subtle resistance. Although Western in its origins and form, the violin was taken up and adapted by South Indian musicians, “who gradually altered its tuning, playing position, and technique” (Weidman 25). In Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern, Amanda J. Weidman points to the central role of the European violin in constructing the voice of Karnatic classical music. It was the instrument’s extraordinary capacity to mimic the singing voice, coupled with its role in redefining Karnatic music as “classical,” that brought Karnatic music into the modern age while preserving the music’s authenticity (Weidman 26). For this reason, we may read Mammachi’s choice of the violin less as an adoption of imperial ideals than as an embrace of her Indian musical heritage. In addition, Mammachi arguably appropriates the energy and emotional intensity of the pieces she plays as a mirror of her own unspoken moods and emotions: from the solemn, [End Page 119] brooding depths of Handel’s “Lentement” to the majestic bravado of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.

Yet how does a colonial instrument “gone native” (Weidman 25) come to be heard not only as an authentic indigenous voice but also as a voice of the environment? The violin’s ability to rival the human voice in range, depth, and timbral nuance permits a union of human and nonhuman realms that rests above all on the instrument’s ventriloquizing function. “The perfect violin accompanist is one,” Weidman explains, “whose playing is so self-effacing and unobtrusive that the vocalist forgets there is anything except her own voice. At the same time, the vocalist cannot be heard without the violin” (56). By the logic of ventriloquism, Weidman further elaborates, the sound of the violin becomes “associated with a wordless, primeval voice, a pure voice that has the power to affect by transcending its colonial instrumental body and its ties to language. It is precisely the capacity of the instrument to be heard as a voice, to sound almost human while remaining nonhuman and to sound Indian while remaining foreign, which makes it powerful” (57; emphasis added). While Weidman draws particular attention to the articulation of the relationship between original (Karnatic) voice and mere representation (or musical accompaniment) on which the emergence of an authentic voice depends, my own reading posits the hollow body of the violin as a mediating agent in the production of meaning. Insofar as a violin is made of natural material, with each piece of wood having its own distinct properties resulting in varying degrees and nuances of vibration, it is matter that lends a voice to someone who would otherwise be silent. Like the violin maker who shapes, thins, taps, and flexes the wood until satisfied with the vibratory response of each piece, the violinist, exposed to the instrument’s vibratory responses through different contact points, receives a form of tactile feedback from the instrument. Mammachi’s ability to create richly textured sonic universes via her mastery of classical compositions is therefore the result of a material engagement by which the playing of the instrument becomes an act of collaboration between violinist and violin. Here, following Lambros Malafouris’s argument for material agency, “the line between human intention and material affordance becomes all the more difficult to draw” (33). Attuning her fingers’ movements to the tactile information she receives from the instrument via touch and sound, Mammachi displays an embodied skill that is based on reciprocal, perceptual responsiveness.

The intermingling of touch and sound throughout The God of Small Things suggests tactile encounters that encourage readers to feel sounds more strongly, and even violently, than they may hear them. Take, for example, Roy’s description of the sound of rain forcefully [End Page 120] slapping the ground as Rahel returns to her hometown, Ayemenem: “Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire” (4). In this instance, heavy rainfall emerges as a violent and sudden assault on the delicate membranes of the ear: “The old house on the hill [wearing] its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat” in seeming response to the sonic disturbance. The aural element surges forth in further, often curious and unexpected, ways turning the act of reading increasingly into a haptic act of listening. A “fan-whirring, peanut-crunching darkness” (94) engulfs Rahel and her family during a visit to the movies. The sonic world Roy describes is material and corporeal in character: ranging from a “high, piping voice, frayed and fibrous now, like sugarcane stripped of its bark” (15) to vocal utterances that “came out jagged. Like a piece of tin” (29). Whether capturing the acoustic atmosphere of a movie theater or rendering the sound of human voices, Roy does not merely imbue that which is perceived through the eyes with aural qualities and vice versa. Rather, she makes present the physical properties and movements of a sound’s material source and, in doing so, turns sound from abstract tonal attributes and waveforms into experientially palpable textures the reader is made to feel through the ear.7

As a result of Roy’s aural poetics, the temporality of submerged, unvoiced histories as opened up by matter is neither linear nor purely located in the world of consciously lived experiences.8 The sudden, aurally jarring flourishes of rainfall, for instance, hint at moments of the past snatched up violently and unexpectedly: “Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds” (11). Aural perception here suggests an awakening of dormant memory traces that surface in similar fashion in the sounds that form the backdrop to a conversation that revolves around Velutha. While Velutha’s current employer and another small-scale entrepreneur discuss the prospects of his continued employment at a pickle factory, a woman in the background “stared vacantly at the wall opposite her, rocking herself gently, grunting regular, rhythmic little grunts, like a bored passenger on a long bus journey” (255). Though seen by the narrator as something reassuring, “Like the ticking of a clock. A sound you hardly noticed, but would miss if it stopped” (263), the steady, recurrent grunting sounds emitted by the human body create a distracting sense of uncertainty and confusion; they arguably fore-shadow Velutha’s experience of being woken from sleep with boots, “surprised by shattered kneecaps” (292).

A focus on sound as an expressive and disruptive force is accompanied by an emphasis on the mediating role of the substance [End Page 121] or material that transmits sound: air. Rahel’s impressions of the atmosphere when returning to her hometown after twenty-five years of absence offer a compelling depiction of this material medium in which, along with water, all living things are immersed:

She had forgotten just how damp the monsoon air in Ayemenem could be. Swollen cupboards creaked. Locked windows burst open. Books got soft and wavy between their covers. Strange insects appeared like ideas in the evenings and burned themselves on Baby Kochamma’s dim forty-watt bulbs. In the daytime their crisp, incinerated corpses littered the floor and windowsills, and until Kochu Maria swept them away in her plastic dustpan, the air smelled of Something Burning.

(11)

The moisture-laden monsoon air makes itself felt on various sensory levels: in the sounds of creaking cupboards, the tactile resonance of windows bursting open, the feel of soft and wavy paper. Its mediating role surfaces most powerfully in its connection to olfactory traces left behind by “strange insects” resembling “ideas.” Roy’s analogy suggests a chain of material significations that extends the smell “of Something Burning” toward ideas that palpably pervade the atmosphere. Linking this distinct odor with Roy’s recurrent allusions to highly explosive secrets that lie buried inside “tea-colored minds,” we may read the air as literally charged with memories that resist representation, burning themselves on “dim forty-watt bulbs” and leaving no visible traces. While the scene acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining physical proximity to obscurity and violence—the ideas having been swept away—disturbing memories of the past still linger in the form of a tangible presence: smell. Roy’s description of Rahel’s unspoken fear during a medical visit similarly extends the boundaries of emotions well beyond the human body into a space in which the body (or mind) cannot be severed from that which surrounds it: “The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato” (126). Like Pappachi’s act of shredding Rahel’s beloved gumboots with scissors that “[make] snicking scissor-sounds” (172) as if to punctuate the cruelty of his actions, the violent encounter between Rahel’s materialized fear and the sharp edges of a ceiling fan in motion suggests the “sober, steady brutality” (292) of Velutha’s beating. In all of these instances, the air—a composite of different gases, screams, and human emotions—bears witness and calls for a response to disruptions of peace and tranquillity via the transference of tangible substances that carry within themselves the material traces of their origin, from the “sourmetal smell” (70) hinting at human flesh [End Page 122] chafed by metal handcuffs to the harsh and disturbing sounds of boots kicking into ribs. Quite literally getting under the skin, the air causes the reader, in Jane Bennett’s terms, to “experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally . . . to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility” (10).

Roy’s focus on embodied memory and haptic sound is part of a broader fascination with tactile encounters and the insights such encounters enable. Estha, for instance, makes his sister’s whispers physically palpable to the reader by touching her lips: “To touch the words it makes. To keep the whisper” (310). As Estha’s “fingers follow the shape of it” (310), he experiences his sister’s utterances in their embodied concreteness—his ears touched by her “whispers” just as “His hand is held and kissed” (310). The twins’ tactile engagement with one another points to a physical connection between brother and sister that manifests itself most powerfully in Rahel’s insights into her brother’s thoughts and emotions despite his retreat into “stillness. As though his body had the power to snatch its senses inwards . . . away from the surface of his skin, into some deeper more inaccessible recess” (89). Tied to Estha’s haunting memory of identifying Velutha as a perpetrator of violence and the terror of the latter’s disappearance, his silence envelops and inhabits his body in ways that invoke Abram’s understanding of the body as “itself a kind of place—not a solid object but a terrain through which things pass, and in which they sometimes settle and sediment” (230):

Once the quietness arrives, it stayed and spread in Estha. It reached out of his head and enfolded him in its swampy arms. It rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal heartbeat. It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared and naked. Unspeakable. Numb. . . . Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past.

Like the swamp—a threshold between freshwater and saltwater, between earth and sea—Estha’s silence marks a border between worlds, between the external swamps and the “insides of his skull,” between the spoken and the unspeakable, and between past and present. “Rock[ing] him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal heartbeat,” it plunges him into a resonant space reminiscent of a mother’s womb. By simulating Estha’s former immersion in his mother’s body—exposing [End Page 123] him not only to his own heartbeat but also to the sonic and rhythmic patterns of his mother’s voice—his silence is able to “[dislodge] old sentences,” to “[whisk] them off the tip of his tongue.” “Stripped . . . of the words that described them,” his thoughts disperse and dissolve instead into a soundscape of dislocation and erasure perceptible in the squirting octopus living inside his head. While the mollusk’s “inky tranquilizer” is capable of numbing Estha’s body to the visual disturbances that the past appears to have inflicted on him, its actions and the accompanying sounds, ironically, (re)awaken his tactile and auditory senses. Estha’s silence hence emerges as a powerful statement. As a sonic phenomenon, it withstands and preserves memory traces that vision proved incapable of safely holding in place. Roy attributes Rahel’s ability to “communicate” with Estha to the bodily movements that accompany his silence: “She could feel the rhythm of Estha’s rocking, and the wetness of rain on his skin. She could hear the raucous, scrambled world inside his head” (22; emphasis added). Marked by a repetitive, discernible temporal pattern, the rhythmic movement of Estha’s body, bearing the traces of percussive rain—“That lonely drummer” (279)—establishes a viscerally felt beat or pulse that translates into sonic action. Rahel’s ability to extract periodic patterns from her brother’s bodily motions exemplifies recent scientific evidence “that body movement alone can be sufficient to influence auditory encoding of a rhythm stimulus” (Phillips-Silver and Trainor 544). The depth of their relationship arises, therefore, less from a telepathic or extrasensory communication, as critics have commonly argued, than from an acute and, in fact, profoundly sensory awareness of each other’s moods and emotions.9

To make possible this deep connectedness between brother and sister, Roy turns to nature: “Here they studied Silence (like the Children of the Fisher People), and learned the bright language of dragonflies. Here they learned to Wait. To Watch. To think thoughts and not voice them. To move like lightning when the bendy yellow bamboo arced downwards” (194). Since the children’s education proceeds without the mediating presence of words, the silence that surrounds them emerges as another, more-than-human “language.” Lurking near its deceptively soundless surface are elements whose acoustic nuances might easily escape those immersed in the noise of modern life, those who, like Baby Kochamma and her maid Kochu Maria, are “locked together in a noisy television silence” (28). In contrast to mass-produced artifacts of civilization—from washing machines to televisions to computers, drawing us into a mechanistic, repetitive sound world that lacks variation—the twins’ conversations “surfaced and dipped like mountain streams. Sometimes audible to other people. Sometimes not” (191). Dropping out of sight only to [End Page 124] reemerge from deep below the watery surface, they hint at a more-than-human sonic environment in which organic entities—stream-beds, humming insects, rainfalls—create patterns that never exactly repeat themselves and, echoing the rhythms of our own bodies, simultaneously soothe and surprise.10

A World of Vibrant Matter

This move from silence to sound is analogous to an increasing shift from sound as modeled on voice or music toward sound understood as vibration. For instance, when Estha quietly joins his sister at a dancing performance, “Something altered in the air. And Rahel knew that Estha had come” (222). Changes in the vibration of air molecules here signal Estha’s arrival. Expanding on this scene, Roy’s detailed description of an oil portrait depicting Rahel’s great-grandparents orients attention away from dominant visualist regimes of knowledge toward ear-centered paradigms. Here, Reverend E. John Ipe gazes confidently into the direction of the road where the painter must have positioned himself. His wife Aleyooti Ammachi seems more hesitant to abandon the scenic backdrop of the river, the fishermen, and the fish: “With her eyes she looked in the direction that her husband looked. With her heart she looked away” (30). While the two figures are blocking the view to the landscape that lies behind them, Aleyooti’s ears surprise with a curiously paradoxical revelation: “Her heavy, dull gold kunukku earrings . . . had stretched her earlobes and hung all the way down to her shoulders. Through the holes in her ears you could see the hot river and the dark trees that bent into it. And the fishermen in their boats. And the fish.” In a strange reversal, direct perception is rendered as a covered vision, while a mediated vision provided by the small holes in Aleyooti’s ears reveals or uncovers that which is covered, showing that which cannot be seen. Connected to Aleyooti’s vision of the heart via the pulse or heart sounds that are carried in the artery running right next to the inner ear, the faculty of revealing the hidden can be attributed to aural, rather than visual, perception. In contrast to conventional portraits, the background comes into the foreground thanks to the ear’s capacity to expand the perceptual field, which is tied closely to the absence of anything like eyelids for the ears and the “omnidirectionality” of hearing (Chion 33). The passage that follows Roy’s description of the painting places the scene firmly in an acoustic ecology that connects sound perception with the natural environment: “Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem House still had a river-sense” (30). The connection between Rahel’s former home and nature is here mediated [End Page 125] through the image of the seashell, a cultural overlay of metaphor that science writers, such as Rudolph Bodmer, have unmasked as an illusion: “The sounds we hear when we hold a sea shell to the ear are not really the sound of the sea waves. We have come to imagine that they are because they sound like the waves of the sea, and knowledge that the shell originally came from the sea helps us to this conclusion very easily” (79). The similitude in resonance, Bodmer urges, lies less in a common source than in the means of generating sound: both sea and seashell sounds are, after all, composed of air waves. Signaling a turn away from vision as an exclusionary source of knowledge toward a focus on what Sterne names “the ear’s powers to transduce vibrations” (33), Roy’s emphasis on sound draws attention to a vibrating world in which human bodies and nonhuman natures intermingle—the river, the trees, the fishermen, the fish—a world that contrasts sharply with the one symbolized by the road in which the natural environment functions merely as a resource or a means for human progress and development.11

As a radical challenge to narratives that hide from view what Nixon calls “unimagined communities” (Slow Violence 150), those communities that inconvenience or disturb the exploitation of a nation’s environmental resources, The God of Small Things features less portraits of individuals than human landscapes in which marginalized groups and the environment are coextensive. The vivid description of the river Meenachal Rahel returns to after years of absence presents the pernicious space of regular human habitation ravaged by a saltwater barrage that had been built to ensure increased harvests:

it greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed. . . . Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater.

(118)

Toothless and spineless, the Meenachal lies as if abandoned after an act of violation. Robbed of elements vital to its survival by weeds whose strangling roots recall the octopus’s tentacles spreading in Estha’s skull, it had sunk into a state of lifeless inanity after witnessing the deterioration of its own body. While its “ghastly skull’s smile” resonates with Roy’s descriptions of the inside of Estha’s skull, its near death by strangling evokes Sophie Mol’s suffocation to death—the river sharing Estha’s and Sophie Mol’s fate of having been deprived of breath and voice. [End Page 126]

Rather than a sign of anthropocentric and hierarchical vision, the anthropomorphic element in Roy’s depictions serves to catalyze, in Bennett’s words, “a sensibility that finds a world filled not only with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99). A “muffled highway” in the wake of the twins’ cousin’s accidental drowning, the river bears silent witness to the tragedy: “There was no storm-music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. . . . Just a quiet handing-over ceremony” (277). A resonant bond between the environment and those marginalized develops during the night of Velutha’s brutal beating. Then, as the policemen wade through thickets of vines and unbending grass, “giant spider webs . . . spread like whispered gossip from tree to tree” (289), while “Gray squirrels streaked down mottled trunks of rubber trees that slanted towards the sun. Old scars slashed across their bark. Sealed. Healed. Untapped” (290). The environment reveals itself as a silent yet vigilant witness of the tragic events of the past. Brought into dialogue with Roy’s description of Velutha’s home, the spider webs and old scars on bark not only function as visual signs of a silenced, submerged past—“Sealed. Healed. Untapped”—but also point to a vigilance of a very particular kind:

On the edge of the clearing, with its back to the river, a low hut with walls of orange laterite plastered with mud and a thatched roof nestled close to the ground, as though it was listening to a whispered subterranean secret. The low walls of the hut were the same color as the earth they stood on, and seemed to have germinated from a house-seed planted in the ground.

(195–96)

Vigilant listening, then, lies at the heart of the earth’s act of bearing witness—the earth here suggesting a composite of man-made and natural materials. What is more, this auditory vigilance contrasts starkly with the response of the abandoned rubber plantation house across the river, troped as “The History House,” “Whose doors were locked and windows open” (290). Providing the stage for “History in live performance” (293), the History House, a reminder of colonial rubber cultivation in Kerala, maintains a clinical distance to the unfolding horrific events.12 While the entanglement of the environment and Dalit settlements points to what Divya Anand describes as the “tenuous relation of the environment and the exploited figures in contemporary creative and critical literature” (95), the locked doors of the History House translate into “a community’s collective blindness”—or, rather deafness—“as the police and a powerful family collude in killing a man who threatened the legitimacy of their social order” (Vadde 532).13 [End Page 127]

Roy’s aural poetics binds history, from the beginning, to material bodies that provide acoustic clues to that which lies hidden. Whereas memory’s visual disclosures, including Velutha’s “swollen face,” “smashed, upside-down smile,” and “bloodshot eye” (32), pertain to impressions and experiences that follow the violent beating, the sounds emitted by vibrant matter tangibly attest to the “subterranean secret” (195) of the beating itself: “Esthappen and Rahel woke to the shout of sleep surprised by shattered kneecaps. . . . They heard the thud of wood on flesh. Boot on bone. On teeth. The muffled grunt when a stomach is kicked in. The muted crunch of skull on cement. The gurgle of blood on a man’s breath when his lung is torn by the jagged end of a broken rib” (292; emphasis added). Roy’s graphic description of Velutha’s beating reminds the reader of the various material parts the human body is composed of: “the minerality of our bones, or the metal of our blood, or the electricity of our neurons” (Bennett 10). It presents the event, as Bennett would argue, “as encounters between ontologically diverse actants, some human, some not, though all thoroughly material” (xiv). Moreover, one cannot fail to notice the resonance between the sounds heard during Velutha’s violent beating and the sounds that pervade Roy’s novel as a whole, from a woman’s grunts and a movie theater’s peanut-crunching darkness to “the hollow knocked-on sound” (192) of a wooden boat to the sound of “Gurgling blood” (224) during a Kathakali performance in a local temple.14 Like a seashell, material bodies in The God of Small Things carry sounds of the past that appear not in identical but in similar guise. The past, in Benjaminian fashion, “[reaches] us like an echo awakened by a call,” as “a word, a tapping, or a rustling that is endowed with the magic power to transport us into the cool tomb of long ago, from the vault of which the present seems to return only as an echo” (Benjamin 59). “Knock on it and it made a hollow knocked-on sound” (Roy, God 192): Roy’s explicit reference to the act of knocking on the twins’ wooden boat—an object implicated in their cousin’s drowning and their nightly travels to the History House where they are forced to witness Velutha’s beating, now being “covered with moss, hidden by ferns”—suggests precisely the attempt to awaken an echo of a hidden, distant past by a “call” emitted in the present moment. What is more, insofar as a gesture rather than voice is aimed at inciting a response, it points to an intermingling of sound and touch in ways that enhance the palpability of history’s sonorous vibrations. Precisely the physicality of unbounded, nonlinear sound makes the latter more than image prone to saturate and short-circuit our perception (Chion 33)—to touch, shock, and surprise.

Touching in The God of Small Things produces not merely an intimacy but, even, a mingling of self and other. This intercourse is [End Page 128] especially apparent in Velutha’s tactile engagement with the material environment. Characterized by a “remarkable facility with his hands . . . . He was like a little magician. He could make intricate toys—tiny windmills, rattles, minute jewel boxes out of dried palm reeds; he could carve perfect boats out of tapioca stems and figurines on cashew nuts” (71). By the work of his hands, plain bamboo magically transforms into intricate, distinctively shaped objects with subtle textural nuances.15 The profound interconnection between self and environment is further exemplified in the marking on Velutha’s back, “a light-brown birthmark, shaped like a pointed dry leaf,” and its significance: “He said it was a Lucky Leaf, that made the Monsoons come on time. A brown leaf on a black back. An autumn leaf at night. A lucky leaf that wasn’t lucky enough” (70). While Velutha’s crafts fashioned from natural materials bear his distinctive imprint, the natural environment as such leaves its mark on him:

As he rose from the dark river and walked up to the stone steps, she saw that the world they stood in was his. That he belonged to it. That it belonged to him. The water. The mud. The trees. The fish. The stars. He moved so easily through it. As she watched him she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labor had shaped him. How the wood he fashioned had fashioned him. Each plank he planed, each nail he drove, each thing he made had molded him. Had left its stamp on him. Had given him his strength, his supple grace.

(315–16)

Roy’s portrayal of Velutha presents a particularly compelling instance of the permeability of human bodies and their entanglement with matter. “The world they stood in was his” because of a reciprocal belonging that turns Velutha into a member, rather than owner, of a more-than-human world. As a result, the human body no longer positions itself in opposition or, even more crucially, as superior to the environment but seamlessly blends into it. Moreover, by assigning the physical world a role in Velutha’s identity formation—the material environment, curiously, touching back reciprocally—Roy expands the conception of intersubjectivity beyond the human and redistributes agency among human and nonhuman actors.

Roy’s aural poetics replaces discourses that render the environment comprehensible as mere object or resource with an expansive ontology of kinship between human and nonhuman worlds.16 This kinship manifests itself in Ammu’s instinctual anticipation of her lover’s arrival—her body moving through the darkness “like an insect following a chemical trail” (314)—as well as in Estha’s silence: “a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what [End Page 129] lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season” (12). If there is something uncanny about Estha’s silence, it is due mainly to his way of blending with his material surroundings:

Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background of wherever he was—into bookshelves, gardens, curtains, doorways, streets—to appear inanimate, almost invisible to the untrained eye. It usually took strangers awhile to notice him even if they were in the same room with him. It took them even longer to notice that he never spoke. Some never noticed at all. Estha occupied very little space in the world.

(12)

In response to Estha’s corporeal retreat from the living, animate world, the twins’ aunt, whenever confronted with Estha’s stubborn refusal to speak, “had the air of a game warden pointing out an animal in the grass. Taking pride in her ability to predict its movements. Her superior knowledge of its habits and predilections” (86). Baby Kochamma’s behavior not only betrays her condescension toward someone considered part of the animal world but also suggests a particular relationship to this world, one that positions herself as elevated above nonhuman nature. By contrast, Roy offers a perspective that disassembles notions of an inanimate, static, or passive landscape in her novel’s final pages. Here, the History House ends up blending with, even originating from, its material surroundings: “White-walled once. Red-roofed. But painted in weather-colors now. With brushes dipped in nature’s palette. Mossgreen. Earthbrown. Crumbleblack. Making it look older than it really was. Like sunken treasure dredged up from the ocean bed. Whale-kissed and barnacled. Swaddled in silence. Breathing bubbles through its broken windows” (290–91). The dissolution of boundaries between man-made structures and the natural environment coincides with the emission of minute acoustic signals. As if to indicate structural discontinuities in materials under applied stress, the bubbles emitted by the History House point to the possibility of silenced histories to surface whenever met with force or vibration, a process leaving behind aural, rather than visual, traces of the past.

Though the Enlightenment is often associated with sight, sound, along with hearing and listening, is in fact “foundational to modern modes of knowledge, culture, and social organization” (Sterne 2). If, for instance, Benjamin perceived history as a form of image inscription to some extent comparable to photography in its instantaneous, flashlike appearance and fragmentary nature, his reflections on the noises of a modern city and on the mnemonic function of sound trouble the visualist definition of modernity. Roy registers a similar [End Page 130] appreciation of the significance and power of sound in an innovative aesthetic that is founded primarily on sonic and haptic perception rather than on visual observation alone. Roy’s focus on touch here arises primarily out of her desire for physical proximity between interior and exterior bodies in which listening coordinates with other senses to induce a highly palpable form of sensory engagement. In opposition to a visual enframing of the world organized around principles of distance, differentiation, and control, an emphasis on sound leads to a reconfiguration of subjectivity in terms of openness, responsiveness, and exchange. Moreover, by presenting material bodies as media through which submerged historical voices make themselves heard, Roy reorients the self in relationship to the material environment. She embraces an ecological sensibility that casts the environment as a sentient force and, by doing so, not only presents human corporeality as coextensive with nonhuman nature but also helps raise awareness of the unbounded, rather than enclosed, nature of experience and imagination. The devastation of the Meenachal graphically dramatizes the environment’s marginal status and unveils the oppression, cruelty, and injustice unleashed by powerful capitalist forces that turn human beings into eco-refugees and social outcasts. It alerts the reader to the environmental and human costs of what Nehru famously called the Temples of Modern India: dams meant to irrigate the land and generate power yet resulting in submerged forests, ravaged ecosystems, uprooted populations, and millions of hectares of land either waterlogged or salt affected instead. The novel’s final word—“Tomorrow” (321)—may thus suggest an appeal to the reader’s ecological sensibilities in order to bring a hidden, more inclusive history out into the open.17 To conclude with Roy’s own words, “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing” (War Talk 75).

Mirja Lobnik

MIRJA LOBNIK <mlobnik@emory.edu> teaches at Oxford College of Emory University. Her work has appeared in South Atlantic Review and The Neglected West. Her book manuscript in progress, Sound Ecologies: Memory and Matter in Indigenous Literature and Art of the Americas and South Asia, examines the intersections of story-telling traditions, culture, and the environment through the lens of postcolonial ecocriticism, indigenous philosophy, and sound studies.

Notes

1. The passage taken from Sterne’s The Audible Past situates itself in the context of Sterne’s larger definition of sound: “We treat sound as a natural phenomenon exterior to people, but its very definition is anthropocentric. . . . Sound is a very particular perception of vibrations. You can take the sound out of the human, but you can take the human out of the sound only through an exercise in imagination” (11).

2. Acoustic ecology names an emerging field that explores the relationship between living beings and their sonic environments. I use the term to indicate soundscapes that consist of natural sounds as well [End Page 131] as environmental sounds created by humans, ranging from vocal utterances and music compositions to sounds of mechanical origin.

3. For more on this point, see Michel Chion’s trans-sensorial model of perception in which “there is no sensory given that is demarcated and isolated from the outset. Rather, the senses are channels, highways more than territories or domains” (137).

4. An engagement with sound, “occluded by the visual hegemony” (Burdick 75), resurfaced in various fields and disciplines in the 1970s resulting in a broader turn toward explorations of presence, material inscription, and embodiment in the late 1980s and an increased focus on the phenomenology of sound and listening up to the early years of this century. On explorations of sound along these lines, see Barthes, Attali, Schaeffer, Cage, Connor, Chion, and Kroker. More recently, scholarly work, including Sterne’s The Audible Past and Nora M. Alter and Lutz Koepnick’s Sound Matters, has drawn attention to an “acoustic modernity” (Sterne 9) that makes audible those processes previously attributed only to visuality and thus counters “the cliché that modern science and rationality were outgrowths of visual culture and visual thinking” alone (Sterne 3).

5. My analysis builds on the work of Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee who considers The God of Small Things an artistic response to environmental issues in India and calls for a combination of aesthetic, political, historical, and environmental approaches. See 18.

6. As a much debated theme across disciplines, agency is here understood as a situated process in which material culture and human experience are entangled and in which “agency need not be coterminous with intentionality, which releases nonhumans into the process of agency” (Knappett and Malafouris xii). For an exploration of the move away from humanistic determinations of agency, see Knappett’s and Malafouris’s Material Agency. For a theorization of a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman, see Bennett 8. For the fusions of ecocritical perspectives with postcolonial theory and criticism, see Heise.

7. Roy’s narrative strategy evokes what Chion refers to in cinematic parlance as “materializing [sound] indices” that “can pull the scene toward the material and concrete” (114). As Chion explains, “The materializing indices are the sound’s details that cause us to ‘feel’ the material conditions of the sound source, and refer to the concrete process of the sound’s production. They can give us information about the substance causing the sound—wood, metal, paper, cloth—as well as the way the sound is produced—by friction, impact, uneven oscillations, periodic movement back and forth, and so on.”

8. On this point, I draw heavily on Chion’s proposition that “There is always something about sound that overwhelms and surprises us no matter what—especially when we refuse to lend it our conscious attention; and thus sound interferes with our perception, affects it. Surely, our conscious perception can valiantly work at submitting [End Page 132] everything to its control, but, in the present cultural state of things, sound more than image has the ability to saturate and short-circuit our perception” (33).

9. On a reading of the twins’ relationship along the lines of telepathy, see Tickell’s “God of Small Things” 65 and Patchay 147.

10. In Abram’s words, “The patterns on the stream’s surface as it ripples over the rocks, or on the bark of an elm tree, or in a cluster of weeds, are all composed of repetitive figures that never exactly repeat themselves, of iterated shapes to which our senses may attune themselves even while the gradual drift and metamorphosis of those shapes draws our awareness in unexpected and unpredictable directions” (Spell 64).

11. The scene resonates with Roy’s reflections on modern development in India in “The Cost of Living” where she laments the gradual unraveling of “the fabric of an ancient, agrarian community, which depends on its lands and rivers and forests for its sustenance,” and wonders why it is “that the first sign of ‘development’—a road—brought only terror, police, beatings, rape, murder” (8).

12. History’s tendency to distance itself from the state’s callous treatment of Velutha parallels the government’s response to the ecological and human costs of the serial damming of India’s Narmada River, in particular to the displaced people’s protests and agitation—the damming affecting predominantly Adivasis and Dalits. See Roy’s classic essay “The Greater Common Good.”

13. The marginalization of Dalits stems not only from India’s caste violence but also, as Mukherjee argues, from an “unequal competition for resources (such as the Kerala freshwater ecosystems) where development turns people into ecorefugees” (27).

14. Recounting some of the most important episodes of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana Vadham forms one of the major intertexts in Roy’s novel. For a detailed analysis of the symbolic significance of the Kathakali intertexts in Roy’s novel, see Tickell’s “The Epic Side of Truth.” For a study of Kathakali, see Zarrilli.

15. Devon Campbell-Hall reads the individualism of fine craftsmanship, encompassed in the figure of the highly skilled artisan, as countering the “ideology of globalization, with its focus on homogenizing disparate cultures and products” (46). I wish to extend this reading by linking Velutha’s artistic sensibility to an engagement with the environment that is based on reciprocity rather than dominance.

16. Vadde brings into focus notions of interdependence, reciprocity, and belonging in her theorization of “ecological collectivity”: “collectivity based on the cross-species relations of particular ecologies” (529).

17. As Bennett argues, “agency is also bound up with the idea of a trajectory, a directionality or movement away from somewhere even if the toward-which it moves is obscure or even absent” (32). [End Page 133]

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