Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and the Politics of Idleness, by Mirosh Thomas

That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private, and limited) came away cauterized, laughing humbly at his own temerity.

-Arundhati Roy

          When Arundhati Roy’s semi-autobiographical novel, The God of Small Things, was published in 1997, it received both praise and harsh criticism. While many critics and reviewers from around the world praised it for its technical virtuosity and thematic concerns, the voices and reactions heard from Roy’s native country, India, were disconcerting. In Kerala, a state in the south-west coast of India, where the story takes place, conservative Christians and hardline communists alike stood against the novel’s publication and distribution in India, despite the positive media attention Kerala would draw through this Booker prize winning novel. A Syrian Christian lawyer named Sabu Thomas even filed a petition against Roy to remove the final chapter from her novel for its sexually explicit content. What provoked him was the lovemaking scene of a higher-caste Christian woman and a lower-caste man. Similarly, communists attacked the novel for bourgeois aesthetics as well as anti-communist sentiments. EMS Namboodiripad, the communist leader whose name figures in the novel, concedes it as a truthful depiction of Ipe family members’ deviant sexuality, but condemned it for following decadent aspect of western literary imagery – “sexual anarchy,” [1] as well as caricaturing communist party members and defaming the communist code of conduct (“EMS Picks on Arundathi”). Along with EMS Namboodiripad, a prominent Indian Marxist critic, Aijaz Ahmed, acknowledges the realist turn of her novel only in depicting “the tale of private life in the form of what is basically a miniaturized family saga,” but not the communist movement in Kerala. For him “the limits of [Roy’s] private experience seem also to be the limits of her Realism” (112). The reactions of the members of the Church and the communist party, who have revolutionized the Kerala society from time to time, make one curious about the moral and ideological controversy of Roy’s narration. Was it really her use of sexual imagery and/or her critique of communism that angered the critics, or was it her careful unraveling of something unexpected and hideous in the political and religious establishments in Kerala?

The plot of the novel revolves around the Ipe family, a wealthy Syrian Christian family that includes grandmother Mammachi, her divorced son Chacko, her divorced daughter Ammu, Ammu’s twins Rahel and Estha, and an unmarried aunt Baby Kochamma. Another character is grandfather who, though already dead, exerts a strong influence in the narrative and often surfaces through the remembrance of living characters. Rahel’s return from America to her hometown Aymenam and her remembrance of the past serve as the focal narrative of the story. Though the narrative centers around two incidents from the past, the death of Sophie mol, Chacko’s British daughter, and the tragic love affair of Ammu and untouchable carpenter Velutha, the former one mainly functions as a catalyst to latter, the final tragedy.

Although The God of Small Things tells the story of the Ipe family and their adjustments to the postcolonial situation in Kerala, it highlights Velutha’s fight against the hierarchical structures in a caste-ridden society. Velutha’s story is tied to the official narrative in India, the caste narrative, where one is born into a particular caste and abides by its rules. However, Velutha’s heritage does not end there. Two generations ago, his entire family converted to Christianity to escape inequality and intolerance in caste system. And Velutha, in his effort to move to an ideal society, joins communist party. Though Velutha moves from caste restrictions, he finds himself entangled in the same caste ethics, seeped through the so-called agents of change in Kerala society, communism and Christianity.

Roy’s major characters, Ammu, Rahel and Velutha, speak from periphery, an area the classical historians tend to exclude from their narration. Foucault’s explanation is noteworthy here: “For history in its classical form, the discontinuous was both the given and the unthinkable: the raw material of history, which presented itself in the form of dispersed events – decisions, accidents, initiatives, discoveries; the material, which, through analysis, had to be rearranged, reduced, effaced in order to reveal the continuity of events” (9). In the field of history, it was the Subaltern school of Historiography, which emerged in 1980s, who first began the process of rewriting the existing official history of India, which was based on elite versions of history. The Subaltern school, according to Amrita Biswas, tried “to gather vital historical data from lived experiences of various oppressed classes, which were submerged in religious and social customs” (200). Thus, as Leela Gandhi says, “Subaltern studies defined itself as an attempt to allow people finally to speak within the jealous pages of elitist historiography and in so doing, to speak for, or to sound the muted voices of, the truly oppressed” (2). History, thus, ceased to be only written by the powerful, and began to be examined from bottom up. Though Roy’s fiction cannot be categorized under history or historical fiction, it addresses the contemporary India, especially a nation that is still in its inception. Like the subaltern history, Roy’s narrative includes the suppressed narratives of Ammu and the twins who live in the shadows of the two worlds, East and West; the story of Velutha who did not have a significant role in nation-making in the view-point of those who write the nation since “[he] left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no image in mirrors” (206). However, including these marginalized and suppressed narratives are not without contradictions or conflicts with the official narratives.

The tension between the official vs. marginal narrative is given much attention in Homi Bhabha’s article, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation and Narration.” Bhabha refers to them as pedagogical and performative aspects of nation making. He writes, “[T]he borders of the nation…are constantly faced with a double temporality: the process of identity constituted by historical sedimentation (the pedagogical); and the loss of identity in the signifying process of cultural identification (the performative)” (153). The pedagogical function corresponds to the continuous linear history of the people which gives us an impression that the history of a country is always a linear movement from past to present beginning from its mythic foundation. The performative corresponds to the day-to-day activities that connect an individual to the multitude of people in one’s country. Bhabha describes it as “the scraps, patches, and rags of daily life [that] must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a coherent national culture” (145). As Bhabha mentions, the nation, due to the very nature of its process, signifies space marked with tensions. It is this tension between the big God, the pedagogical, and the small gods in which the performative is highlighted in the tragic events in The God of Small Things. When narrating the story of Velutha, who violated the norms of the big God by having an affair with a Syrian Christian, Roy affirms that it is the struggle between the age-old dharmic laws and the people in the margin who violate those norms in the active construction of a new nation.

The official history, or pedagogical aspect of nation, is weaved into Roy’s narrative through reference to Manusmriti (The Law Code of Manu) and the epic The Mahabharata, texts that are considered basic texts, which shape dharma in Indian tradition. Between these texts, Manusmriti is solely a law text, while Mahabharata is an epic that illustrates subtleties of law. Manu is considered as the lawgiver in Indian tradition, just like Hammurabi in Babylonian tradition or Moses in Jewish tradition. However, Manusmriti was not the only law book in ancient India, but it grew in prominence and was considered the most celebrated and best-known legal text in ancient India. Most of the legal texts that followed Manusmriti were mere abridgements or expansions on Manusmriti. During the British rule in India, the British accepted it as the law book of Hindus, and it was translated by Sir William Jones, once again validating its authenticity. But people like Roy never consider it a celebrated, ultimate authority on law; instead, it is an oppressive text, which restricts basic rights of women and lower castes. The major reason for Roy’s opposition to the text is the caste discourse, discriminating one caste against the other, which often leads to the violation of basic human rights and denial of any human dignity. The caste rules, given a strong legal base by Manu’s book, encouraged, in Thomas Nossiter’s words, “conceptions of pollution which extended beyond untouchability to unapproachabilty” (25). The God of Small Things refers to such injustice perpetrated by the influence of Manusmriti. Roy writes, “in Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed” (71). Roy calls this time “crawling backwards time,” which she describes as a period “when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that the Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint” (71). But the most dehumanizing custom that Roy refers to is restricting the freedom of lower caste women to cover their upper body. They were stripped off their upper clothes by implementing a law called a breast tax − interestingly enough, passed by a local queen − which levies a heavy tax on the lower caste women who wear upper clothes. [2]  The reasons are obvious: firstly, the lower caste women are not as respectable as high caste women; secondly, it satisfies higher caste men’s libidinal pleasures. On the other side, this custom marked the lower caste women visually as being not worthy of clothing and thus made them less human and less civilized.

The second important text from ancient Indian literary corpus mentioned in The God of Small Things is The Mahabharata. The Mahabharata characters are resuscitated through Kathakali performance, an artform that takes certain episodes from The Mahabharata and perform them on temple premises. [3]  The Mahabharata is a story of dharma and adharma in popular conception: Pandavas are the dharma force and Kauravas are the adharma force. The stories of Mahabharata as well as the preaching of dharma by both Bhishma and Krishna have been a moral touchstone for the people of India. The Kathakali section in The God of Small Things takes three episodes from The Mahabharata: the first is “Karna sabadha” (the oath of Karna), the second is “Dhuryodhana vadham” (the killing of Dhuryodhana), and the third is “Dushasana vadham” (the killing of Dushasana). These three episodes are not the dharma acts of Pandavas, but their adharma in murdering Duryodhana and Dushasana [4] and abandoning of Karna, which makes it close to the story Roy narrates. Karna was denied his birthright as Kshatriya and abandoned by her mother Kunti, who is also the mother of Pandavas; Duryodhana was killed in the war dishonorably prompted by the dharma king Yudhishtira; Dushasana’s body was treated immorally after being murdered in war by Bhima.

By evoking these stories through Kathakali, Roy shows how adharmic acts are being performed in contemporary India. Roy’s hero, Velutha, is violated like the Kaurava brothers Duryodhana and Dushasana. Here is the picture of the fallen hero of The God of Small Things:

His skull was fractured in three places. His nose and both his cheekbones were smashed, leaving his face pulpy, undefined. The blow to his mouth had split open his upper lip and broken six teeth, three of which were embedded in his lower lip, hideously inverting his beautiful smile. Four of his ribs were splintered, one had pierced his left lung, which was what made him bleed from his mouth. The blood on his breath bright red. Fresh. Frothy. His lower intestine was ruptured and hemorrhaged, the blood collected in his abdominal cavity. His spine was damaged in two places, the concussion had paralyzed his right arm and resulted in a loss of control over his bladder and rectum. Both his kneecaps were shattered. (294)

By linking her stories to The Mahabharata and Manusmriti, Roy shows how the pedagogic aspects of the nation try to suppress the performance of the marginalized. The people who betray him to the police, for no reason other than safe-guarding their own superior positions in the society, are Baby Kochamma, the grandaunt of the twins, and Comrade Pillai, the local Marxist party leader. Baby Kochamma hated the Paravan (Velutha) for his audacity or better put, the lack of humility and servility associated with the Paravans in general. [5]  Comrade Pillai hated him for being a Paravan and aspiring to be a strong communist.

The caste system and adherence to the principles of dharma could be a viable problem for Velutha, a dalit, but one may wonder how some of the Syrian Christian characters in the novel appropriate caste mentality and share the oppressive pedagogical discourse. Syrian Christians claim their origin from the Brahmin communities that were converted when St. Thomas came to India supposedly in AD 52 (Nadar 79). Since this was the time period caste structure was in its inception and the particular situation of the caste structure in Kerala – among the four ladders of the caste hierarchy, the second one Kshatriyas are rare and third one Vaishyas are non-existent – enabled Syrian Christians who chiefly engaged in agriculture helped fulfill the role of Vaishyas (Nossiter 26). However, unlike Hindu castes, there were no subdivisions within Syrian Christianity. But things began changing during the colonial period.

When Portuguese came to India in 16th century, they tried to re-convert the Syrian Christians into the version of Christianity they brought with them. As Roy describes, the resistance of the Syrian Christians proved catastrophic: “three purple-robed Syrian bishops murdered by the Portuguese were found floating in the sea, with coiled sea serpents riding on their chests and oysters knotted in their tangled beards” (33). The Portuguese who failed in their attempt to re-Christianize the existing Christian community sought to proselytize the lower-caste fishing communities. Many people converted to Christianity to escape from humiliations they faced in Hindu caste hierarchy. But this introduced new problems into the Christian community: touchable Christians and untouchable Christians, which compelled the leaders to build separate churches and schools for untouchable Christians. This separation provided a higher status to Syrian Christians as they formed their own caste-hierarchy in the existing hierarchical society. For example, even the lowly cook in the Ipe family took pride in her heritage as a touchable, upper caste Christian. Roy writes, “Kochu Maria couldn’t stop wearing her kunukku because if she did, how would people know that despite her lowly cook’s job (seventy-five rupees a month) she was a Syrian Christian, Mar Thomite? Not a Pelaya, or a Pulaya, or a Paravan. But a Touchable, upper-caste Christian (into whom Christianity had seeped like tea from a teabag)” (162). Velutha’s family, on the other hand, were untouchable Christians, who were treated just like any other untouchables. On Syrian Christian caste-discrimination, Roy says,

Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint. (71)

While this is Mammachi’s remembrance of 1950s, Pappachi’s final years, there had occurred only minor changes by 1969 when the major events of The God of Small Things takes place. Like any caste Hindus, Syrian Christians continued to regard the untouchables as untouchables; however, they did not show as much aversion as that of the caste Hindus. For example, Mammachi favors the untouchable carpenter Velutha and gives him a higher salary than any untouchable would normally receive, though not as much as a touchable; she also disregards the protest of the touchable carpenters for allowing an untouchable in her pickle factory. The Oxford educated Chacko, Mammachi’s son, also grants Velutha same rights as other workers in his factory. However, none of the Ipe family members could tolerate him having an affair with an Ipe family woman, and their revenge for such an insolence leads to Velutha’s death.

Velutha knew that his Christian heritage is worthless and would not help him in retrieving his humanity. He tries to break the caste barriers through education and training in a touchable profession; however, the touchable Hindu society is not ready to accept him and they discriminate him at workplace. His final hope is to achieve it through communism. Communist reforms in the 1957, such as the land re-distribution and education reform, gave hope to the oppressed class. However, Roy shows, caste dharma was so strong that it swept through even Marxism as it did through Christianity, and party’s initial enthusiasm died out by 1970s. Even the world communist phenomenon was not different. William Young writes, “The Communist Party may have considered itself ‘the only revolutionary party.’ The problem was that it no longer made revolution…. Though theoretically revolutionary, they had shown themselves unable to deal with the complexities of social and political change” (12).

In 1951, Kerala became the first Indian state to elect a communist government to power and the second in the world after San Marino, which elected the first Communist government in 1945. When the communist party came to power in Kerala, it was heralded as the “parliamentary road to socialism” and “peaceful transition to socialism” (Krishnaji 216). The origin and development of the Communist party in India is peculiar since it began as a movement against British colonialism. As Nossiter notes, “Those who were to become the core of the Kerala branch of Communist Party of India (CPI) participated first as Gandhians and then as Congress Socialists in the indigenous political movements of the time” (65). It was the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), a radical wing of congress that turned into the CPI in Kerala. This transition made it easy for the communists to gain support. During the formative years, CPI followed the strategy suggested by the 6th Congress of the Communist International (1928), which declared “capitalism and the native bourgeoisie as enemies at least as important as feudalism and foreign imperialism” (Kautsky 145). According to this strategy, they dubbed the Congress Party, which was engaged in the struggle for freedom, as a bourgeois party. Later, in the 7th Comintern Congress of 1935, the communists revised their strategy. According to John H. Kautsky “this strategy regarded imperialism and feudalism (or in Western countries, Fascism) as the Communists’ main enemies and therefore envisaged first a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ and only later a ‘proletarian-socialist’ revolution” (146).

Since the fight against imperialism became the primary goal, it was difficult to avoid the bourgeois or caste elements in the communist party. The presence of the high caste members in the communist party leadership was not surprising. Even the first chief minister of Kerala from the communist-led government, EMS Namboodiripad, was from the high Namboodiri/Brahmin caste. In The God of Small Things, Roy calls him “the flamboyant Brahmin high priest of Marxism in Kerala” (64). Caste also played a crucial role in the victory of the communists in 1957 as caste leaders encouraged the caste members to vote for people from their castes irrespective of party labels (Nossiter124-26). The caste support in the election and the involvement of the higher castes in the party made the party less revolutionist and more nationalist. CPI’s decision to support the congress party in the pre-independent era and the Nehru government (congress) during the independent era “has made it virtually impossible for Indian communists to be revolutionaries and has left them with no alternative other than to be ‘nationalists’” (Stern 1). Later, the Sino- Indian border controversy put the CPI in a difficult situation: the more radical wing in the party created CPI (M) and supported China against national interests. [6]

Roy’s narration does not mention the struggle in the party, such as how the CPI (M) or naxalites [7]  were hunted by the congress-led government during the Emergency period (June 1975 to March 1977) or how the naxalite attempted to terrorize the people by burning police stations or public properties. She makes only a passing comment at the naxalite movement or at naxalite activists, like Rajan, who were tortured and killed by the police. On the other hand, since her focus is love laws, she points out the communist party’s inability to bring real revolution in the ugly nexus of the caste and bourgeois system in Kerala. Roy writes,

The real secret was that communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to. They offered a cocktail revolution. A heady mix of Eastern Marxism and orthodox Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy. (64)

She achieves her critique of the communism in Kerala mainly through the characters Comrade Pillai and Chacko. Through Comrade Pillai, Roy shows the ambivalence of a caste-conscious party worker engaged in creating a classless society. And through Chacko, Roy reveals the contradiction of a Syrian Christian aristocrat becoming a comrade.

Many of Roy’s critics, like Naboodiripad and Ahmed, object to her creation of the corrupted character Comrade Pillai. Referring to Namboodirpad’s objection, Rediff News states, “EMS [Namboodiripad] said there was no one in his party who remotely resembled that character — and if there were one, he would by now have found himself thrown out” (EMS Picks on Arundathi). For Roy, though the Marxist party is known ideologically as a party of the working class people and a meeting place where all members shed their affinities to caste and creed, this never happened. The caste-sense is too deeply rooted, even among Marxists. Comrade Pillai is sensitive about the caste issues. In a private conversation with Chacko, Comrade Pillai admits that he would not stand the Paravans and persuades Chacko to send him away from his factory.

Comrade Pillai says, “He may be very well okay as a person. But other workers are not happy with him. Already they are coming to me with complaints. You see, comrade, from local standpoint, these caste issues are very deep-rooted” (Roy 263). Despite his Marxist affiliations, Comrade Pillai, like any touchable, does not allow the untouchables into his house. His excuse is that his wife wouldn’t allow it. Comrade says, “see her, for example. Mistress of this house. Even she will never allow Paravans and all that into her house. Never. Even I cannot persuade her. My own wife. Of course inside the house she is Boss” (Roy 264). However, when the murder of Velutha provides him an opportunity to siege Paradise Pickles, comrade Pillai delivers “high-pitched speeches about Rights of Untouchables (‘Caste is Class, comrades’)” (Roy 266).

Roy created Comrade Pillai, Marxist outside and bourgeoisie inside, as a foil to Chacko, who is Marxist inside and a bourgeoisie outside. Pillai is also highly educated and holds a Master’s degree, but is poor compared to Chacko. He is proud about his poverty because it gives him power over Chacko. Roy writes, “with a street-fighter’s unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straightened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match. He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head” (261). However, he manages to send his son Lenin (who will later change his name to Levin) to an English-medium school to get him the best education and get a better job. Learning English is the first step to enter into the bourgeois world. Contrary to his Marxist ideology to fight against the vestiges of imperialism and neo-colonial powers like America, he secretly wishes a bourgeoisie life for his son. When Chacko visits his house, Comrade Pillai wanted to show him that his son, who was only six then, could declaim “Friends, Romans and Countrymen,” and his sister’s daughter recites English poems and declaims famous speeches.

It is not just his desire for a bourgeois lifestyle for his son that makes him a despised Marxist, rather it is his opportunism and malicious plan to sacrifice his party workers for his political ascendancy. When Velutha is arrested by the police, Comrade Pillai has been planning to contest the election to the Legislative Assembly. Velutha becomes Comrade Pillai’s pawn in his ascendancy to the Assembly. Comrade Pillai’s crime is twofold: he neither helped Velutha when he sought the party’s protection for the alleged crimes by Baby Kochamma nor revealed to Inspector Thomas Mathew about Velutha’s visit to his home on the night Sophie Mol died.

The only reason he hides this information is to use Velutha’s misfortune for his private aspirations: siege the factory under his leadership and establish himself as the local leader. The newspaper version of the story also helped Comrade Pillai. According to the newspapers it was the factory management that filed the false case against the Paravan “because he was an active member of the Communist Party. That they wanted to eliminate him for indulging in ‘Lawful Union Activities’” (286-87). In fact, it is surprising that Pillai does not declare Velutha a martyr of the party and erect a memorial for him, which could help him win the next election. However, Roy adds a little sarcasm to imply the larger problems in the society: “To be fair to Comrade Pillai, he did not plan the course of events that followed. He merely slipped his ready fingers into History’s waiting glove. It was not entirely his fault that he lived in a society where a man’s death could be more profitable than his life had ever been” (267).

To sum up, Roy’s novel doesn’t have an agenda as Ahmed claims [“settled ideological hostility” (112)], but it simply fits into her larger plan, critique of the status quo, and empowerment of the ordinary people, whose voice is often suppressed and whose part is often cut from history as they live through the history every day. Roy’s unraveling of the personal narrative, identity in performance, reveals their tension with the status quo, the pedagogical narrative, which overpowers all other narratives.


[1] EMS’s article was published in Malayalam in Desabhimani daily. It was later reported by rediff news -http://www.rediff.com/news/nov/29roy.htm

[2] The struggle for the lower caste women’s right to wear upper clothes is known as Shannar Agitation. After a long period of struggle, in 1859, they won the freedom to wear upper clothes. However, this custom continued for a few more decades.

[3] Kathakali is one of the art-forms that enacts the lives and messages of Mahabharata. There are several other art-forms like Koothu, Koodiyattam, Thullal, in Kerala alone, which take episodes from Mahbharatha and perform them. Kathakali dancers don’t limit their stories to Mahabharata alone; they take episodes from Ramayana and Puranas as well.

[4] The major Kaurava figures: Duryodhana is the eldest of the 100 Kaurva brothers and Dushasana is Duryodhana’s brother and his right hand. Karna is Duryodhana’s best friend and the greatest fighter in Kaurava group.

[5] Roy’s hero Velutha shares the crimes of both Duryodhana and Dushasana. Like Duryodhana, he is proud and tries to possess what he didn’t deserve, and like Dushasana, he dared to disrobe a woman he didn’t deserve.

[6] Having alliance with one or the other group was all part of different strategies adapted by Indian Communist Party. The central problem of communist strategy was always the determination of main enemy as well as major allies. Based on this problem, communist party mainly accepts three strategies such as left strategy, right strategy and neo-Maoist strategy, and often shifts to one or the other based on national or international interests. Left strategy regards capitalism and native bourgeoisie as communists’ main enemies and considers socialist revolution as their immediate goal. It calls for a united front from below by appealing to workers, peasants, and petty bourgeois who are willing to join communism. On the other hand, the right strategy considers imperialism and feudalism as communist’s prime enemy. This strategy envisages two stage revolution, first a bourgeois democratic revolution against fascism or imperialism and later a proletarian-socialist revolution against bourgeoisie and capitalism. During the first stage, communists form a united front from above allying with other anti-Fascist or anti-imperialist parties. Neo-maoist strategy draws from both right and left strategies. As in the right strategy, the major enemies are imperialism and feudalism and anticipates two separate revolutions. It also allies with workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie and the anti-imperialist bourgeoisie. But it agrees with left strategy and approaches these groups from below (not an alliance with the formal parties or leadership) as their true representative. (Kautsky 183)

[7]  A militant communist group in India.


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