Monthly Archives: June 2017

Exercising Wisdom / Exchanging Bodies

Considering the extent to which education impacts some of the central characters in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, it is surprising that the novel contains so little information about Rahel’s and Estha’s educations. Much of the story is, after all, set during the twins’ school years, and their closest male relatives are both educated members of the middle-class: their grandfather Pappachi was a noted entomologist, and their Uncle Chacko was educated at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Roy does tell us that Rahel and Estha attended school, and that Rahel spent time at the Nazareth Convent before being expelled for “decorating dung and slamming into seniors” (152), but the remarkable sensory details that characterize so many of the novel’s other passages are almost entirely absent from the few pages that refer to the twins’ formal education. When Roy eventually settles into a concrete description of their schooling, or rather a description of the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks (i.e., Rahel and Estha’s primary school notes), she places her description in direct relation to the physical and economic hardships that led to their mother Ammu’s untimely passing. Interestingly, the cause of Ammu’s death is not entirely unrelated to education. In fact, it can be argued that Ammu’s death comes as a result of her limited education, a limitation imposed by her father Pappachi’s desire that she remain subject to a patriarchal, class-based social structure. By associating the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks with the tragic story of Ammu’s decline, and by mixing the language of education with that of labor and exchange, Roy gestures toward how educational institutions and the social privileges they promise can be oppressive, exclusionary forces for those denied access to their benefits, particularly — and especially in the context of Roy’s larger oeuvre — women, the poor, Dalits, and Adivasis.

Roy ephasizes the relationship between education and patriarchal, class-based social norms throughout The God of Small Things, though she sometimes does so indirectly. For example, she introduces Rahel’s and Estha’s educational backgrounds by way of the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks, a collection of school-age notes long abandoned at the twins’ childhood home in Ayemenem. Although Roy uses the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks as a narrative device to trigger Rahel’s memory of her mother’s death, the way she introduces the device suggests that an implicit class consciousness pervaded her primary school education. For example, having returned to her home in Ayemenem, Rahel discovers her old workbooks on a shelf behind her grandfather’s set of expensive, leather-bound entomology texts, The Insect Wealth of India. Her grandfather’s books are a prized possession, for they signal the family’s status in postcolonial India’s heirarchical social milieu. It’s no coincidence that The Insect Wealth of India is owned by a family that considers itself to be representative of the human wealth of India, for Pappachi’s education and the family’s wealth are mutually reinforcing conditions. This connection between wealth and education is further emphasized by the physical proximity of Pappachi’s leather-bound texts to the twins’ childhood notes: both are archived in Pappachi’s study, and together they work to chronicle and confirm not only the family’s committment to education, but also its ambition for upward economic mobility and the enhanced social standing it guarantees. The placement of the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks alongside The Insect Wealth of India seems to indicate a natural progression from basic to advanced knowledge, and ultimately to an increased measure of wealth, social standing, and political power.

Yet despite the class privilege they indicate, both Pappachi’s handsom edition of The Insect Wealth of India and the twins’ Wisdom Exercise Notebooks are, by the time that Rahel rediscovers them, in states of general disrepair. The binding of Pappachi’s entomology texts “had lifted off each book and buckled like corrugated asbestos. Silverfish tunneled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organized information into yellow lace,” and the twins’ notebooks are “tattered” and rubbed thin with spit (149). Not only do Roy’s descriptions of these books parallel the disintegration of life in the Ayemenem house, but they also mirror the process by which Ammu deteriorates from a freshly educated girl to a worn and dying middle-aged woman. While education and wealth may be self-perpetuating conditions for Pappachi and Chacko, Ammu must cut her education short and submit to a socioeconomic system that commodifies her body as an object of exchange between her father and any number of potential suitors. For example, Roy explains: “Ammu finished her schooling the same year that her father retired from his job in Delhi and moved to Ayemenem. Pappachi insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl, so Ammu had no choice but to leave Delhi and move with them. There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework” (38). The particular attitude Pappachi expresses by refusing to allow Ammu to continue her education is typical of his larger attitude toward women in general. For example, in a separate incident, Roy describes how Pappachi “would sit on the verandah and sew buttons that weren’t missing onto his shirts, to create the impression that Mammachi [who runs her own business] neglected him. To some small degree he did succeed in further corroding Ayemenem’s view of working wives” (47). Although his attitude toward Ammu’s and Mammachi’s value is rigid and ultimately proves destructive, it reflects the extent to which the family functions as an economic unit. Pappachi expects the women in his family to labor at domestic tasks so that he and his son will be able to labor outside of the home; or, to be more accurate in regards to Ammu, Pappachi expects the women in his family to labor at domestic tasks until they can be exchanged through marriage with members of equal or higher classes, thus solidifying and protecting his social position.

When Ammu does eventually marry (she does so without allowing Pappachi to arrange the union, thus depriving him of his assumed right to exchange her — an insult that he and her mother Mammachi never forgive), she quite literally becomes a commodity that her husband can trade in exchange for both economic and educational benefits. For example, when attempting to convince her to exchange sexual favors with his boss, Ammu’s husband makes a series of appeals that bring sex, economics, and education into conversation with one another: “Mr. Hollick had proposed something, he told Ammu, that he needed to discuss with her. He began a little diffidently, avoiding her gaze, but he gathered courage as he went along. Viewed practically, in the long run it was a proposition that would benefit both of them, he said. In fact all of them, if they considered the children’s education” (39). Although the matter under discussion is intensely intimate,  the language of practicality, propositions, and benefits is overtly commercial, and while Ammu’s husband’s immediate concern is with salvaging his job, he attempts to convince her by highlighting the long-term benefits of education. Roy tells us that Ammu’s husband “hadn’t been to college,” and his family fortune seems to be in decline; whereas his family “were once-wealthy zamindars,” he has been reduced to working as an assistant manager, a position that is threatened by the growing number of “complaints […] received from the labor as well as from the other assistant managers” (41). Recognizing that a good education can purchase a family valuable social capital, Ammu’s husband presents the children’s education as a solution to his ongoing socio-economic decline. That is, by bringing eduction to bear on his children’s commercial prospects, an education that will be purchased with his wife’s body, he hopes to strengthen and maintain his position within the bourgeois economic/social order.

Such a practical approach to education may seem to be at odds with the “wisdom” that Rahel and Estha are meant to obtain by writing in their Wisdom Exercise Notebooks, but a closer look at the children’s entries shows their learning to be oriented toward social and economic norms, especially as they relate to sexual and material exchange. For example, the first piece of “labored” writing Rahel reviews is a short summary of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca (149). In the entry, Estha writes: “Pen Lope said that the man who can stoot through the twelve rings can mary me. and everyone failed. and ulysses came to the palace dressed like a beggar and asked if he could try. the men all laughed at him and said if we cant do it you cant. ulysses son spopped them and said let himtry and he took the bow and shot right through the twelve rings” (150). This simple summary of a well-known literary work reveals the sorts of values young Estha internalizes through this academic exercises, i.e., the values of competition, patriarchy, and class privilege. The suitors, for example, compete not for Penelope’s love, but for her wealth (which they voraciously consume), and when Odysseus appears in the guise of a beggar, the suitors automatically disregard his right to compete. This emphasis on wealth and social standing is carried over into Estha’s third entry, in which he recalls exchanging gifts and eating a large meal in honor of his mother’s birthday. Although his account is full of tenderness toward his mother, he focuses the bulk of his attention on the exchange of material goods. At the conclusion of this particular note, Estha writes: “Then in the morning we had new cloths from Ammu as a back-present Rahel was a maharani and I was Little Nehru” (151). By imaginatively elevating himself and his sister to positions of royalty, Estha articulates his desire to take his place among the likes of Odysseus and Penelope. The Wisdom Exercise Notebooks thus serve their purpose: they teach the “wisdom” of a socioeconomic order based on material exchange, including the exchange of marriage.

While these examples may gesture towards young Estha’s class ambitions, it is important to note that his entries in the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks also reveal an underlying anxiety regarding his family’s vulnerability within the social heirarchy. For example, his second entry, titled “Safety First,” provides instructions for avoiding accidents. Estha writes: “We should always walk on the pavement. If you go on the pavement there is no traffic to cause accidnts, but on the main road there is so much dangerous traffic that they can easily knock you down and make you senseless or a cripple. If you break your head or back-bone you will be very unfortunate” (150). The misfortune here is economic as well as physical, for the catastrophically injured are deprived of their most basic means of production — a healthy body. Estha makes the connection between physical and economic misfortune explicit when he writes, “The job of a driver is very fatle His famly should be very angshios because the driver could easily be dead” (150). His insistence on reducing “the driver” to his occupation, even when discussing him in relation to his family, echoes his earlier anxiety concerning catastrophic accidents. If the driver is killed, his family does not only lose a father, husband, or brother, but also a laborer and producer of wealth. The reverse of Pappachi’s attitude toward women can be observed in Estha’s understanding of men’s social role: whereas Pappachi reduces women to wives and mothers, Estha’s childhood notes reveal a young mind conditioned to see men as the family’s central economic engine, and thus the central economic engine of society as a whole. Taken together, these passages reveal the extent to which Estha’s childhood thoughts were shot through with both class ambitions and anxieties, and they serve as a record within the narrative of how education disciplines young minds into alignment with a particular socioeconomic organization.

The anxiety Estha expresses in his Wisdom Exercise Notebook regarding the adverse economic consequences of physical disability is ultimately borne out in Ammu’s crippling illness. Immediately following her description of Rahel’s experience reading Estha’s notebook, Roy writes, “Ammu had lost the latest of her succession of jobs — as a receptionist in a cheap hotel — because she had been ill and had missed too many days of work. The hotel couldn’t afford that, they told her. They needed a healthier receptionist” (152). The extent of her sickness is apparant during her final visit with Rahel. Roy explains, “Each breath she took was like a war won against the steely fist that was trying to squeeze the air from her lungs. Rahel watched her mother breathe. Each time she inhaled, the hollows near her collarbones grew steep and filled with shadows” (152). Her appearance has become haggard and she repeatedly coughs up wads of phlegm. Interestingly, Ammu uses her phlegm to educate Rahel: “‘You must always check it,’ she whispered hoarsely, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in” (Roy 153). Not only does this pathetic gesture resonate with the educational concerns raised by the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks, but it also illustrates the extent to which Ammu has been debased by her refusal to operate within the bounds of the traditional family economy: the once young woman whose father refused to send her to college is reduced to calculating the ripeness of phlegm.

It is ultimately as a result of stepping outside of the family economy — the economy whereby women remain uneducated domestic laborers— that Ammu enters a fatal economic and physical decline. Unlike Pappachi and Chacko who combine education and wealth in order to maintain their position in the middle class, Ammu’s lack of formal education and her refusal to be commodified force her out of the middle class and into a condition of economic and physical peril. In one of her final conversations with Rahel, she fantasizes about starting a school or working for the United Nations so that she and her family could all “live in the Hague with a Dutch ayah to look after them” (152). But her lack of education and experience in the professional world exposes these notions as unobtainable, naïve dreams. Because she is an uneducated, divorced woman, Ammu’s options are limited to low-wage secretarial jobs and living in “grimy” hotel rooms (154). In one of the novel’s most ironic passages, Roy writes, “Choosing between a career in Education and a UN job wasn’t easy, she said — but the thing to remember was that the very fact that she had a choice was a great privilege” (152). The truth is that no such choice exists for Ammu, especially at this stage in the novel, and it’s worth considering whether she ever enjoyed such a privilege at all. Indeed, all of her life’s choices have been circumscribed by the patriarchal norms that pervade her society, norms that work tirelessly to debase women’s socioeconomic potential by limiting their range to marriage, childrearing, and domestic labor.

Rahel seems fully attuned to Ammu’s plight, yet her childhood reaction to her mother’s misfortune fits with the middle class’ reaction to the misfortunes of the lower classes. For example, when Ammu leaves Rahel for the last time, Roy tells us that Rahel simply “went on with her fish. She thought of the phlegm and nearly retched. She hated her mother then. Hated her” (153). Rather than garnishing sympathy from her daughter, Ammu’s sickness provokes repulsion and disdain. And when Ammu finally dies and is taken to be cremated, Rahel’s reaction remains just as cold. Roy writes: “Nobody except beggars, derelicts and the police-custody dead were cremated there. People who died with nobody to lie at the back of them and talk to them. When Ammu’s turn came, Chacko held Rahel’s hand tightly. She didn’t want her hand held. She used the slickness of crematorium sweat to slither out of his grip. No one else from the family was there […] The door of the furnace clanged shut. There were no tears” (155). The ordeal is concluded when Ammu’s remains are packaged together in a little clay pot and surrendered to Chacko and Rahel in exchange for “Receipt No. Q 498637” (155). Like the description of Pappachi’s “mounted butterflies and moths [that] had disintegrated into small heaps of iridescent dust that powdered the bottom of their glass display cases, leaving the pins that had impaled them naked,” a description that Roy uses to introduce the Wisdom Exercise Notebooks episode, Ammu’s death exposes the mechanisms by which patriarchal socioeconomic norms are maintained (148). She has passed through the fire of misogyny and classism and has emerged burnt to ash, her identity reduced to the numbers on a receipt. With this image in mind, the novel’s message regarding the seemingly noble institutions of higher education and the nuclear family is quite grim, for it is clear that they cannot be separated from the larger social forces that attempt to construct and maintain a clearly delineated class hierarchy, in part at least, through the subordination and exchange of women’s bodies.

Note: I wrote this essay in 2008 after reading The God of Small Things in a graduate seminar at Southern Methodist University. Having just ordered Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I decided to return to this piece and make some light revisions. This is the result.


Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. Random House, 2008.


Featured photo: Braille (CC BY 2.0) 2009 J P Davidson

Arundhati Roy (CC BY-SA 2.0) 2010 jeanbaptisteparis

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Accused = Convicted; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing* under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence, or otherwise cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre — it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better — showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic — a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me to cut two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating — one group French mentions that falls within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers” — a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

Authoritarian societies are not the only places where crime statistics are skewed by outside social and political forces. One need look no further than America’s failed “War on Drugs,” which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of African American citizens being convicted of drug-related charges, even as drug use among white citizens continues unabated. But perhaps the most striking example of politically skewed crime statistics in a major democracy can be found in the United States’ near-perfect conviction rate of those who stand accused of terrorism-related offenses. According to a very informative database published earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged 802 people with terrorism-related offenses since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of the 802 people charged, only two have been acquitted, with three having had their charges dropped. In other words, when it comes to terrorism prosecutions, the United States convicts 99.4% of defendants — just shy of China’s clearly skewed (and terrifying) conviction rate for murder.

It seems to me that much of what French says about crime in China can be applied to terrorism in the United States. As with crime in China, terrorism in America is politically sensitive, and there are powerful interests invested in shaping — often through overt scapegoating — how Americans view both terrorism and terrorists. Unfortunately, those interests have been largely successful. Perhaps 1950s America would have laughed at contemporary Chinese television depictions of “valiant and incorruptible policemen and women,” as French claims, but 21st century America isn’t laughing at the absurdity of valiant and incorruptible federal prosecutors who always get their man.

A 99.4% terrorism conviction rate lays bare the political dimension of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the message is clear: The counter-terrorism police state exists to protect you. It is doing its job. You have nothing to fear.


How can American writers write critically, or even interestingly, about terrorism under such conditions? The closest anyone has come, to my knowledge at least, is Ben Fountain’s outstanding novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which presents a scathing portrayal of America’s post-9/11 mentality. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also quite good,** and Kent Johnson’s Doggerel for the Masses comes to mind, but I can’t think of many other literary or pop-cultural examples that succeed in cutting through the absurdity of America’s response to 9/11.*** (If there are examples I’m missing, let me know; I want to read them.) This is a failure not only of imagination, but also of social and political courage to grapple with the complexities of current affairs. We need writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics to do this work, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later. Their success may very well prove crucial to the success of a larger project for an honest reckoning with the contemporary world.

*Many of the examples aren’t Chinese, though they are set in China.

**I should mention that Hamid is not American, though he does write in English and is widely read in the United States.

***As I write this, I’m reminded of Gavin Hood’s 2007 film Rendition, which I seem to recall presenting a more complex story than the typical good guys vs. bad guys scenario that dominates popular terrorism narratives, but I can’t remember the film well enough to comment on it here.

Featured image: Justice (CC BY-NC 2.0) 2010 Craig Moe

Twitter image: Posted by the New York Police Department on June 4, 2017, shortly after a terrorism attack in London left seven dead and dozens wounded.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins