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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rivers and Masks

A journey through VS Naipaul’s and Arundhati Roy’s novels to explore the use of metaphors

In this essay, I propose to discuss two themes that are common in VS Naipual’s A Bend in the River and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The first theme is the river. There is a definite centrality of the river to the novels. In both the novels, the presence of the river is almost as important as the characters. The river plays a pivotal role in shaping the stories and in reflecting – physically and metaphorically – the changes in the lives and fortunes of the characters.

The second theme is masks. Both the novels use the metaphor of masks to depict transition from colonialism to postcolonial society. In Naipaul’s novel, the reference is direct though subtle. In Roy’s novel, it is indirect but obvious.


In Naipual’s novel, the unnamed river’s physicality is central to the novel. It is important because it provides the main link to the outside world for the town located on a bend in the river. For Salim, the river ultimately is the escape route to a different world. Not necessarily a better world, but one in which he will be able to live. Metaphorically, for Africa, the river reflects the changes in the composition and complexion of its leaders.

In Roy’s novel, the Meenachal reflects the changes that periodically come over the central characters of the story. The Meenachal is the cause of Sophie’s drowning, and I would even say Velutha’s death. The river often reflects the chaos and sometimes the ambiguity in the lives of the people who populate the novel.

There are several references to the river in Naipaul’s novel, which remains unnamed. The river manifests the changes that occur in the geography of the land.

I will focus on the last reference to the river, when Salim escapes from the town. It is in this reference that the ultimate relevance of the river to Naipaul novel (and his worldview) becomes clear.

“We left at about midday. The passenger barge was not towed behind these days – that was now considered a colonial practice. Instead, the barge was lashed to the forward part of the steamer. The town was soon past. But for some miles that bank, though overgrown, still showed where in colonial days people had laid out estates and built great houses.”

This is the physicality of the world that Salim is escaping. But there is a metaphorical dimension to the escape described later that is at once breathtaking and poignant.

“After the morning heat it had turned stormy, and in the silver storm light the overgrown, bushy bank was brilliant green against the black sky. Below this brilliant green the earth was bright red. The wind blew, and ruffled away reflections from the river surface near the bank. But the rain that followed didn’t last long; we sailed out of it. Soon we were moving through real forest...The sky hazed over, and the shrinking sun showed orange and was reflected in a broken golden line in the muddy water. Then we sailed into a golden glow...”

Similarly, the Meenachal in The God of Small Things shapes the destiny of the twins Rahel and Estha when it causes Sophie’s death by drowning. The river leads to the denouement in Velutha’s destiny, too. In Roy’s novel, the river reflects the changes in the characters.

As in Naipaul’s novel, in Roy’s novel there is the sheer physical dimension to the river.

“Now that he’d been re-Returned, Estha walked all over Ayemenem. Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans. Most of the fish had died. The ones that survived suffered from fin-rot and had broken out in boils.”

Then, there is the metaphorical longing that reveals Roy’s true artistic preoccupation.

“Something bobs past in the water and the colors catch his eye. Mauve. Redbrown. Beach sand. It moves with the current, swiftly towards the sea. He sends out his bamboo pole to stop it and draw it towards him. It’s a wrinkled mermaid. A mer-child. A mere merchild. With redbrown hair. With an Imperial Entomologists’ nose, and, a silver thimble clenched for luck in her fist. He pulls her out of the water into his boat. He puts his thin cotton towel under her, she lies at the bottom of his boat with his silver haul of small fish. He rows home –Thaiy thaiy thakka thaiy tbaiy thome – thinking how wrong it is for a fisherman to believe that he knows his river well. No one knows the Meenachal. No one knows what it may snatch or suddenly yield. Or when. That is what makes fishermen pray.”


In both the novels, masks are used to reflect the changes in the society. In Naipaul’s novel, the references are real. Naipaul uses the metaphor of the masks to depict the changes that gradually occur in the country. The subtlety with which Naipaul describes the changing ownership of masks – from European to African – indicates the true conflicts of the transition from colonialism to postcolonial era.

With Naipaul, the physical is also the metaphorical.

“Those faces of Africa! Those masks of child-like calm that had brought down the blows of the world, and of Africans as well...indifferent to notice, indifferent to compassion or contempt...there was, with the prisoners as well as with their active tormentors, a frenzy. But the frenzy of the prisoners was internal; it had taken them far beyond their cause or even knowledge of their cause, far beyond thought. They had prepared themselves for death not because they were martyrs; but because what they were and what they knew they were was all they had. They were people crazed with the idea of who they were. I never felt closer to them, or more far away.”

And, of course, the metaphorical has a cutting-edge physical quality to it.

“When Father Huismans first opened the door of that room for me, and I got the warm smell of grass and earth and old fat, and had a confused impression of masks lying in rows on slatted shelves, I thought: This is Zabeth’s world...in that dark, hot room, with the mask smell growing stronger, my own feeling of awe grew, my sense of what lay all around us outside. It was like being on the river at night. The bush was full of spirits; in the bush hovered all the protecting presences of a man’s ancestors; and in this room all the spirits of those dead masks, the powers they invoked, all the religious dread of simple men, seemed to have been concentrated...The masks and carvings looked old. They could have been any age, a hundred years old, a thousand years old...So old, so new. And out of this stupendous idea of his civilisation, his stupendous idea of the future, Father Huismans saw himself at the end of it all, the last, lucky witness.”

Roy uses the masks indirectly. With her, even when the reference is indirect, it is still never subtle. She elaborately describes the Kathalaki dance sequence.

“In Ayemenem they danced to jettison their humiliation in the Heart of Darkness. Their truncated swimming-pool performances. Their turning to tourism to stave off starvation. On their way back from the Heart of Darkness, they stopped at the temple to ask pardon of their gods. To apologize for corrupting their stories. For encashing their identities. Misappropriating their lives. On these occasions, a human audience was welcome, but entirely incidental.”

The changes in the postcolonial society that grapples with economic development, social equality, and political rights always give rise to conflict between that which refuses to die and that which is struggling to be born. Roy uses the Kathakali dancer to depict this change in Kerala. It’s simply masterful.

“The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument. From the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed wholly to the task of storytelling. He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skins...But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to become clerks and bus conductors...But he himself, left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth, cannot do what they do...In despair, he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell...In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee. He gets drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the gods.”

In conclusion, I want to emphasise that these novels work at several levels and layers. They use many allusions and metaphors. I have focused on the river and the mask because I found them common to both the novels.

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