Mosquitoes and Foreign Embassies: Connecting the Small and Big

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Woooooo! Spring Break assignment #2 done and it’s just shy of Wednesday! Now to tackle that master’s thesis, ay. Below is my “think piece” on Arundhati Roy’s impeccable novel The God of Small Things and Duke professor Aarthi Vadde’s ecocritical article “The Backwaters Sphere: Ecological Collectivity, Cosmopolitanism and Arundhati Roy” (2009). This post will probably be incoherent to any reader who hasn’t read either the novel or article; nonetheless, I decided to post it since I haven’t been active on this thing in a long while.

For the ecocritcs and green revolutionaries out there, this one’s for you. On a side note, walking to my apartment tonight, I saw what I thought was an innocuous leaf turned out to be a massive cockroach. I screamed so loud. So much for ecological collectivity. No thank you!!!

If The God of Small Things is a novel “which connects the very smallest things with the very biggest” (Roy, quoted in Vadde 522), and if one of its primary foci is to spawn awareness of the inseparability between the political, cultural, and environmental, then I wonder how such connections can be discerned in parts of the novel where the backwater sphere, a social space of “ecological collectivity,” is not the center of narration. According to Vadde, the backwaters of River Meenachal in the novel represent a space where the human and nonhuman come together and form a special social bond. But the backwater sphere is certainly not the only space where human and nonhuman subjects coexist alongside each other, and while the backwater sphere is especially significant because it portrays the coexistence between cross species as harmonious and egalitarian, I wonder how the representation of the nonhuman functions in parts of the novel where the primary focus is arguably on human dialogue and action, not necessarily the nonhuman and thus the environment itself.

In these parts of the novel, where Vadde would consider as functioning under the epistemologies of ascendancy as her analysis of Baby Kochamma’s garden and Pappachi’s moth suggests, I wonder if it is possible to glean meaning from instances where even smaller, seemingly expendable, representations of the nonhuman appear. In other words, how does Roy’s use of insect imagery in instances where humans are obviously the center of narration contribute to her vision of the novel as “connect[ing] the very smallest things with the very biggest”? I am specifically thinking of chapter 14 titled “Work Is Struggle” where Chacko visits Comrade K. N. M. Pillai to find out about Velutha’s involvement in the Marxist Party. As one of the novel’s strongest portrayals of ascendancy, this chapter surveys practices of domination through Chacko’s and Pillai’s display of power relations in the forms of institutional apparatuses (they talk about Velutha in terms of caste politics and his affiliation with the Marxist Party), gender imbalances (Chacko’s scopophilic gaze on Pillai’s wife and Pillai’s misogynist disregard of her), and cultural ideology (the use of colonial British influences in the forms of Scott and Shakespeare as measurements of intelligence and capability). The values of global capitalist efficiency and production are also present in the form of Chacko’s plans for “a new product that Paradise Pickles & Preserves planned to launch in the spring. Synthetic Cooking Vinegar” (261). Furthermore, Pillai’s calculated vacillation between speaking English and Malayalam is a tool he uses to wield power in spite of his inferiority to Chacko, his Oxford-educated boss and wealthier superior.

Scattered among these contingent manifestations of power is Roy’s interesting, and I assume calculated, use of insect imagery that helps describe the material environment of the “hot little room” packed with ambition (260). While Roy incorporates descriptions of midges (254) and ants (263), I focus on the ubiquitous presence of the mosquitoes as they are referred to on three separate occasions within the chapter. Here is a sphere perceived ecologically as well as socially. Similar to the backwater sphere, Pillai’s house is represented as a site of biodiversity where human and insects coexist alongside one another, albeit through epistemologies of ascendency, not ecological collectivity. Over Pillai’s mother’s head is a “funnel of mosquitoes, like an inverted dunce cap” and as the table fan disperses its “mechanical breeze in exemplary, democratic turns” the mosquitoes over hers and Chacko’s heads “dispers[e] and re-assembl[e] tirelessly” (255). Later, Pillai’s son, Lenin, claps his hands over his father’s head, “creating mayhem in the mosquito funnel” (265). Are the mosquitoes here used to make a political point, in a similar way the baby spiders on the river are, or are they merely a demonstration of what Barthes calls “narrative luxury, lavish to the point of offering many ‘futile’ details” (quoted in Vadde 536)?

Although the work the mosquitoes (arguably) do in this chapter serves to redirect the reader’s focus from the politically charged dialogue between Chacko and Pillai onto the biotic elements of this (politically) domestic sphere, how does the small, seemingly insignificant presence of the mosquitoes connect with the big issues this chapter foregrounds? Perhaps one point of departure is to gauge Lenin’s trivial yet destructive treatment of nonhuman species. After clapping his hands over his father’s head, he “counted the squashed carcasses on his palms…he showed them to his father” (265). Reminiscent of Pappachi’s taxonomic treatment of the moth, Lenin’s carcass counting signifies the creeping ascendant humanism already at work in his childhood phase as he turns the mosquitoes into objects of human knowledge. Lenin’s mosquito killing also comes at a moment in the chapter where the dialogue between his father and Chacko is on the brink of belligerence; Pillai retorts, “Keep in mind, comrade, that this is not your Oxford college. For you what is a nonsense for the Masses it is something different” (264). It is as if the mosquito killing, there to mostly demonstrate the ideological violence of the act itself, is somehow a reflection of the epistemologies of ascendancy entrenched in his father’s political ambitions which in turn also foretells Lenin’s own perpetuation of ascendant humanism. When Rahel returns to Ayemenom years later, she learns that Lenin has built a career in Delhi working for foreign embassies. As she reminisces back to the time when a three or four year old Lenin stuck a green gram in his nose, the narrator comments, “It was curious how politics lurked even in what children chose to stuff up their noses” (125). I would add that his childhood mosquito killing demonstrates a tacit political training which is part of the process that initiates him as an interpellated subject who upholds the praxis of ascendant humanism, implicit in the values of global capitalist pursuit, signified in his place of employment.

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