TS Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead” in “The Wasteland” (1922) opens as follows:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in a forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers (Eliot, ll. 1-7)
Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) opens with the chapter titled “Paradise Pickles and Preserves”, which, apart from its unbearable weight of exoticization, closely echoes the temper and rhythm of Eliot’s verse:
“May in Ayamenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun” (Roy 1).
For a page and a half – the time Roy takes to set up the Ayamenem atmosphere for her reader, what with all her many-adjectived, contrived and laboured descriptions of the geography, zoology, botany and the sociology – God of Small Things, in its evocation of imagery and rhythm, sustain a reminiscence with Eliot that is too obvious for us not to notice. The following excerpts from the two texts correspond sufficiently to prove our point:
“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in the sunlight…” (ll. 8-10)
“And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened” (ll. 13-15)
“But by early June the south-west monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with” (Roy 1).
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water” (ll. 19-24)
“The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bugled a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives (Roy 1)”.
Up to this point, where the old house on the hill is first introduced, Roy’s text is a systemic echo of the opening 25 lines of the “The Wasteland”. But, her use of imagery – and more so, the way in which the imagery is used and the sensation thereupon derived – extends to depths (or, surfaces) that draw on commonly cited Eliotic echoes from such as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”, and “Preludes”.
Roy, for instance, speaks of a rat snake: “In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone” (Roy 1-2), much in reminiscence of Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”:
“Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter” (ll. 35-37).
A further complementation of this singular usage of a flattened, slow moving creature can be found in Eliot’s “Preludes”:
“And the light crept up between the shitters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters” (ll. 31-32).
The overall atmosphere Arundathi Roy strives to evoke in her descriptions of a geography gone to wilderness and overgrowth – and of a provincial country where life seems to struggle amidst the derelict – is, again, complementary with Eliot’s opening of “The Wasteland”, where a self-conscious juxtaposition and neat infusion of sources of life and waste can be located.
The sensation evoked and rhythm achieved through a passage such as
“The house itself looked empty. The doors and windows were locked. The front verandah bare. Unfurnished. But the skyblue Plymouth with chrome tailfins was still parked outside…” (Roy 2)
can be set side by side with a section such as the following, from Eliot’s “Preludes”. In both sections, the resonance of a fatality and finality, which further sustain the larger picture of implosion and sense of abandonment which the writers seem to drive at, is marked:
“The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney pots
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps” (ll. 9-13).
God of Small Things is a novel with a laboured style and a self-consciously wannabe postmodernist, contrived craft, that one shouldn’t be surprised even if the writer is deliberate in the echoing of Eliot of which this submission is written. One should anyway not suggest that this is, indeed, a case of stolen goods or an imitation in thin disguise. To make such a statement against any writer in relation to the work of TS Eliot would be quite ironic; as well as somewhat offensive.