Ammu, in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, paints the state of women in Ayemenem, a town in Kerala, India, with a cynical and disapproving tone: "There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework" (Roy 38). This underlying reference to the expectations of women subsists through the text, but the two main female characters, Ammu and her daughter Rahel, break every sexist norm conceivable.
When she turned 18, Ammu lacked the dowry needed to receive marriage proposals, and thus, spurred by the disdain and embarrassment of her parents, she grew more and more desperate for a marriage to legitimize her status in the community. She ended up marrying a man she hardly knew who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. She gave birth to twins, her husband attempted to pimp her out to his boss in an effort to cover his own faults, and so she left him and, to the contempt of her mother, returned home with her children. After this, the novel details an ambiguous encounter Ammu suffered through with the police in Ayemenem:
He stared at Ammu's breasts as he spoke. He said the police knew all they needed to know and that the Kottayam Police didn't take statements from veshyas or their illegitimate children. Ammu said she'd see about that. Inspector Thomas Mathew came around his desk and approached Ammu with his baton.
“If I were you,” he said, “I'd go home quietly.” Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered. Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn't. (Roy 10)
This blatant disregard and disrespect of Ammu is indicative of an existing bias against single mothers, who the police officer shows his contempt for by calling Ammu “veshya” which translates roughly to “slut” or “whore.” This stripping of Ammu’s worth as a women, along with the excuse given that the police officer knew who he could and couldn’t “pick on” demonstrates the uncomfortable reality that Ammu has not met what society has expected of her: to be married to the father of her children. And, to go one step further, this scene demonstrates the mentality that because Ammu has not met expectations, she is therefore not worth respect, and thus can be “picked on.”
However, Ammu didn’t break under such harsh treatment. She kept a brave and adamant attitude, and raised Rahel with the same currents of cynicism and rebelliousness toward the sexist-norm that she had adopted in her own life. Rahel was an unruly child to the credit of Ammu, who raised her without “an obligatory husband looming on her horizon” (Roy 18). Under the influence of her seemingly wayward mother, and as a result of her complex connection with her twin brother Esthahappen, Rahel shocked her teachers and peers as a child: she was enrolled in several schools, and managed to get herself expelled three times for “deliberately colliding with her seniors” in an effort to see if boobs hurt (heavily frowned upon because “breasts were not acknowledged”), burning her Headmistress’s false-hair bun, and smoking. (Roy 17, 18).
It was, they [the teachers] whispered to each other, as though she didn’t know how to be a girl.
They weren’t far off the mark.
Oddly, neglect seemed to have resulted in an accidental release of the spirit. (Roy 18)
Interestingly, it’s almost as though Rahel doesn’t even recognize the expectations that she’s actively not meeting; she doesn’t know that there’s one particular way to be girl, so she hardly knows that she’s not doing it right in the eyes of her teachers. She doesn’t feel the pressure that her teachers are attempting to place on her, and thus, the “accidental release of the spirit.” Here the text sets the two ideas of not knowing how to be a girl and a release of the spirit next to each other, which creates the argument that social expectations in India, i.e. the husband looming on the horizon, suppress the spirit of women. This unsuppressed spirit, that Rahel flaunted, is strange for those around her: “The other students, particularly the boys, were intimidated by Rahel’s waywardness and almost fierce lack of ambition” (Roy 19). Another idea is set equal to the previous two: to have a free spirit, as a women, is to be wayward, to break the norm, the expectation.
The question that arises after this rebellion against the sexist-norm is recognized, is what next? Who else, if anyone, is there to back-up Ammu and Rahel? Well, unfortunately, no one.
The other female characters in the novel are not on board. Baby Kochamma, Ammu’s aunt, expresses a whole new fold of the discrimination against women like Ammu:
Baby Kochamma resented Ammu, because she saw her quarrelling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted. The fate of the wretched Man-less woman. …
She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter - according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. (Roy 45)
Not only does Baby Kochamma reinforce that mentality that because Ammu has not met expectations, she is not worth respect, but she takes it further in saying that there is no place on earth where Ammu would belong. All because Ammu left a man who abused her. “The fate of the wretched Man-less woman” portrays, yet again, the sexist-norm that expected women to find a man to legitimize their status in the community.
Without a man, a woman become wretched. And without a man by her own choice, a woman becomes wretched and wayward. This is the standard that The God of Small Things exposes, and attempts to counteract through the stories of Rahel and Ammu.