The Politics of Transgression: History, Society, and the Individual in Postcolonial Literature

By Shreya Singh
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

In two postcolonial novels, The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Secrets by Nuruddin Farah, both authors use the politics of families to paint a vivid picture of the social, cultural and political conditions of their nations. Roy and Farah both write about families where significant acts of moral and sexual transgressions take place often leading to the ruin and death of various characters in their stories. The transgressions in both the books also act as devices to portray the state of flux between history’s impositions and individual desires. However, while both authors use transgressions to signify socially symbolic acts, Roy uses transgression in The God of Small Things as a symbol of revolt by the weak and marginalized individuals against the ideals imposed on them by Indian history and society, whereas Farah uses transgressions in Secrets to showcase the moral degradation of the individual which is mirrored in the disintegration of the Somali nation and thus implies that humanity is defined by its maintenance of certain historic taboos.

In the essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”, Fredric Jameson argues that all third world texts are to be read as “national allegories” because “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society”1. For Jameson, the denial of a “placeless individuality” to the third-world leads to “the allegorical nature of third-world culture, where the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself”(86).

We can see how the Jamesonian allegory finds its way in The God of Small Things where Roy uses her characters as national allegories to critique an India where the weak and unprotected, namely the women, children, untouchables and nature, are suppressed and suffer tremendously due to the “social machine” that “intrudes into the smallest and deepest core of their being and changes their lives”2. Similarly in Secrets, Farah uses his character’s identities as inexplicably tied to that of the Somali nation, and where the collapse of the individual leads to the “collapse of the collective”(190). Farah’s characters also serve to critique the historical and social practices of the Somali people, who fail to protect and respect their women, children and nature and have thus led to the destruction of the Somali nation.

The God Of Small Things is a book about the tragic ruin of a family, brought on by the culmination of a series of small events that lead to big repercussions for the protagonists of the novel, dizygotic twins Estha and Rahel and their mother Ammu. The book, which won author Arundhati Roy the 1997 Booker Prize, delves into the lives of the small and marginalized who, unwilling to fit into the roles and boundaries laid down for them by society and history, inadvertently bring about their own destruction. Despite being a story that revolves around the loss of dreams, hopes and eventually lives, Roy employs beautiful and evocative language loaded with imagery, wordplay, humor and irony to juxtapose the grotesque conclusions that meet the protagonists of the novel. However, apart from the eloquent language of the book, it is the acts of transgressions of the weak and marginalized and not their conclusions, that are important, for in these acts lies a rejection of the historic ideals that society imposes on the individual- a rejection of “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much”(33).

Roy personifies patriarchal norms in the Indian society in the form of abusive, manic and tyrant males that suppress the hopes and lives of the women around them. Ammu’s desires and her innate nature transgresses on the fate imposed upon her by her family and society and it is through her character that Roy gives us a critique of patriarchal traditions embedded in even an elite and educated family in India. The daughter of an abusive, “ill-tempered father and a bitter, long suffering mother”, Ammu has no means of achieving freedom as she lacks both a college education, which her father felt was “an unnecessary expense for a girl” and a “suitable dowry”(38-9). Ammu’s desperation to escape a life in her parents’ house leads her to marrying the first man who proposes to her for she believes that “anything, anyone at all, would be better than returning to Ayemenem”(39).

Yet, once again Ammu’s dreams are ruined as not only does her husband turn out to be a “full-blown alcoholic” but also later becomes abusive towards her and her children, causing her to return to Ayemenem, “unwelcomed”, because as the daughter, she has no “Locusts Stand I” on her paternal property (42,56). Even though Ammu lacks a college education or any formal exposure to the intellectual world, she is “just that sort of animal” who fights against the injustice she perceives in the world (180). It is Ammu’s “lofty sense of injustice and the mulish reckless streak that develops in Someone small who has been bullied all their lives by someone Big”, that lead her to transgress on social mores and norms by falling in love with Velutha, an untouchable, thus transgressing both moral and caste boundaries marked by society and history (40).

Velutha too provokes the wrath of society and history because he challenges societal beliefs regarding the caste system. Even though he is an untouchable, Velutha has not only gained an education but is a trained and “accomplished carpenter” which arouses the jealousy of other touchable workers in the pickle factory (75). In turn, Velutha is paid less than all other workers by Mammachi even as she comments that his “remarkable facility with his hands” could have made him “an engineer” had he not been a “Paravan”(75). Not only does Velutha rebel in the private sphere against the future that history and society have in store for him, but he is also a cardholder of the Communist party, “a Naxalite”(77).

Velutha’s talents and intelligence cross the boundaries laid down by Indian history and society where untouchables are seen as dispensable, unskilled laborers like Velutha’s father Vellya Paapen, who are born to only serve the touchables. Not only does Velutha transgress social boundaries by his “lack of hesitation” and “unwarranted assurance” considered “insolence” in a Paravan, it is this “sureness” that leads to his friendship with Estha and Rahel and later forbidden relationship he has with Ammu (78).

Ammu and Velutha’s relationship can be seen as the attempt of both of them to lay a brick against “the smug, ordered world”, in the only way they have any power to (167). Roy describes the start of Velutha and Ammu’s relationship in the following passage:

“Standing in the shade of the rubber tree with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was off-footed, caught off-guard. This knowing slid into him cleanly, like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It only took a moment. Ammu saw that he saw. She looked away. He did too. History’s fiends returned to claim them. To rewrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the love laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much”(214).

In the passage above, Roy gives us the moment when Ammu and Velutha realize their desire for each other, which before then had been “obscured by history‘s blinkers”(176). When Ammu sees her daughter lovingly playing with Velutha and in that innocent act breaking a social taboo of touching a Paravan, she realizes that she was jealous of both of them and it is that realization that leads to history being caught “off-footed, off-guard”(214). But when Velutha and Ammu look at each other and Velutha realizes of Ammu’s desire for him “history’s fiends return to claim them”(214). It is the irony of history that it chooses as its “deputy”, Vellya Paapen, Velutha’s own father, whose “Terror” at what his son had touched, “Entered”, “Loved” lead him to reveal Ammu and Velutha’s secret love to Mammachi and even offer to “kill his son with his own bare hands”(199,78). Thus Ammu and Velutha end up paying steep costs for their love, which transgresses on “History’s Plans”(199).

While Ammu and Velutha’s love might have “made the unthinkable thinkable and the impossible really happen” in the 1960’s when the book is based, for most contemporary readers their love is completely understandable and legitimate (242). On the contrary, the scene of Estha and Rahel’s love making challenges a still very widely held historical and social taboo of incest. Estha and Rahel’s love making scene, with its subtle imagery, becomes a way for Estha and Rahel, to overcome the “Quietness and Emptiness” inside of them, to share their “hideous grief” and try to become the people who had “known each other before life began” instead of “strangers who had met in a chance encounter”(328). While the love making of Estha and Rahel is a transgressive act that “once again broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how much”, it also becomes a way for Roy to radically confront her readers with the fact that their own bearings of right and wrong are also steeped in history and society (33).

The History house also plays an important role in the book as it is the place where Estha and Rahel prepare their escape “Because Anything can Happen to Anyone”(198). Sadly, instead of proving to be the safe haven the twins dreamt of it as, it provides the backdrop for the shattering of their world as it is the location where Velutha is almost beaten to death by the Police and thus where Ammu, Velutha, Rahel and Estha’s “dreams are captured and redreamed”(306). When Chacko explains the history of their anglophile family to the twins, he states “history was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside. ‘To understand history,’ Chacko said, ‘we have to go inside and listen to what they’re saying. And look at the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells”(52). Roy metaphorically connects Chacko’s anglophile family to a postcolonial India that according to Chacko has been “trapped outside” its own past and has therefore become “pointed in the wrong direction”(53).

The History House had been owned by an Englishman, Kari Saipu, who had “gone native” and thus serves as a symbol of the English colonization of India (52). Saipu’s past, like that of the British colonial Raj, is also ridden with transgression as Saipu turns out to be a pedophile who shoots himself when his “young lover’s parents” took “the boy away from him and sent him to school”(52). The history house becomes the symbol of Indian history where Indians have been “locked out” of their past with their “ancestors whispering inside”(52-3). Indian cannot understand their ancestors words because, “Our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures our dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves”(53). The war that Chacko is talking about is India’s freedom, which India has won and yet at the same time lost because of the effects of globalization, which have led to a similar colonization of India by multinational corporations. This is evident in the changes that the History house goes through with time for when Rahel returns to Ayemenen, the History house has been made into a Heritage Hotel, with “Toy histories for rich tourists to play in”(126).

Though Ammu and Velutha’s story meets a tragic end, Roy makes their story one of hope rather than of despair by placing the scene of their lovemaking, their act of rebellion, right at the very end of the novel. Ammu and Velutha’s love making scene is charged in its explicit imagery: “She tasted him, salty in her mouth”, while “He took her nipple in his mouth and cradled her other breast in his calloused palm” while “she guided him into her” (318). This unashamed portrayal of Ammu and Velutha’s lovemaking is the rebellion of the ‘small’ against the “obeisance” of the “Big God”, a way of resisting the lack of agency of the weak and marginalized in society through a bodily act (19). Ammu and Velutha’s “faith in fragiliy” and in “Stick[ing] to Smallness”, is Roy’s way of keeping the struggle of the individual against “Structure. Order. Complete monopoly”, “Human history, masquerading as God’s purpose” alive even in the end (321,309). The book’s last word, Ammu and Velutha’s small promise for a “Tomorrow” is Roy’s way of impressing upon the reader the politics of the novel shrouded in the hope for a brighter future (321).

The God of Small Thing thus is a book about a clash in society between those who accepts history’s destinies and live within the limitations prescribed by them and those who are “not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries”3. Those who resist the boundaries of history are those who have historically been given no power and autonomy in society. Their attempt to piece back their destinies into their own hands meets the resistance of those who have enjoyed power and who have benefited from the weak remaining so. “The personal is the political” is what Roy’s protagonists are armed with and by their acts of social and sexual transgressions, they fight against the forces of history and society that deny the weak and marginalized the right to dream their own dreams.

Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets is a book about the protagonist Kalaman’s quest for his identity in the backdrop of a disintegrating Somalia. Based in Somalia at the end of dictator Syed Barre‘s dictatorship, the novel quickly establishes the position that “our nation’s predicament is our own predicament too, collectively and individually, each of us an accomplice in its ruin”(190). Farah connects the actions of the individual to Somalia’s disintegration into civil war and strife by presenting us with the moral decay of many characters in the book whose immoral and transgressive practices become the causes of the deterioration of Somalia.

Secrets is a book in which morally and sexually transgressive acts abound-we have rape, incest, bestiality, pederasty, pedophilia, molestation and murder to name the most prominent of them. The breaking of these human taboos signify many things in the book, for through them Farah not only metaphorically represents the carnage that is taking place in Somalia, but also asks his readers “why it is people are shocked less by the cruelty they commit against one another and more by reading about explicit sex, or incest, or a man "mating" with a beast—things that are commonly done”4. Thus the breaking of taboos and the sexual and moral transgressions present in the book act as a critique of the wrongdoings of the Somali people and symbolize their collapse at an individual as well as collective level.

Written as a Bildungsroman, the book starts by introducing us to thirty three year old Kalaman, a young entrepreneur, who though unsure of the roots of his identity, lives his life in a façade of normality in Mogadisco, a façade that is broken by the arrival of his “childhood infatuation” Sholoongo back in Somalia with the aim to get Kalaman to impregnate her with his child. Her arrival forces Kalaman to face his confusion about his identity, the suppression of which has led to him becoming emotionally separated from his own parents. Kalaman’s insecurity regarding his identity stem from his strange “cul-de-sac” of a name given to him by his grandfather Nonno, who explains his decision to name him Kalaman, so that his name and metaphorically Kalaman himself could “stand on its own, independent of your father’s name or mine”(4).

Yet for Kalaman, his origins “made no sense to him” and he begins to believe in the existence of a secret surrounding his birth, fueled by Sholoongo and Arbaco’s pointing out the smallness of his ‘manhood’, which was unlike that of his father and grandfather, who “hung down a ton!” (5). Kalaman’s interest in his origins is quite legitimate for as the novel proceeds we find out that he was a child born out of a gang rape upon his mother. Kalaman thus metaphorically serves as the symbol for a post independence Somalia, a state born from a gang rape by the British, Italian, French and Ethiopian colonialists that is unable to find its own identity. As the product of such a heinously transgressive act, both Kalaman and metaphorically Somalia suffer from a deep crisis of not knowing who they are.

Kalaman’s story serves as a critique of postcolonial Islamic Somalia where women are victimized because of the patriarchal traditions present in society. We see this in the story of Kalaman’s mother Damac who becomes the casualty of a patriarchal traditions when she “turns down” the suit of a man Y.M.I., who in turn procures a false marriage license and declares to Damac‘s family that “he and Damac were man and woman” and as a consequence, Damac is thrown out of her aunt’s house (230). Even after suffering terrible consequences for no fault of hers, Damac tries to gain agency in society by starting her own bead business. Sadly, gaining this little independence further hurts her as she is blackmailed by Y.M.I, the forger of the marriage certificate, to give him one-third of her monthly earnings and who threatens her with the warning that should she not comply with his demands, she would be “humiliate[d] bodily”(262).

When threatening her, Y.M.I warns Damac about her position in society as a woman saying, “Remember you are a woman! Remember that you are responsible for what happens, should it occur to you to refuse to cooperate with us”(262). To add insult to injury, the fake marriage license is won over by a thug called Gacme Xume in a game of cards and he starts blackmailing Damac. However, Damac still stands strong and refuses to give in to the demands of the blackmailing and is as a result gang raped and finds herself pregnant. Instead of committing suicide like many other Somali women in the same situation, Damac through the help of Arbaco, a facilitator finds Yaqut, who in an act of extraordinary kindness accepts Damac and her unborn baby as his wife and child even though he and Damac never marry. Thus through the story of Damac, Farah gives us his critique of a traditional Muslim society where a marriage can take place with the bride being “represented by a male relation, who speaks on her behalf” and where a grotesque act like gang rape can take place with the “perpetrators of the crime of gang rape allowed to go scot-free” while the woman, clearly a victim and a man who helps her could be “stoned to death” “for living together in sin”(260).

Sholoongo is also a victim of the transgressions and immoralities of the Somali society and literally comes back to “haunt” their collective conscience (2). Born when “the stars were bivouacking at the most inauspicious station”, she is a “duugan”, a baby to be buried and is thus abandoned by her mother in the bush. However, Sholoongo survives and is rumored to have been adopted by a lioness “that raised her together with her cubs, then abandoned her at a crossroads, where some travelers found her”(2). Unable to face the consequences of her actions, Sholoongo’s mother commits suicide.

Thus Sholoongo’s birth is shrouded by death and destruction. Sholoongo’s family, consisting of herself, her half-brother Timir and her father Madoobe, provides the backdrop for some of the most transgressive acts of taboo breaking in the book. In Yaqut’s words the family is “a threesome of originals, as unique as they are fascinating to know, clowns of a tragic reenactment of a sexual farce”(13). Madoobe is seen by Kalaman as a youngster, engaging in sexual acts with a heifer and later in the book Sholoongo and Timir return to Somalia to bury their father who was found dead, “stark nude, on his back, his thing still at half mast, half an erection you might say” after being kicked by a she-donkey. Timir and Sholoongo’s incestuous relationship is also an open secret and Kalaman also witnesses Fidow engaging in sexual acts with an adolescent Timir.

By the end of the book, both Fidow and Timir are dead. Timir is “blown up sky high” after finding a woman with a child to marry and take away as a slave to America and Fidow is “trampled to pulp” by an elephant whose “immediate family” Fidow had been killing for their tusks (93). Thus Sholoongo’s family shows the breakdown of Somali society where female babies are murdered by their own mother’s because of superstitions and where all kinds of sexual taboos are broken by fathers and brothers in families. Then why, Farah seems to be asking, would murdering someone of a different clan be a surprising thing?

Sholoongo is Kalaman’s childhood initiator into the world of sex and she is also the person with whom Kalaman engages in acts of taboo breaking like in his “savoring [of] her monthlies”(120). Sholoongo’s past of death and destruction along with her autonomy, wild disregard for any boundaries and taboos, her ability to shape shift to any form, make her an anarchic force. Nonno attaches Sholoongo’s arrival in Somalia to the escalating violence present in the Somali society and Nonno describes this when he declares Shoolongo as being a state of turbulence, “just another condition, as volatile as the tragic unfolding of the Somali people’s collective descent into hell”(123). But Nonno also makes it clear that whatever may Sholoongo’s effect on Kalaman be, he himself was not without blame for his situation as he,

“Could have brought an end to his rigmarole sooner too, if he had been true to his own instincts, honest to Talaado and his mother, or if he had been forthrightly frank with Sholoongo herself: the Somali collectivity could have reversed the coming decline. He had no right to blame his parents or Nonno or others for his own failures. Nor had he the right to blame Sholoongo, a classical other”(191).

Thus Farah seems to be saying that while Kalaman had been prey to Sholoongo’s influence, his victimization was the direct result of his inability to be honest to himself and his won people. Thus Farah again connects the downfall of the individual to that of the “Somali collective”(191).

Nonno’s past too is of importance for as a young scholar he attempted to control the nature through magic, until he transgressed the boundaries set by his tutors and had to “overhaul his identity and break away from the past totally”(113). Through Nonno, Farah gives us an insight into what he thinks should be the real and honored roots of Africa. It is in Nonno’s voice that we hear Farah’s main argument regarding transgressions and boundaries. Nonno states:

“What sets humans apart from other animals is not the generic ability to speak, or that we are capable of thinking in complicated mathematical equations, no. It is in the human’s obedience to a set of tenets governing an over all behavior, taboo tenets that are observed, because they affect the community’s life at large. I cannot imagine a world without taboos, a culture without its notion of right and wrong. Honors are maintained, pledges kept, gods worshipped. It is anathema to imagine a world in which there are no secrets. Secrets have a life energy, they keep us alive”(202).

Then what Secrets is really about is the human conscience, which allows men to think over and above their clan interests for the better good of all humanity and where the maintenance of social taboos by a person affects the life of the community. The transgressions that abound in the book are Farah’s way of showing us the slippery slope that they can become, for in a world where if one partakes in menstrual blood then “we are entering the area of taboo, of things not done under normal circumstances”(202). If one person can break a taboo, he could also “turn into a mob, animal like” that could “kill and kill indiscriminately”(202). Thus while Secrets contains a number of taboo breaking transgressions, what Farah idealizes in the end is a world where honors are maintained and taboo tenets observed, because in that, according to Farah, lies Somali peace and stability.

In the end, Roy and Farah both use transgressions of various kinds to shock readers into rethinking the limitations imposed by society and history. However, for Roy these boundaries can be challenged only through the transgressive acts of the small and marginalized against a history that represses their dreams and freedoms while for Farah, it is in the maintenance of taboos and time honored traditions that Somali people will be able to find peace and security in their society. While Roy uses her characters stories to show the demolition of individual dreams and desires because of history and society, Farah uses his characters to show how history and societies can be demolished by the corruption of the individual. Thus even though both authors use a similar phenomena of transgression of sexual and moral boundaries set by history and society, they differ radically in what they perceive as ideal worlds.


Interview with Arundhati Roy. 1997. In The Sunday times: October 17th.

Jameson, F. 1986. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” In Social Text. Duke University Press: 15:65-88.

Interview with Nuruddin Farah. Penguin Reading Books.

Roy, A. 1997. “The God Of Small Things.” New Delhi: Penguin Books ltd.

Farah, F. 1998. “Secrets.” New York: Penguin Books.

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