Indian history and politics
Indian history and politics shape the plot and meaning of The God of Small Things in a variety of ways. Some of Roy's commentary is on the surface, with jokes and snippets of wisdom about political realities in India. However, the novel also examines the historical roots of these realities and develops profound insights into the ways in which human desperation and desire emerge from the confines of a firmly entrenched caste society.
During the time in India, class was a major issue and still is in many parts of India.
Class relations and cultural tensions
In addition to her commentary on Indian history and politics, Roy evaluates the Indian post-colonial complex, or the cultural attitudes of many Indians toward their former British rulers. After Ammu calls her father a "[shit]-wiper" in Hindi for his blind devotion to the British, Chacko explains to the twins that they come from a family of Anglophiles, or lovers of British culture, "trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps." He goes on to say that they despise themselves because of this.
A related inferiority complex is evident in the interactions between Untouchables and Touchables in Ayemenem. Vellya Paapen is an example of an Untouchable so grateful to the Touchable class that he is willing to kill his son, Velutha, when he discovers that Velutha has broken the most important rule of class segregation—that there be no inter-caste sexual relations. In part, this reflects how many Untouchables have internalized caste segregation. Nearly all of the relationships in the novel are somehow colored by cultural and class tension, including the twins' relationship with Sophie, Chacko's relationship with Margaret, Pappachi's relationship with his family, and Ammu's relationship with Velutha. Characters such as Baby Kochamma and Pappachi are the most rigid and vicious in their attempts to uphold that social code, while Ammu and Velutha are the most unconventional and daring in unraveling it. Roy implies that this is why they are punished so severely for their transgression.
One interpretation of Roy's theme of forbidden love is that love is such a powerful and uncontrollable force that it cannot be contained by any conventional social code. Another is that conventional society somehow seeks to destroy real love, which is why love in the novel is consistently connected to loss, death, and sadness. Also, because all romantic love in the novel relates closely to politics and history, it is possible that Roy is stressing the connection of personal desire to larger themes of history and social circumstances. Love would therefore be an emotion that can be explained only in terms of two peoples' cultural backgrounds and political identities.
The story is set in the caste society of India, at a time when members of the Untouchable Paravan or Paryan caste were not permitted to touch members of higher castes or enter their houses. The Untouchables were considered polluted beings. They had the lowliest jobs and lived in subhuman conditions. In India, the caste system was considered a way to organize society. Roy's book shows how terribly cruel such a system can be.
Along with the caste system, readers see an economic class struggle. The Ipes are considered upper class. They are factory owners, the dominating class. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma would not deign to mix with those of a lower class.
However, Roy shows other types of less evident discrimination. For example, there is religious discrimination. It is unacceptable for a Syrian Christian to marry a Hindu and vice versa, and Hindus can only marry a Hindu from the same caste. In more than one passage of the book, the reader feels Rahel's and Estha's discomfort at being half Hindu. Baby Kochamma constantly makes disparaging comments about Hindus. On the other hand, there is discomfort even between Christian denominations as is shown by Pappachi's negative reaction when Baby Kochamma converts to Catholicism.
Chacko suffers more veiled racial discrimination, as it seems his daughter also does. His English wife's parents were shocked and disapproving that their daughter would marry an Indian, no matter how well educated. Sophie, at one point, mentions to her cousins that they are all "wog," while she is "half-wog."
The Ipes are very class-conscious and feel a need to maintain their status. Discrimination is a way of protecting their privileged position in society.
Betrayal is a constant element in this story. Love, ideals, and confidence are all forsaken, consciously and unconsciously, innocently and maliciously, and these deceptions affect all of the characters deeply.
Baby Kochamma is capable of lying and double-crossing anyone whom she sees as a threat to her social standing. This is a consequence of her loss of respectability after becoming a Roman Catholic nun to be close to Father Mulligan, despite her father's disapproval. Her fear is reminiscent of that of Comrade Pillai, who betrays both Velutha and Chacko to further his own interests and that of his political party.
The greatest tragedy is that of Velutha, the only truly non-corrupt adult in the story, who becomes the repeated victim of everyone's deception—from Comrade Pillai's to Baby Kochamma's, to his own father's and, most heartbreakingly, that of Estha, who at seven years old is manipulated into accusing Velutha of crimes that he did not commit.
With this in mind, the novel asks the question: Up until what point can we trust others, or even ourselves? How easy is it to put our own interests and convenience over loyalty?
Misogyny and women in India
Another important aspect of social discrimination that Roy deals with is misogyny, mainly through the character of Ammu. She often draws attention to the different opportunities on offer for women and men in India and the fact that, since Ammu has been married and divorced, she sees her life as effectively over. This is one of the main factors that influences her to start her love affair with Velutha. We also see her treatment by a police officer, who taps her breasts with his baton as 'though he was choosing mangoes from a basket,' commenting on objectification of women. A number of times throughout the novel Ammu expresses her fear that her son will grow up into a 'male chauvinistic pig', a description that fits the majority of the male characters represented in the novel.