The Kathakali Man: Childhood in The God of Small Things

Dr Leon Burnett (Essex)
The Kathakali Man: Childhood in The God of Small Things

Myth Reading Group
Wednesday 6 November 2019
1.15 – 2.45 pm
Room NTC.3.06

Kalamandalam Gopi As Dasharadhan

Kalamandalam Gopi as Dasharadhan (Creative Commons)

Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, explores the theme of childhood as experienced by non-identical twins of opposite genders in a small, southern Indian community that is engaged in the process of adapting to changing values. In Chapter Twelve of the novel, the twins attend a kathakali performance that encapsulates in an indirect, that is to say a symbolic, manner the dilemma of modern India in having to choose between retaining its spiritual capital, saturated with religious and mythological values, or cashing it in in pursuit of secular goals.

You are welcome to bring your lunch to the session.

Primary Text:

Notes to the text:

The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy’s first novel tells the story of non-identical twins from the dual perspective of their childhood and their adult life, when they are re-united after a long separation. The narrative, set in a small community in Kerala, weaves between these two periods.

Chapter 12 (Kochu Thomban)

The grown-up twins, Rahel and Esthappen (Estha), female and male, attend a theatrical dance performance (kathakali) of scenes from the Mahabharata, scenes that they had witnessed earlier as six-year-old children. Kathakali is a traditional dance form, originating in Kerala, in which colour and gesture are integral to the stories that are told, but the traditional genre has been undermined by competing demands of the modern world. The Kathakali Man has known better times, but, although “stoned” during his performance, he remains true to his vocation. To him, his stories are “his children and his childhood”, but he has become “unviable”, “left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth”. He “tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart”.

The performance takes place in the kuthambalam, the temple theatre, in the little town of Ayemenem and lasts the whole night. Its narrative alludes to the meeting of Karna (“Karna, melancholy son of Surya, God of Day. Karna the Generous. Karna the abandoned child.”) and his mother Kunti, impregnated by Surya, who is also the mother of the Pandavas (“her five other, more beloved sons”), who will be Karna’s enemies in the impending war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in which the Indian epic culminates. She has come to exact a promise from him. In the course of the night, the scene shifts from the episode of Karna’s Oath (Karna Shabadam) to that of the brutal killing of one of the Kaurava brothers, Dushasana (Duryodhana Vadham).

In the chapter, there is a continual interplay between the myth that is being enacted and the life-story of the fictional twins as Rahel watches with “the memory of another mother”.


Book 5 describes two meetings where Karna learns about his birth. The first meeting is with Krishna, the second when his biological mother Kunti comes to meet him for the first time.

Book 8 gives an account of the Kurukshetra War.

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