How the battle over an old farmhouse shaped Arundhati Roy’s opinions on women’s rights

India’s human rights laws are biased and broken and need to be urgently rewritten. Imagine what it would feel like to be a third generation citizen of a country, only to realize that the laws of that country didn’t apply to you and you were subject to special laws just for you that excluded you from basic things like being able to inherit your family’s property ? That’s exactly what Arundhati Roy was a witness to as a child, which influenced a large part of the themes and topics behind her book The God of Small Things. Her mother fought in court for 49 years to inherit the family home that she and her daughter lived in only to raze it to the ground when she finally received it due to the horrible memories and family bitterness it had caused. 

Most Indian readers are familiar with Roy’s writing which heavily features women’s rights issues, inequality and the caste system, but what you may not know is how much of this largely fictional novel is heavily based on her own life experiences watching her mother be cheated out of everything she should have inherited. As is common in India, religion and marriage are the two biggest reasons one might be ostracized, so when her mother, Mary Roy defied her Syrian Christian upbringing by marrying a Bengali Hindu, her father wrote her out of his will. Unfortunately, Syrian Christians were subject to their own set of laws at the time, which stated that if you weren’t mentioned in the will and you were a woman, the most you could stand to inherit was a mere 5000 rupees. 

Mary Roy’s court battle over her house was a significant influence on Arundhati Roy’s writing in her novel, as it exposed her to the injustices and inequalities of Indian society, especially regarding women’s rights and the caste system. Roy saw how her mother faced discrimination and hostility from her own relatives and the legal system, which favored patriarchal and feudal norms. Roy later said that her mother’s case was “the beginning of my political education”. She dedicated her debut novel, The God of Small Things, to her mother, writing “For Mary Roy, who grew me up. Who taught me to say ‘excuse me’ before interrupting her in Public. Who loved me enough to let me go”. In an interview with The Indian Express, Arundhati Roy spoke about howher mother’s legacy changed the course of Syrian Christian women in Kerala forever, and how she was a feminist and an inspiration to her.

Scene of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”

In the heart of India, a courageous Syrian immigrant woman named Mary Roy stood up against centuries-old inheritance laws that had cast a shadow of discrimination over her life. Her journey, marked by resilience and unwavering determination, ignited a legal battle that spanned nearly five decades and brought forth a watershed moment in Indian history. Mary’s story is a testament to the relentless pursuit of justice and the transformational power of one woman’s fight for equality. 

It all began in 1960 when Mary Roy filed a lawsuit against her own brother, George Issac, not out of enmity but as a bold stand against the archaic inheritance laws that governed Syrian Christians in the region. These laws, embedded in the Travancore Succession Act of 1916, had long denied women like Mary the right to inherit land, relegating them to a position of subservience. The fight was not just for her but for countless women who had faced similar discrimination. Finally, in 1986, the Supreme Court of India handed down a ruling that would change the course of history, declaring in favor of Mary Roy. Her victory became a milestone that legal experts and solicitors would later cite in numerous property disputes and will contests. 

Mary’s journey was marred by the classification of her as a Syrian Christian immigrant, a label that dictated her legal status and entitlements. She stood as a stark example of how the patriarchal underpinnings of society had marginalized women for generations. Mary’s inheritance had been denied solely because of her immigrant Christian status, a stark contrast to the privileges that an Indian Hindu woman enjoyed under different laws. 

In a society where the dowry system held a grip on cultural norms, daughters’ rights to their father’s property were often seen as the equivalent of their dowry. The status quo had societal acceptance, but Mary Roy’s case shattered this age-old mold. Her relentless pursuit of justice exposed the cruel reality that many women, like her, were left penniless when their husbands passed away or due to intercaste marriages that eliminated dowries. 

At a time when education was a rarity for Indian women, they were often left powerless and incapable of securing their family’s future. Mary Roy’s triumph was heralded by both the public and the church as a turning point in the annals of Indian law, heralding a brighter future for women who had long been silenced and oppressed. 

It is in the story of Mary Roy that we find an inspiring narrative of courage and conviction, a tale of how one woman’s fight against injustice transcended personal boundaries to become a symbol of hope for all those who had been marginalized. Her legacy continues to shine as a beacon of empowerment, reminding us that the pursuit of justice can lead to transformative change, even in the face of centuries-old traditions. Mary Roy’s battle, her triumph, and her indomitable spirit have etched her name into the history books of India as a true champion of equality. Arundhati’s fervent anger and deep-seated passion for addressing the oppression of women and lower-caste individuals, as exemplified by her powerful examples, can be fundamentally traced back to the pivotal battle over that house and the enduring struggle it represented. In the novel, we can see the several anecdotes mirroring the larger societal issues that Mary Roy’s battle sought to address. Ammu, the mother of the twins Rahel and Estha, is divorced from her abusive husband and returns to her parents’ home in Ayemenem. There, she faces discrimination and contempt from her family and society for being a divorced woman. She is denied any inheritance, respect, or freedom by her father, Pappachi, who is a patriarchal and conservative man. She is also harassed and humiliated by the police, who arrest her for having an affair with Velutha, a lower-caste man. 

Velutha, the son of a Paravan (an untouchable caste), is a skilled carpenter and a loyal worker for the Ipe family. He is secretly in love with Ammu, and they have a brief but passionate relationship. However, when their affair is discovered, Velutha is brutally beaten and killed by the police, who accuse him of kidnapping and murdering Sophie Mol, Ammu’s niece. Velutha is a victim of the caste system, which forbids any contact between upper and lower castes, especially in matters of love and sex. 

Baby Kochamma, the aunt of the twins, is an old and bitter woman who has never married. She was once in love with a Catholic priest, Father Mulligan, but he rejected her. She then devoted her life to religion and television, and became a manipulative and spiteful person. She is the one who instigates the police to arrest Velutha, and she also forces Ammu to send away her children to save the family’s reputation. Baby Kochamma represents the hypocrisy and cruelty of the upper-class women, who are oppressed by the patriarchal society, but also oppress others who are lower than them. 

Mary Roy’s lengthy legal battle in Kerala faced persistent resistance from the local court, despite amendments by the Supreme Court. This illustrates the challenges individuals like her encounter in seeking justice. The disconnect between national and local legal perspectives exposes inefficiencies in India’s legal system, echoing themes in “The God of Small Things.” The ongoing resistance to grant rights to women and minorities emphasizes the need for legal reform to ensure equality regardless of gender or religious background. Thus it is not just Arundhati Roy’s great literary mind that produced these concepts but, it was her life experience watching her mother struggle with these very things that gave her courage to talk about these issues.

Indian laws need a big change to support women and minorities better. Mary Roy’s relentless battle for a small piece of land in Kerala matters a lot because it shows how unfair and old-fashioned laws can continue to disempower women and people from different backgrounds. Her fight isn’t just about that land, it’s about making things fair for all women, no matter where they come from. It’s a call to change these laws and create a fair and equal society for everyone. Sometimes a house is just a house. Maybe it’s a rite of inheritance or maybe it’s just somewhere to live. For Arundhati and Mary Roy, the Roy house was a cause far greater than any mere building, and when Mary Roy sent the bulldozer to demolish the house that had caused her so much pain, she did it knowing that the house itself no longer mattered, because the legacy it had created would live on through the lives and inheritance rights of Indian women forever after.

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