Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – a Book Review

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – a Book Review

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

December 30, 2008




Writing about the dispossessed, poor and the destitute is not a small feat. Poor and the impoverished do not own the press. They don’t have any powerful and effective lobby group to represent them in the government or corporate sectors.

Portrayals of this underrepresented segments of human society is mostly superficial and marginal at best.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger reminded me Monica Ali’s The Brick Lane, not in its depiction of men and women in Indian sub-continent, but the razor sharp words of critiques, untangling the myths and disillusions perpetuated by the ruling “master” in the name of preserving so-called democracy, have similarities in overall texture. Also, various issues in Arundhati Roy’s poignant non-fictions, essays are explored in White Tiger in moving dialogues and monologues.

The story of Balram Halwai is the story of a common man who can be found in every city of South Asia. His story of pittance, nauseating corruptions of politicians and businessmen, the desperation in the eyes of deprived and caricature of democracy in the most voluble scandalous scenes is heart wrenching but is a necessary tale to be told.

Balram’s ascendancy from “Darkness” to “Light”, from being born in an impoverished family, seeing his mother’s untimely death and funeral, his rickshaw puller father’s eventual succumbing to same fatal fate to Tuberculosis, death without any medical help in a government run hospital shaped Balram’s life’s frame of reference in strokes of surreal reality. As his father was being “permanently cured of his tuberculosis”, Balram learned about healthcare for the poor:

“Why isn’t there a doctor here, uncle?” I asked. “This is the only hospital on either side of the river.”

“See, it’s like this,” the older Muslim man said. “There’s a government medical superintendent who’s meant to check that doctors visit village hospitals like this. Now, each time this post falls vacant, the Great Socialist lets all the big doctors know that he’s having an open auction for that post. The going rate for this post is about four hundred thousand rupees these days.”

“That much!” I said, my mouth opened wide.

“Why not? There’s good money in public service! Now, imagine that I’m a doctor. I beg and borrow money and give it to the Great Socialist, while touching his feet. He gives me the job. I taken an oath to God and the Constitution of India and then I put my boots up on my desk in the state capital.” He raised his feet onto an imaginary table. “Next, I call all the junior government doctors, whom I’m supposed to supervise, into my office. I take out my big government ledger. I shout out, ‘Dr. Ram Pandey.’”

He pointed a finger at me; I assumed my role in the play.

I saluted him: “Yes, sir!”

He held out his palm to me.

“Now, you – Dr. Ram Pandey – will kindly put one-third of your salary in my palm. Good boy. In return, I do this.” He made a tick on the imaginary ledger. “You can keep the rest of your government salary and go work in some private hospital for the rest of the week. Forget the village. Because according to this ledger you’ve been there. You’ve treated my wounded leg. You’ve healed that girl’s jaundice.”

“Ah,” the patients said. Even the ward boys, who had gathered around us to listen, nodded their heads in appreciation. Stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best stories, aren’t they?”

Balram’s view of education system had a good overview too from his early childhood when Munna (Balram’s nick name) learned how his schoolmaster was stealing the government allocated lunch money for the students. “There was supposed to be free food at my school – a government program gave every boy three rotis, yellow daal, and pickles at lunchtime. But we never ever saw rotis, or yellow daal, or pickles, and everyone knew why: the schoolteacher had stolen our lunch money. The teacher had a legitimate excuse to steal the money – he said he hadn’t been paid his salary in six months. He was going to undertake a Gandhian protest to retrieve his missing wages – he was going to do nothing in class until his paycheck arrived in the mail.........No one blamed the schoolteacher for doing this. You can’t expect a man in a dung heap to smell sweet. Every man in the village knew that he would have done the same in his position. Some were even proud of him, for having got away with it so cleanly.”

In not so long ago, myriads of castes were normal in India, however, as we are progressing through 21st century, there is difference now. Aravind Adiga’s protagonist sums up the differences in caste system – “in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes; Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat – or get eaten up.”

Balram Halwai’s persistence to get away from his impoverished village paid off. He found a driver’s job. His employers were the powerful landlords from his village Laxmangarh. Here is a description of Balram’s employer that sets up the plot of this “dark” story that the writer eventually unfolds: “......what the Buffalo did to his domestic servant. The one who was supposed to guard his infant son, who got kidnapped by the Naxals and then tortured and killed........The servant said he had nothing to do with the kidnapping; the Buffalo did not believe him and got four of his hired gunmen to torture the servant. Then they shot him through the head. Fair enough. I would do the same to someone who let my son get kidnapped. But then, because the Buffalo was sure that the man had deliberately let the child be kidnapped, for money, he also went after the servant’s family. One brother was set upon while working in the fields beaten to death there. That brother’s wife was finished off by three men together. A sister, still unmarried, was also finished off. Then the house where the family had lived was surrounded by the four henchmen and set on fire.”

About the election, Balram Halwai had received valuable lesson from his father before his death: “It’s the way it always is..........I’ve seen twelve elections – five general, five state, two local – and someone else has voted for me twelve times. I’ve heard that people in the other India get to vote for themselves – isn’t that something”?

And when someone from “Darkness” goes “mad” after listening to all the heart pumping election slogans, and wanted to fulfill his basic civic duty, voting, shocking surprises waited for him:

“He began walking straight to the voting booth at the school. “I’m supposed to stand up to the rich, aren’t I?” he shouted. “Isn’t that what they keep telling us?”

When he got there, the Great Socialist’s supporters had already put up the tally of votes outside on a blackboard: they had counted 2,341 votes in that booth. Everyone had voted for the Great Socialist. Vijay the bus conductor was up on a ladder, hammering into the wall a banner with the Great Socialist’s symbol (the hands breaking their shackles).....Vijay dropped the hammer, the nails, and the banner when he saw the rickshaw-puller.

“What are you doing here?”

“Voting,” he shouted back. “Isn’t it the election today?”

..........”Vijay and a policeman had knocked the rickshaw-puller down, and they had begun beating him; they hit him with their sticks, and when he thrashed at them they kicked him. They took turns. Vijay hit him and the policeman stamped on his face and then Vijay did it again. And after a while the body of the rickshaw-puller stopped wriggling and fighting back, but they stamping on him, until he had been stamped back into the earth.”

Balram Halwai is a careful observer. He sees his “masters” flagrant corrupting deal making with high level politicians, blackmailing, and outright robbery, and he used the similar blackmailing to get himself a better position, a promotion from “number two” driver to become the “number one” driver and getting into Delhi, the epitome of India, the capital city.

The description of separation between the rich and poor are especially stark when Balram Halwai reaches Delhi.

“There was a good reason for the face masks; they say the air is so bad in Delhi that it takes ten years out of a man’s life. Of course, those in the cars don’t have to breathe the outside air – it is just nice, cool, clean, air-conditioned air for us. With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open – a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road – and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.”

Balram Halwai still fills torn apart, seeing the other side, the “Darkness” so much different than being in the periphery of “Light”, “We were like two separate cities – inside and outside the dark egg. I knew I was in the right city. But my father, if he were alive, would be sitting on that pavement, cooking some rice gruel for dinner, and getting ready to lie down and sleep under a streetlamp, and I couldn’t stop thinking of that and recognizing his features in some beggar out there. So I was in some way out of the car too, even while I was driving it.”

Here is a description of “complicated” political process:

“Look at that.”

“What?”

“That statue.”

I looked out the window to see a large bronze statue of a group of men – this is a well-known statue, which you will no doubt see in Delhi: at the head is Mahatma Gandhi, with his walking stick, and behind him follow the people of India, being led from darkness to light.

The mongoose squinted at the statue.

“What about it? I’ve seen it before.”

“We’re driving past Gandhi, after just having given a bribe to a minister. It’s a fucking joke, isn’t it.”

“You sound like your wife now,” the Mongoose said. “I don’t like swearing – it’s not part of our tradition here.”

But Mr. Ashok was too red in the face to keep quiet.

“It is a fucking joke – our political system – and I’ll keep saying it as long as I like.”

“Things are complicated in India, Ashok. It’s not like in America. Please reserve your judgement.”

The masters in Delhi know how to keep the “servants” in this “proper” place. A vivid scene clarifies it more:

“I’ve lost a rupee.” He snapped his finger at me.

“Get down on your knees. Look for it on the floor of the car.”

I got down on my knees. I sniffed in between the mats like a dog, all in search of that one rupee.

“What do you mean, it’s not there? Don’t think you can steal from us just because you’re in the city. I want that rupee.”

“We’ve just paid half a million rupees in a bribe, Mukesh, and now we’re screwing this man over for a single rupee. Let’s go up and have a scotch.”

“That’s how you corrupt servants. It starts with one rupee. Don’t bring your American ways here.”

Where that rupee coin went remains a mystery to me to this day, Mr. Premier. Finally, I took a rupee coin out of my shirt pocket, dropped it on the floor of the car, picked it up, and gave it to the Mongoose.

“Here it is, sir. Forgive me for taking so long to find it!”

There was a childish delight on his dark master’s face. He put the rupee coin in his hand and sucked his teeth, as if it were the best thing that had happened to him all day.”

Ashok was the youngest brother of Balram’s employer, and being returning from America after his education, was still finding all these master and servant relationships, the briberies of ministers, pollution, the stark contrast between the rich and poor all troublesome. His eyes get on the verge of tears seeing the daily injustice, he tries to protect Balram from humiliation, steadily increases his salary without being asked to do so, and argues with his brothers and wife when they wanted to replace Balram with a more matured local driver. However, as Ashok more and more got involved with shady deal making, briberies, he gravitated towards the inevitability, fall from grace to the “darkness” of deceits and shameful indifference for the plights of deprived.

Balram Halwai understood why the “servants” and the poor don’t rebel against injustice. There is a powerful imagery where the comparison between the sufferings of downtrodden human beings and caged chickens, both witnessing atrocity being committed on their fellow beings, but are completely stunned and cowered to take any rebellious step.

“Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench – the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Here is an example of human being, being trapped in a rooster coop:

“Every day, on the roads of Delhi, some chauffeur is driving an empty car with a black suitcase sitting on the backseat. Inside that suitcase is a million, two million rupees; more money than that chauffeur will see in his lifetime. If he took the money he could go to America, Australia, anywhere, and start a new life. He could go inside the five-star hotels he has dreamed about all his life and only seen from the outside. He could take his family to Goa, to England. Yet he takes that black suitcase where his master wants. He puts it down where he is meant to, and never touches a rupee. Why?

Because Indians are the world’s most honest people, like the prime minister’s booklet will inform you?

No. It’s because 99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market.

.............Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way – to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put they key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

...........Why does the Rooster Coop work? How does it trap so many millions of men and women so effectively?

Secondly, can a man break out of the coop? What if one day, for instance, a driver took his employer’s money and ran? What would his life be like?

I will answer both for you, sir.

The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice,.....the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.

The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed – hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters – can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.”

Some may claim that Aravind Adiga’s protagonist is too simplistic, naive in portraying a large and complex nation like India, and some may even call him one sided polemist in caricaturing the rich, portraying the upper class in India in hackneyed settings. Some of these claims may have merit to raise these questions. However, White Tiger is a fiction, but it is “built on a substratum of Indian reality.” The author correctly points out the amount of research went into writing this novel, one example he cited is the deaths of thousands of poor Indian everyday from tuberculosis (The Times of India Reference)

India’s economic progress for many, especially for the last decade, is indeed phenomenal. Millionaires and billionaires are increasingly abundant; even in the upper portion of Forbes magazine’s annual chart of the richest men now showcases Indian richest men. Middle class has more purchase power now than ever before. However, the majority of Indian one billion plus population “are denied decent health care, education or employment, getting to the top would take doing something like what Balram has done.”

Even in fiction, for the sake of sticking to the so-called reality, the reality that is framed by a writer’s perception of surroundings, and in most cases, the willingness and unwillingness of seeing and not seeing the surreal ugliness of contemporary moral dilemma, the beguiling tricks that mind can play for self preservation, preservation of status quo, and societal pressure in place for not to explore the very painful subjects that most in our world are facing with but are not exposed in overwhelmingly majority of Bollywood or Hollywood depictions in lush and flushed movies with a few notable exceptions like Slumdog Millionaire, have linear progression from peripheral marginality to willful amnesia or simple blindness.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, albeit polemic, but has the sharpened teeth required to shred volumetric deceptions of the powerful. This is a tale to be shared, cherished and at the same time it is perhaps a forewarning: increasing inequality brings increasing instability, anywhere and everywhere.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

One World, Many Minds - Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom

Evolution may not be as linear as it was perceived before. New research are finding startling evidences that there are multiple evolutionary lineages, especially, in the development of complex cognitive sophistications. Fish, reptiles, vertebrates and invertebrates may have more intelligence than the "supreme" human beings ever considered to these "inferior" species to have.
"One of the most common misconceptions about brain evolution is that it represents a linear process culminating in the amazing cognitive powers of humans, with the brains of other modern species representing previous stages. Such ideas have even influenced the thinking of neuroscientists and psychologists who compare the brains of different species used in biomedical research. Over the past 30 years, however, research in comparative neuroanatomy clearly has shown that complex brains—and sophisticated cognition—have evolved from simpler brains multiple times independently in separate lineages, or evolutionarily related groups: in mollusks such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish; in bony fishes such as goldfish and, separately again, in cartilaginous fishes such as sharks and manta rays; and in reptiles and birds. Nonmammals have demonstrated advanced abilities such as learning by copying the behavior of others, finding their way in complicated spatial environments, manufacturing and using tools, and even conducting mental time travel (remembering specific past episodes or anticipating unique future events). Collectively, these findings are helping scientists to understand how intelligence can arise—and to appreciate the many forms it can take."
Read Paul Patton's well written article from the following link in Scientific American.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shoes - The Noble Truths of Suffering

Aleksandar Hemon's story published in The New Yorker on September 22, 2008 was one of the best stories I've read this year. The title of this sparkling and mini-voltage filled story is The Noble Truths of Suffering. A novice Sarajevo writer's encounter with an American prize winning author, the observations through a voice of drunken stupor, and elaboration of violence through Buddhistish non-violence made the conflicting descriptions of war, brutality and politics painfully live.

Here is an excerpt from Aleksandar Hemon's "The Noble Truths of Suffering":
"an ex-marine who would have been a hero in the battle of Falluja had he not been dishonorably discharged for failing to corroborate the official story of the rape of a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family, an unfortunate instance of miscommunication with local civilians. Tiny returns home from Iraq to Chicago and spends time visiting his old haunts on the North Side, trying vainly to drink himself into a stupor, out of turpitude. He has nothing to say to the people he used to know; he breaks shot glasses against their foreheads. The city barked at him and he snarled back. High out of his mind, he has a vision of a snake invasion and torches his studio with everything he owns in it, which is not much. A flashback that turns into a nightmare suggests that he was the one who slit the girl’s throat. Lamia Hassan was her name. She speaks to him in unintelligibly accented English.

He wakes up on a bus to Janesville, Wisconsin. Only upon arrival does he realize that he is there to visit the family of Sergeant Briggs, the psychopathic bastard whose idea it was to rape Lamia. He finds the house, knocks on the door, but there is nobody there, just a TV playing a children’s show. Tiny stumbles into a nearby bar and drinks with the locals, who buy him booze as an expression of support for our men and women in uniform. He tells them that Sergeant Briggs, a genuine American hero, was one of his best buddies in Iraq. He also tells them about his friend Declan, who got shot by a sniper. Briggs dragged him home under fire and got his knee blown off. Tiny tells them not to trust the newspapers, or the cocksuckers who say that we are losing the war. We are tearing new holes in the ass of the world, he says. We are breaking it open."

..................He tells them the gory details of the rape—Lamia’s moans, the flapping of her skinny arms, the blood pouring out of her—and the old man listens to him unflinchingly, while the mother goes to the kitchen to fetch coffee. They seem untroubled, as if they’re not even hearing him. For an instant, he thinks that he is not speaking at all, that this is all happening in his head, but then he realizes that there is nothing inside them, nothing but grief. Other people’s children are of no concern to them, for there was no horror in the world beyond Declan’s eternal absence from it. Tiny is sobbing."

Reading only the fragments of this beautifully written story doesn't elucidate the complete rewards that can be attained reading it in its entirety. What made me more surprised after reading the last sentence of Aleksandar Hemon's short story was the "Shoes" video propping up on the net. Muntather Zaidi threw his first shoe with uttering words: "This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is the farewell kiss, you dog", and he hurled his second shoe saying, ""This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq"

A frustrated Iraqi journalist throwing his pair of shoes at Bush, missing both his throws less than an inch, but the ultimate insult was done for an American outgoing President, whose neocon directed murderous wars caused so many millions of unnecessary deaths, bloodshed, rapes, and destructions, and whose answering back to a journalist's question afterwards proclaiming that democracy at play in Iraq and the man who threw the shoes only was trying to grab attention to himself were as usual missing the mark of truth completely.

While the protesting shoe throwing journalist was subdued on the floor, and was screaming from pain, words can be heard, "Camera! Camera!", and the heads rolled toward the recording camera that was documenting everything. Perhaps the "democracy" protecting goons spared him the pain for the moment while being recorded in camera, but off camera the story will turn to gory detail, even a gifted story writer like Aleksandar Hemon may find it difficult to describe the plight of tortures on protesters and any opposition termed as "enemy combatant" at the whim of whimsicals beyond the flashy lights and camera.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - a Book Review

Changez's life changes drastically, from pursuing efficiency and fundamentals in appraising businesses to questioning the fallacies embedded in hard core capitalistic haunting bonanza. Freshly graduated from Princeton, highly motivated pursuing career to coveted aristocracy, Changez moves past his classmates and colleagues at Underwood Samson in rapid pace, beaming with unmistakable confidence in his every strides, demeanor and winning smiles. September 11 changes everything as he reflects on his plight: "the door to the elevator was shut upon me and I began to travel down the shaft, alone."

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a slender novel, but with substantial pathos imbued in sharp observations, without relinquishing a good story's structured rhythm into cliched slogans against power and superpower. The effective monologue that the writer used where an unnamed American was entertained over a cup of tea and later the mouth watering dinner of Lahore, the twist and turn and underlying tension as the story unfolds revealing life of Changez in his abandoned beloved Princeton and New York, made this a novel unputdownable, so readers should be forewarned: you will be tightly embraced by its fast moving plot.

Like the Guardian's reviewers (Link) I also found the writer used allegories, depicting plots and subplots with the reality of our world, like Changez's romantic relationship with Erica (Am-Erica), Erica's subsequent breakdown from tragic loss of her dead boyfriend Chris, and comparing Erica's grief with American grief after September 11: ""it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia".

As the war in Afghanistan started, Changez's outlook had already begun to change, "preferring not to watch the partisan and sports-event-like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty-first-century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below................I was reminded of the film Terminator, but with the roles reversed so that the machines were cast as heroes."

It's not only war and aftermath that this novel is about. There are fine sporadic descriptions of Lahore's cuisine delicacy like the following fragment: "such an authentic introduction to Lahori cuisine; it will, given the dishes for which this market is justifiably renowned, be a purely carnivorous feast -- one that harks back to an era before man's knowledge of cholesterol made him fearful of his prey -- and all the more delectable for it......No, we are surrounded by instead by the kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat, the spiced brain of sheep! These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon....Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire."

Changez's "not squemished" desire to be part of an exclusive elite society in America shuddered to halt during his work trip to Valparaiso in Chile, the home of legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, where the publisher of the company he was appraising, Juan-Bautista "added considerable momentum to my inflective journey, a journey that continues to this day...."

Juan-Bautista was direct in his characterization of Changez, asking:

"Does it trouble you," he inquired, "to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?" "We just value," I replied. "We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it." He nodded; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, " have you heard of janissaries?" "No," I said. "They were Christian boys," he explained, "captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to."

That was the final blow on Changez's deluded world. "Juan-Bautista's words plunged me into a deep bout of introspection. I spent that night considering what I had become. There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was pre-disposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Bautista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain."

Changez left his job in his beloved New York to return to his homeland to be with his family, away from humiliating strip search at airport, the looks of suspicions, and war frenzied flag waving to his native land where the similar drum rolls of war were raising louder into higher pitch in every passing days from tension between India and Pakistan.

Perhaps, Mohsin Hamid could make this novel a bit longer. Perhaps, more dialogues and extensions of plots like the sudden disappearance of Erica (Am-Erica), incidents in Chile, aftermath of September 11 both in U.S. and inPakistan in more vivid detail could have raised this novel to a level similar to ones reached by Jeffrey Eugenides' splendid Middlesex or Ian Mcewan's Atonement. On the hindsight though, the slenderness of this little novel preserved its charm and iressistibility due to its same minuteness in words but with razor sharp tensed storyline.