Category Archives: India
Narcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.
As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.
As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.
Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.
It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :
An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”
The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.
Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.
I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.
The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.” These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.
Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.
The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).
I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.
I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.
Three minutes. In that time the Mishra family’s hopes of a new future are demolished. They’d left Delhi in search of a better life in New York and, although they now live in a cramped apartment it is one that has carpets and indoor plumbing. Eldest son Birju wins a coveted place at Bronx High School of Science and is seen as a role model among other aspirational Indian immigrant parents. But when he dives into a swimming pool and hits his head on the bottom, the family’s great American dream dissolve into a nightmare of brain-damage, alcoholism and marital discord.
Relating this tale of woe in Akhil Shama’s Family Life is the youngest son of the Mishra family, eight year old Ajay. He’s a bit of a rascal who loves to make up stories to impress other kids of his age. “Everybody in America has their own speedboat” he boasts to boys in Delhi even though he has no idea if this is true. After his brother’s accident, he concocts more and more fabulous stories about Birju’s condition. It’s partly his way of making a connection, of trying to fit in with an alien environment in which he is one of the very few Indians in his school. But it’s also his way of expressing the complex and conflicting emotions stirred up by the accident.
Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. birdie i said had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory. ….. I concocted the ideal brother. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju…. They also cultivated rage at the loss…
As Ajay gets older the conflicting emotions about his brother never completely go away Every moment of his mother’s day is devoted to caring for Birju while his father takes to drink. In their grief they often lose sight of the needs of the younger boy. One cheerless Christmas Day, Ajay erupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring — at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father one evening. “You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day.” Coming home from school one day he is desperate to tell his parents he was ranked first in his class. But all he gets from his mother is “very good’, not pausing even from a moment in her manipulation of the wasted limbs of his brother.
I had been feeling proud as well as guilty but now I felt a collapse. And then I became disgusted with myself for my vanity in wanting to be thought special…
This is the aspect of the novel that resonated most with me. Much of the early part of Family Life feels like well trodden ground as Akhil Sharma lays out what life is like for new immigrants. Look how different things are in America the book says although we already know that from works by other transplanted authors. Where Family Life felt fresh was in its treatment of Anjay’s guilt at being the surviving brother and the creative ways in which he tries to find an outlet – trying to become an author by meticulously adopting Hemingway’s writing style or daydreaming about conversations in which God gives him advice while dressed in a Clark Kent style cardigan. This is the emotional heart of the novel, yet its impact comes from the often understated manner in which Anjay describes his feelings.
“A year had gone by since Birju’s accident. My father began shaving him. The first time he did this was one afternoon. My mother and I stood and watched as he put shaving cream on Birju’s cheeks … Birju lay there calmly as my father lathered him. I thought of how Birju had wanted to be a doctor. It seemed unfair that something like this could happen and the world go on.”
Unfair and yet the world does go on since ultimately Family Life is a story about endurance and survival. Anjay achieves the glittering career denied to his brother, proving that the American dream can become reality though for the Mishra family it materialises only after they are brought to the brink of loneliness and despair.
Family Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel and is partly autobiographical. By the time he handed over his manuscript to the publishers he was nine years overdue. Their patience was rewarded when Sharma won the 2015 Folio Prize with this novel.
Claire is a single mum living in England with a teenage son. Thousands of miles away in India lives Arun, an elderly, reformed alcoholic whose relationship with his wife and children has never been close. The one thing that connects these two individuals is their work in the shoe industry and the pride they take in turning out a quality product.
For Claire, the mass-produced shoes she assembles on a production line still deserve attention to detail:
Sometimes the shoes I check don’t fit as well with each other as they would with another left, another right. The same model, but some thing doesn’t match. I rearrange them and find another one where the rosette’s slightly off-centre, or the shape of the vamp mirrors the other one. It’s a small thing. Who’d notice? But it’s satisfying, finding the right partner.
Arun considers himself a master craftsman whose handmade chappals are meant to last a man a lifetime.
Everything should be perfect. Why so much care forsomethingo a man will put between his feet and the ground? But the chappals will be his constant companions. He’ll spend more time with them than with his wife. The thing I make is with a man when he’s alone, unnoticed. He can rely on it. Our chapels aren’t like the cheap manufactured ones, stuck with glue; ours will be with you a long time.
Arun is in a reflective mood as he fights against the signs of advancing age. He considers the time when he betrayed his wife through an extra-marital affair, indulged in heavy drinking sessions with his friends and neglected his children. Could some of those wrong turnings have been avoided? What kind of life could he have led if he hadn’t been so stupid or shown more tenderness towards his family? In the final chapter after a meeting with an old friend and an episode in hospital, he finds a new accommodation with his life.
In alternating chapters we also experience Claire’s memories of her past and the enduring strained relationship with her mother and siblings. Flashbacks to her first love (her son’s father) mingle with the routine of her shifts at the factory and her attempts to find a new love in her life. Romance seems to be on the cards when a stranger takes a shine to her in a pub but, like many of her other relationships peters out quickly. By the end Claire is forced to consider that happiness has all the time been staring her in the face via John, a work colleague that she’s never considered previously simply because he was always around.
Neither of these stories contains dramatic turning points or revelations; life is not like that seems to be Joseph’s message. It’s made up of the everyday, the small moments and the small pleasures which for Arun means to to feel the sun on your face, to see your sons laugh and to be happy in the moment while for Claire it’s waking in a bed knowing that someone had been there so she didn’t have to feel alone.
The Living apparently began as a short story in Granta: India in 2015 which might explain why it feels like two disconnected stories rather than a novel. The chapters featuring Arun were a lot more interesting than those dealing with Claire – where Arun felt a fully rounded character with whom we can cry and laugh (there is a wonderfully funny scene where he succumbs to pressure from his family and finally gets to see a doctor about his prostate problem) where Claire to me felt more remote and reserved. The Living wasn’t up to the standard of her debut novel Saraswati Park which I read a few years ago (see review here) but I have a feeling she is a talent that will be worth watching for the future.
The Living is published by 4th Estate. My copy was provided by the publishers via Net Galley. Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay but moved to England to study at Cambridge. She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The Living is her third novel.
Keiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants. Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.
It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses. Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.
The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai. They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.
Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York. Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.
Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.
‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.
The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation. Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption. But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.
The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.
Why I read this
The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.
It concerns Gustad Noble. The surname is significant for this is a fairly ordinary guy who tries to do the decent thing by his family and an old friend and ends up embroiled in a political scandal.
As the book opens Noble is working as a bank clerk and trying to deal with the problems posed by his offspring. His daughter Roshan has a mysterious illness and his son Sohrab has won a college scholarship to just about the best university India can offer but, to his parent’s dismay, refuses to accept it. Such problems pale into insignificance however when Gustad receives a letter from his old friend Major Bilimoria. The major works for Indira Ghandi’s secret police and asks Gustad for some help by collecting and depositing large sums of money into an account in a false name at the bank where he works. Scandal erupts when Bilimora is arrested under suspicion he was using the money to aid guerrillas in East Pakistan.
The experience shakes Gustad’s faith in his friend and opens his eyes to political corruption in the highest echelons of government. Gustav survives although around him the country is in turmoil when the war with Bangladesh escalates.
Such a Long Journey is a finely textured look at what happens to an honest, modest guy gets compromised by events he doesn’t understand. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai with its noise and poverty and into the heart of one corner of the city, the apartments of Khodadad where Nobel and his family lives. This is 1971 and a time of upheaval in the country but in the community of Khodadad, the difficulties are of a more domestic nature, sometimes uncomfortable in nature (especially when they taunt and tease Tehmul, who is a physically and mentally disabled man with the character of a boy) but often with gentle humour (the scenes where Gustad brings home a live chicken to feed his family are hilarious).
This is a novel populated with real people, they bicker with their neighbours, they hide long term illness beneath a veneer of bravado and resort to magical potions and rituals. But just like Gustad Noble they are simply trying to do their best for their family and their friends and to negotiate the difficult world around them.
Such a Long Journey is, in short, a wonderful novel. I’ve seen comments that it’s not as good as A Fine Balance which is magic to my ears since I also have that on my shelves to read.
This was the week when I discovered that it is not a good idea to start a trip to India having left my purse containing credit cards and cash back in the departure area of Heathrow airport. Forty minutes before touch down in Mumbai I made the discovery that my sole funds consisted of a £1 coin and a 10 pence piece. Even allowing for India’s lower cost of living, that wasn’t going to get me very far.
I could do nothing for five and half hours until my husband could give me contact details for the card providers so I could cancel the cards. And hope above hope that no-one had tried to use them and access our accounts. Fortunately we were able to wire money to a Western Union outlet so I was solvent by the next day but it was a frightening experience. Our funds are intact though the purse has not been located. A narrow escape.
Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey helped distract me from my woes, partially at least. I’ve meant to read him for such a long time and it seemed the perfect moment to begin since this book – his first novel – is set in Mumbai. I do enjoy reading books set in places I’m visiting since it makes the descriptions of the setting and people more meaningful. You read a passage in the book, lift your eyes from the page and there in front of you is the very scene or close to it.
Here’s Mistry’s description of the sprawling development of one Mumbai district.
Dr Paymaster’s dispensary was located in a neighbourhood that had changed in recent years from a place of dusty, unobtrusive poverty to a bustling, overcrowded, and still dusty, nub of commerce. Crumbling leaky warehouses and rickety-staired, wobbly balconied tenements had been refurbished and upgraded, from squalid and uninhabitable to squalid and temporarily inhabitable. The sewer system remained unchanged, broken and overflowing. Water supply continued to be a problem. So did rats, garbage and street lighting. …Soon there appeared enterprising individuals who serviced motorcars, retreated tyres, , restored refrigerators and allowed the waste products of their enterprise to run where they would. The barefooted now had to skip and hop over grease slicks, oil puddles, razor-sharp fins of broken cooling coils and long, twisting snakes of vulcanised rubber disgorged by tyre re-treaders.
The only bits he’s forgotten about are the piles of bricks and rubble left by the district government as a way of pretending they are about to start work on upgrading the work. And the cows that amble along the central reservation oblivious to oncoming traffic but forcing cars, mopeds and tuk tuks to halt.
I’m back home now, shaken by the experience of being driven weaving in and out of traffic for three hours so I could see the Taj Mahal; sobered by the experience of being away from home without money and looking forward to a slightly less adventurous week.
Three families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.
It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens. Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire, he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.
Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence. One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.
Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.
I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source: http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace_r.html)
It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.
I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses. He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.
EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace.html
Neel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others is an ambitious blend of family saga and political turbulence set in India during the second half of the 1960s.
The narrative is broad ranging, oscillating between the quotidien of the Ghosh family in their sprawling Calcutta home and the villages and rice fields of western Bengal where Communist guerrillas hide in the jungle plotting insurrection. These two elements appear disconnected initially but Mukherjee juxtaposes them to show how a crisis in the institution of the family echoes and parallels the fractures and cracks appearing in Indian society itself.
At the centre of the novel is the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who have seen their fortunes grow through investments in paper mills stretching across the sub continent. Three generations of this family live together in strictly hierarchical allocations of rooms and space within the home. The ageing patriarchal figure of Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor. As befitting her status on the lowest rung of the family tree, Purba, the widow of their youngest son, is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. There she and her two children subsist on a diet of dal and rice and whatever leftovers are despatched from above.
Beneath the calm, tensions begin appearing within this family. Jealousy over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery escalate from acts of pettiness into acts of malice; one son has to be married off quickly to avoid scandal when he gets a local girl pregnant and a grandson secretly experiments with drugs and eventually becomes an addict. Charubala frets about the impossibility of getting her daughter Chhayha married, most suitors being turned off by her too-dark skin and turned eye. Then union unrest at the mills threatens to bring the business down.
All of these problems are nothing however compared to the sudden disappearance of one of the elder grandsons. The family fear Supratik has joined the Naxalites, a guerrilla wing of the outlawed communist party that is responsible for acts of insurgency against the government. All they have is a note he left behind:
Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own. Forgive me.’
Supratik finds his privileged life style and early escapades as a student activist have little prepared him for life amidst the farmers and villagers on whose behalf he is fighting. It’s when he sees their struggle to scratch out a living from the land, getting deeper and deeper into debt at the hands of moneylenders and landowners, that his eyes are opened to the reality of life. It’s not easy to get these poor people interested in land reform and communist principles when they can have to put every ounce of energy into keeping alive.
…now I knew yet another reason why everyone in the heart of rural Bengal went to sleep so early. When you worked in the fields from six in the morning to four in the afternoon, the tiredness resulting from it stunned you into silence. You went from being a human, animated by a mind and spirit and consciousness at the beginning of the day to a machine without a soul at the end of those ten hours, moving your arms and legs and mouth because you felt some switch hadn’t been turned off. There it was, and the machine was dead, or just a stopped machine.
Mukherjee provides Supratik with numerous other flashes of insight as a counter to his overall naivety and real lack of understanding of how powerless he and his intellectual bourgeois ‘comrades’ are against the forces of officialdom. Just as as his grandparents don’t see what goes on under their noses within their house, he doesn’t comprehend what is really happening in society.
This is an ambitious book which nicely blends domestic drama and political turmoil, and humour with pathos. Rose Tremain summed it up perfectly for me:
Neel Mukherjee has written an outstanding novel: compelling, compassionate and complex, vivid, musical and fierce.
This is surely a contender for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
The Lives of Others was ublished in UK by Chatto & Windus on May 22. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.
There are some books that begin with a definite punch even if they are not always of the Hitchcock idea of a brick-through-the-window start to films. In White Tiger by Aravind Adiga the punch isn’t delivered by an event but through a narrator’s voice that is so direct and immediate, that it demands attention.
We don’t know who this narrator is yet other than he calls himself ‘the White Tiger’ and classes himself as one of India’s successful entreprenneurs. But he clearly thinks he’s important enough to write letters to the Premier of China advising him what to expect when he pays a State visit to Bangalore. His letters are filled with scornful comments about the reality of life in India – a side to the country he believes the Premier will never see. For this narrator not only considers himself a great man just as much as the premier is, but the only person the Premier can trust to tell the truth. India’s most sacred river, the Ganges, is one of the myths he smashes.
One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing. Now you have heard the Ganga called the river of emancipation ……our prime minister will no doubt describe it to you that way and urge yuo to take a dip in it.
No! – Mr Jiaboa, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion and seven different kinds of industrial acids.
Gradually, we learn that this outspoken critique of his mother country is Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw wallah born in The Darkness, the poorest and most deprived part of India. Halwai gets an escape route into the other India, the India of Lightness, when he manages to get a job as a driver for Mr Ashok, the son of a wealthy landlord.
Through this outspoken, murderous protagonist, Aravind Adiga shows us the underbelly of India and the reality of its powerhouse economy of the early 21st century. Pouting models from the west may adorn the facades of new gleaming glass shopping malls but around the corner, are the slums where people live under meagre tarpaulin roofs. Through Balram’s eyes we learn of the servant class of Delhi who live in rotting basements below the glass apartment blocks that are home to their employers. He tells how Ashok’s family bribe government ministers, and how national elections are rigged.
Balram realises that people like him are trapped by the situation of their birth and the chains of family, unable to break out of the ‘Rooster Coop’ even when they know they will die if they don’t:
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.”
Balram realises he has to take destiny in his own hands. His employer is liberal and freely expresses his guilt at his driver’s treatment but when his fine words never come to anything, Balram decides to kill him, steal his money and then go on the run.
The murder isn’t a surprise however because within 12 pages of the book, Balram has told us he is a wanted man so the momentum for the plot doesn’t turn on that surprise or even whether he will be tracked down by police and punished. The momentum really comes from the force with which Adiga’s protagonist tells his story and pricks the bubble of India’s status as a world power. Hardly surprising that this debut novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, was not well received in India. The Hindu, one of the country’s leading English language newspapers, said it was a ‘ curiously inauthentic’ portrait of the country written by an outsider for outsiders – an “India for Dummies.”
Maybe no-one likes the country of their birth and the country they are proud of, to be held up for scrutiny in this way so those reactions are understandable. More of an issue for me was that the book seemed to lose its way in the final stages, about the time when Balram commits the murder – we already know it’s coming so it had the sense of inevitability. Having told us how the killing is executed Adiga seemed to be in a great hurry to get to the last page as if he’d had enough of this character. So it felt a rushed and somewhat predictable ending which was such a shame for a book I’d thoroughly enjoyed up until then.