Monday, October 20, 2008

The White Tiger

By Aravinda Adiga

Adiga’s debut novel has been acclaimed as the one that questions the India Shining story, the one that puts paid to the hype of the emerging super power. It describes an India that has been left behind in the New India dream of the middle classes. In a state that is obviously Bihar, Adiga creates a character called Balram Halwai and gives him a voice. It is a voice that is unlike any that we have seen so far in English Indian fiction – brutal, simmering with obvious anger, yet laced through with sardonic dark humour. Balram Halwai is a man who has come up from the depths of grinding poverty to become one of New India’s stories of successful entrepreneurship. And in a series of letters he writes to the Chinese Premier on a state visit to India (a devilish ploy by Adiga, given our obsession with comparisons with China), he describes the route he takes to get where he is.

Balram is born Munna (there are so many children in his joint family in Laxmangarh, the elders forget to name him and it is left to a school teacher to do so), the son of a rikshaw-puller. As in the case of all the men in his family, he is forced to drop out of school and work in a tea shop when one of his sisters needs the money for her marriage. But Balram is no ordinary boy – he is canny, intelligent and has the street-smartness to figure a way out of the misery of the tea-shop worker. He takes driving lessons and becomes the local landlord’s driver. And thus begins his life of servitude to the landlord and his family. For a driver is not just a driver in the Indian household – he is the cook, if there isn’t one, a masseuse and a general man Friday. For a few thousand rupees, Balram pledges his undying allegiance to his master’s family. When Ashok, the America-returned son of the master moves to Delhi, Balram moves with him as his driver. For the ‘sponge’ as Balram calls himself, the move is most fortuitous. For it is here that the India of Light and the India of Darkness collide. This is where migrants from the Darkness, like Balram, meet the shining new malls and glass-towered suburbs of Light. This is where they see the true nature of their servitude. And this is where Balram acts out the most decisive chapter in his route to entrepreneurship – the killing of his master.

For most middle class Indians, this is an uncomfortable book. We know there is something wrong in a world where the price of a dress or a meal in a restaurant is as much as the salary you pay your driver. Adiga brings home to us truths that we’d much rather not see – the divide between the two Indias, the geographic inequality of progress, the corruption that vitiates our democracy. Yet strangely enough, it is not a bleak book. Balram Halwai becomes an entrepreneur, creating jobs and bringing prosperity to more people like him. The sheer venality of the route he employs and the absence of any remorse might make us squirm. Yet, he does manage to escape the fate he was born to, becoming a success in spite of the system. It’s a bit like watching Guru and the Ambani story. There might not be murder in that success story, but there sure was corruption.

Adiga’s book is a compulsive and riveting read. His Balram Halwai is a character that is sure to remain in the reader’s mind for a while, like the policeman Khatekar in Sacred Games and the bar girls in Maximum City. As I finished reading the book, the Booker announced Adiga as the winner. Does The White Tiger feature among my favourite Booker winners? No. Adiga is no Salman Rushdie. Nor does he write as beautifully as Arundhati Roy. But he tells a topical story in a compelling almost un-put-downable manner. It definitely is one of the better books to come out of the Indian fiction scene in the past few years.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Road Trip II

Day 4: Mangalore to Gokarna. Km: 240 km

We turn north to return. An uneventful drive covering territory we have already seen. The roads are as bad. The scenery as pretty. We reach Gokarna and look around at the resorts available. The prettiest one Swa Swara is out of bounds for us – they need a minimum of 7 nights stay! One day, when I am retired and have all the time in the world, I tell myself. So we settle for second best. Which is not bad except for the 10 minute walk to the beach! Gokarna is a small temple town that still has not seen an influx of tourism. It has some 3 beaches, the best known of which is Om beach (named so because of its shape). We attempt a short foray to the seaside to see Om Beach. It is a bit crowded – mostly Indians and some foreigners. We have little time before the sun sets and we promise ourselves a morning at the beach tomorrow.

Day 5: Gokarna to Goa. Km: 130 km

Today we attempt an early morning excursion to another beach – Kudle. It is smaller, but we feel prettier. It is a bit of a trek getting there. When we do get there, there is no one on the beach except a dog bathing in the sea. We sit around, soaking in the isolation and quiet. And when the sun comes out in full force, we head back to the hotel. The hills are close by and the views from up there are awesome. There is a stretch of road that you drive through on the way to the beaches that has possibly one of the best views I have seen anywhere. The beaches by themselves are a bit rocky and for anyone used to the Goan shack scene, quite lonesome.

We leave Gokarna mid morning and are in Aguada after a Goan lunch by 3 pm.

Day 5, 6, 7: Goa!

We finally get to do a Goa holiday together. We do the normal things people do in Goa – have beer on the beach (Anjuna, this time), climb Chapora fort in Vagator and drink in the exquisite views, go para sailing, watch the dolphins, lie around in the water, eat some glorious food (smoked kingfish and wine!) and generally chill (not normally a word we associate with vacations!). Food, drink and the sea – an almost unbeatable combination to unwind.

The season is not yet fully on. So the flea markets are not open and some beach-side shacks are not either. A restaurant owner tells us he expects a slow down in the influx of tourists (the foreign ones are what he is worried about) this year. It is only to be expected, I suppose with the world economy the way it is. But we do not see any shortage of firangs, especially at Anjuna. At some restaurants, we are the only Indians around! I am always amazed at the utter un-selfconsciousness of the white man with respect to his body. Flabby almost-naked white bodies (and some really well-toned ones, I must admit) on the beaches is a common sight that attracts little attention from anyone.

Aguada is nice luxury to relax in. It is easy to get used to the pampering. But I still cannot give in to the indulgence of a day at the spa (though it is very tempting)

Day 8: Goa to Mumbai. Km: 560 km

Before you know it, 3 days have flown past and it is time to head back. We reach the smog and traffic jams of Mumbai by late evening. And look back at a holiday that is quite different from any we have done before. Being able to drive around and do your own thing, go where you want to go when you want to, not bound by strict itineraries – this anniversary gift to ourselves has been probably worth all the hydrocarbons we released into the atmosphere.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Road Trip I

A vacation, a car and a road. With as little planning as is possible for a couple of itinerary-pinned-down -to-the-last-minute type of travelers. The direction was more or less decided by the toss of a coin (or so we would like to believe) –the South. Safer, friendlier, more familiar.

Day 1: Bombay to Goa. Km: 554
Good roads, some traffic and lots of greenery. The ghats after the rains are a sight for sore city-weary eyes. But it’s been a long hard drive with just meal and photography stops. We get to see the hills but very little of the sea! Wasn’t this supposed to be a coastal trip?
I am cranky after 12 straight hours on the road. Keeping an eye on an accelerator-happy driver with his car (that he calls -with delusions of grandeur - ‘the beast’, if you please!) is as much hard work as driving. The hotel we are using as a pit stop isn’t helping – the aircon goes wonky and we are forced to shift rooms in the middle of the night. Maybe, unplanned trips aren’t our thing.

Day 2: Goa to Mangalore. Km: 420
The drive is prettier. And we get to see much more of the sea. But the roads are bad, bad, bad in Karnataka. The beast is an unhappy animal. We reach Mangalore in about 9 hours, longer than would have been required if the roads had been good. Karwar on the way is a very pretty beach. The clean sand and the blue shimmering in the afternoon sun – ah! There is a naval base called Sea Bird being built. So a long stretch of coast is completely walled off and motorists are asked not to stop. But for people looking for that perfect beach, Karwar has enough to offer.
Of course there are also the incredible backwaters and rivers that we cross over innumerable bridges. Kerala sure has cornered credit for this kind of beauty. Karnataka can and should try to catch up.
Getting into Mangalore is a bit of a nightmare though. Roads are dug up, flyovers are being built, the standard Indian cityscape. But dinner is a mix of Mangalorean and Mallu. Appam and stew, Kerala Parotta and Mangalorean chicken curry - God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world!

Day 3: Mangalore to Bekal Fort and back. Km: Approx 140
Finally, a relaxed day! We cross over the 3rd state border in as many days. Suddenly signs are in familiar language and we can talk to the locals! The Kerala roads are better; only just, though. North Kerala is not a place I am familiar with. It’s Muslim country and burkhas and mosques abound. There are burqa boutiques(!!) and Gulf money is very visible – those brightly coloured buildings in the midst of beautiful countryside. Advani is coming visiting and there are lorry-loads of BJP fans around – slightly tense I thought. We pass Kasargod and go on to Bekal Fort.
I love forts and this is the highlight of my trip so far. As forts in India go, it’s well preserved and maintained. It’s got beautiful views of the sea as it juts out into it. Seems a sweet place – not one where pitched battles have been fought. Its shadowy nooks give ample privacy for young couples – and there are a few even on this hot and muggy day.
And the mandatory Malabari beef fry and chicken curry kind of completed the niceness of the day. I am possibly getting the hang of a road trip after all.