Saturday, January 17, 2009

Troubled by a book

The White Tiger

This award winner has not been able to rustle up enthusiasm amongst the literati or the critics. I read the book for discussion in a book club, and had to do some speed reading to meet the deadline.

The two big things which I noticed immediately: First, for a Booker award this book reads easy. Amongst the recent winners this is by far the easiest book to read. The narrative is smooth, the storyline captivating and the message apparently simple.

Secondly I am amazed at the authenticity of Delhi life portrayed by the author. For a person who is not a Delhiwallah, the ability to latch on to the nuances of Delhi life is astonishing. A couple of personal instances which mirror the ones in the book are:

I have personally witnessed an incident in which a minor boy driving car causes an accident, and his driver, arriving at the scene some 15 minutes later, promptly takes on the burden of guilt. No kidding- this happened in my colony.

The name of the roads in Delhi keep on changing as Lutyen’s Delhi explodes like a monster, and the politicians replace British name with today’s, mostly Europeon, no American, relevant political personalities. As any Delhiwallah knows, the old name lingers on, and only a tourist will use the newly christened monikers.

The inability of Delhi bureaucrats to keep to a simple logic when numbering streets and blocks is evident. I live on Road No 56, and Road No 55 is half a mile away in an unexpected direction.

Aravind has spent many an observational evening in Delhi, and it shows.

I am surprised that book has left many Delhiwallahs untouched. Have we become immune to the poverty and the social injustice, which is evident everywhere? Or is it that Aravind drags these things out of the sewers , much to the discomfort of the middle class literature reading audience who can dish out Rs. 395 for this book? The apathy of the not so unfortunate people is a telling commentary on our times. This begs the question: Are the middle class, for all their protestations, at all interested in social justice? As we climb up the social and wealth ladder, are we capable of looking back and committing to helping the less fortunate? Do we think that if we contribute a measly amount to some fashionable charity or, donate some money at a temple, it will be good enough for our conscious? Are we bothered by our conscious at all?

Aravind leaves nothing to imagination. His story is straight from the guts, painfully visceral, horrifically detailed, and prods the reader’s sleepy conscious wide awake. The incidents he relates in the book, are unfortunately, all too real. This is not Bollywood’s glamorised poverty, but a in your face, take it or puke kind, which is very uncomfortable to read. One needs to keep an arm’s distance to not get upset with the portrayal of the characters.

The writing style leaves much to be desired. It is a straight journalistic verbiage, with attention to detail and authenticity, but with little creativity. Salman Rushdie would be justifiably upset that his book , The Enchantress of Florence, with all its shortcomings, did not even make it to the Booker short list. His is much better crafted book than The White Tiger. The only reason I see this book as a winner is its ability to keep one constantly uncomfortable with the contradictions of a pluralistic society, and the price one pays to climb the ladder in a developing economy.


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