Book review: The White Tiger – Arvind Adiga

Cover of "The White Tiger: A Novel"
Cover of The White Tiger: A Novel

Munna, aka Balram Halwai, the narrator and main character of Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, narrates the story of his journey from a village in the Darkness to becoming an entrepreneur in the Light.

Starting out as a cleaning boy in a small tea shop in his village Laxmangarh, Munna moved to the city of Dhanbad with his elder brother to become a cleaner at a bigger tea shop. But his yearning for a uniform and a better life attracted him to the drivers that he saw at the tea shop, and he convinced his family to let him learn how to drive. By a strange quirk of fate, he soon gained employment with Mongoose, the son of a landlord (Stork) from his village. Learning the ways and means of the house, his cunning and intelligence enabled him to move with Stork’s younger, US returned son to Delhi, the city that eventually corrupted him. Detailing the sequence of events that led him to murder his master and flee to Bangalore, Balram narrates his life story in the form of seven letters to the Chinese Prime Minister who is visiting India shortly, in order to acquaint him with the “real India.”

I have to admit that I approached this book with a great deal of skepticism, which is why I read it this late! (It won the Booker in 2008.) I typically do not like Indian authors (chicklit authors aren’t included in this discussion), as they seem to write solely for a Western audience, depicting India as a completely backward country filled with murderers and marauders, and Indians as either backward, narrow minded people or people who fawn over white skin and want nothing more than to ape Westerners (think Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss). But there are some, like Suketu Mehta, whose hard-hitting Millenium City took a brutal and honest look at the underbelly of Mumbai; Jhumpa Lahiri, who beautifully evoked the pathos and stories of Bengalis living abroad in Unaccustomed Earth; and Chetan Bhagat, whose books have mass appeal because he can connect to readers, young and old alike. (His 2 States took an honest look at the difficulties that youngsters face if they want to marry outside their caste.) I add to this list of believable authors Arvind Adiga.

Dharavi slums, Mumbai
(image via Wikipedia)

Representing India as two Indias, the Darkness and Light, Adiga takes a dig at the “India Shining” campaign launched by the BJP. The Darkness represents rural India, where poverty and illiteracy and feudalism still exist, the Light refers to the metros and fast-growing Tier I and II cities, which were the focus of the India Shining campaign. The Great Socialist, the political party that features in the novel, takes a dig at Mayawati, who rose to power in order to empower Dalits, but since then has only lined her pocket with cold hard cash. Adiga’s character sketch of Munna could fit almost any migrant worker, the so-called floating population that comes into big cities in search of work and a way out of their grinding poverty. His eventual corruption and betrayal of his master is a reflection of the corruption we see all around us.

Though he does focus on poverty and illetracy, on the great divide between rich and poor, this is a novel that is believable because India still remains a land of contradictions. The gaps have narrowed, but the economic and social divide remain.

All-in-all, it’s an interesting read, and I’d gladly recommend it to anyone.

Have you read the book? What do you think about it?

The Butterfly Effect by Andy Andrews

Have you ever wondered why you’re here? If your life has any significance, if it matters?

Andy Andrews, dubbed one of the most influential people in America by The New York Times, a best-selling novelist and corporate speaker, is here to tell you that it does.

“Every single thing you do matters…You have within you the power to change the world.”

This gift book is beautifully illustrated; I spent the first few minutes just leafing through the pages, looking at the images, the layout and the typography — lovely! Then, I curled up to read it.

The book connects random, every day actions of common people and the uncommon effect those actions have at a later stage, effects that impact us to this day. For e.g., Andrews traces back Norman Borlaug’s achievement of hybridizing high-yield, disease-resistant corn and wheat for arid climates to…Henry Wallace…no, George Washington…no…Andrews lists random, everyday actions of normal people who made Borlaug’s achievement possible. And this isn’t the only example in the book.

It’s a quick read, but The Butterfly Effect makes you to stop and think; you’re unlikely to forget the message of this lil book in a hurry.

I received this book from the the book review bloggers program.

Book review: New Moon (and Twilight)

I had heard a lot about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, and so while browsing around at the bookstore some months ago, I picked up the entire series. It’s a compulsive thing — if I have one book that is part of a series, I need to have them all!

The first book — Twilight — didn’t impress me much. The writing seemed labored and the style and grammar (I’m an editor, what did you expect?!) left much to be desired. But somewhere along the way, I started to enjoy the story — a bit. I like witches and wizards (think Harry Potter) and vampires (think The Historian and Bram Stroker’s Dracula), and Myer’s take on the latter was interesting. They sparkle in the sun instead of burn, have strong piercing teeth not fangs, can drink both animal as well as human blood, and are indestructible and lightning fast. And one of them falls in love with one of us! Interesting!

But since the style of writing left a lot to desire, the rest of the books were languishing on my bookshelf. That is, until I finished reading Ben Okri’s Starbook (very interesting, but rather heavy!) and wanted some light reading next. While going over my stash of unread books, I came across New Moon, the second novel in the Twilight series, and thought, why not?

This one hooked me from page 1, and I finished reading it in two days flat. This doesn’t mean that New Moon was much better than Twilight; it just means that I’ve read some pretty heavy fiction these last two months (see my Reading list) and needed a really, really light read!

The plot (spoiler alert!), with its twists and turns and the introduction of warewolves, had me hooked to the book, as I raced to find out what would happen next.

On Bella’s 18th birthday, Edward and his family throw her a birthday party, where, clumsy as she is, she gets a paper cut. This drives Edward’s brother Jasper out of control, but Edward saves her. To protect her, Edward ends their relationship and the Cullens move away from Forks. This leaves Bella heart-broken, though she goes through the motions in a “zombie-like” state for the sake of her father. That is, until she realizes that thrill-seeking activities allow her to “hear” Edward’s voice in her head. That’s when she purchases two old motorcycles and renews her friendship with Jacob Black, whose sunny disposition eases her pain over losing Edward.

But things aren’t that straightforward, as Jacob is in love with her, and Bella isn’t sure if it will be fair on her part to reciprocate those feelings. She also learns that Jacob and some of the other Quileute tribe members are warewolves, arch enemies of vampires. They protect her from Laurent and also Victoria, who is seeking revenge for her mate James, whom the Cullens killed in Twilight.

There’s still another twist in the plot — through a series of miscommunications, Edward believes that Bella has killed herself. Distraught, he goes to Volterra, Italy, to provoke the Volturi, vampire royalty, who are capable of killing him if he exposes himself as a vampire in their city. Alice (Edward’s sister, who can see the future) and Bella race to Italy to try to save Edward; of course, they arrive just in time to stop him from stepping out into the sun, where his skin would shimmer like a thousand diamonds. The Volturi don’t let them off easily, though. They think that Bella, a human, knows too much about vampires and must be killed or transformed into one herself. Using her gift of foresight, Alice convinces the Volturi that Bella will turn into one of them, and the trio returns to Forks, where Edward and Bella resume their relationship, but not before Bella convinces the Cullens to turn her into one of them after she graduates. And of course, with the return of Edward, Jacob exits Bella’s life, though she’s determined to “win her best friend back.”

The book did drag a bit in the middle, but it was pretty fast paced nonetheless. I also found the writing style much better than the first novel, plus I liked the fact that Myer didn’t dwell overtly on Bella’s clumsiness and Edward’s awesomeness. That was a real pain in Twilight, which was very Mills n Boon-ish. The introduction of warewolves kept the novel interesting, and now I’m intrigued to find out if Myers developed the dynamics between vampires and warewolves in the other two novels.

I’m not sure I would recommend the series to my friends; plus this really isn’t the kind of fiction I generally enjoy. I guess if you’re a teen or pre-teen you’ll like the book. If you want a light read, you just might enjoy New Moon.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei

Set in Nigeria, the novel traces the story of Kambili and Jaja, children of a rich, fanatical and oppressive Catholic patriarch Eugene Achike, presenting a moving picture of the effect of domestic violence on children; of religious fanaticism; of the political unrest in Nigeria and the privations and trials faced by Nigerians.

Eugene is a self-made Big Man. Brought up by Christian missionaries, he is a deeply religious, fanatical Catholic, who “punishes” his family for the slightest trespass against God, for not meeting his exacting standards or for disobeying him in any way. So deep is his fanaticism that he even ignores his own father, who is a “heathen,” and tells his children to “not eat in that heathen’s house.”

It isn’t until a military coup in Nigeria forces the children to live with their Aunt Ifeoma, where the laugher and conversations flow feely, that Kambili and Jaja begin to acknowledge the silence, oppression and violence that has marred their life so far. While Jaja is quick to adapt and acknowledge the past, it takes Kambili more time to get the “bubbles in her throat” to part and allow the words to flow out. It is at her aunt’s house that she meets her grandfather for an extended period, and learns that he is not a “heathen” but a “traditionalist,” described through a beautiful passage describing his daily morning prayer to the ancestors.

At her aunt’s house in Nuskka, she meets Father Amadi, a local priest who, unlike the priest back home Father Benedict, is a more easy-going and friendly, who sees nothing wrong in breaking into Igbo songs in the middle of rosary, and who takes an easier and more relaxed view of religion. This is her first taste of kindness from a grown man, and she transfers all her repressed love onto him.

The idyll of an escape from the oppressive atmosphere in Enugu is shattered when her aunt decides to leave for America and Father Amadi is transferred to Germany…

This novel is a beautiful coming of age story of 15-year old Kambili, a commentary on the political situation in Nigeria and a treatise on religious oppression.

I particularly enjoyed it because it gave me a peek into a new culture; exposed me to words that I had never heard before, such as umu m (my children), ke kwanu (how are you/how was your day?), nwunye m )mt wife); and introduced new smells, like that of frying plantains and bleaching palm oil. Though Adichie isn’t the first African author I’ve read, hers is the first book I’ve truly enjoyed. It most certainly is a must-read.

Life mirroring art

I find it hard to sleep without reading these days. It’s probably got something to do with the amount of time I spend staring at my computer. My eyes rebel against the brightness and glare of the screen, demand some rest on good, old-fashioned paper.

I was re-reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. It’s funny how some parts of that book that did not seem relevant to my life the last time I read it have suddenly become relevant now. That’s the beauty of a well-written, meaningful book.

One passage that caught my eye and lingered in my head is from one of her first few journal entries:

I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting and tormented self.

That is an eloquent expression of how things stand with me these days. I’m frazzled, irritated, agitated, and desperately need some space.

Mad about books

On the last day of April, the month in which I have my birthday, instead of doing some soul searching, I thought it would be more fun to do some “product searching.” Do I hear you ask what that is? It’s just me taking stock of where I spent my hard earned rupees this month! Wanna know what I went crazy buying? Like the title of this post didn’t give it away! BOOKS!!

I bought myself a total of 6 books this month! I’ve never bought more than 2 or 3 from the bookstore, unless I was picking them up on deep discounts, and then I’ve picked up like up to 12 books in one shot! But…we’re not getting into my crazy book-buying habits right now, okay? So, here’s the list of books, and a brief synopis of each!

The first two were thanks to my co-workers, who gifted me a Rs. 1,000 gift voucher to knock myself silly in Landmark! I picked up

The God of Spring by Arabella Edge

When the French painter Théodore Géricault died in 1824 at the age of thirty-three, he was mourned as one of the most promising artists of his generation. He was also one of the most controversial, endowed with a character marked by Byronic paradoxes. It was the stinging aftermath of an illicit affair with his beautiful young aunt that propelled Géricault into the artistic obsession that would yield his masterwork, The Raft of the Medusa. The God of Spring opens in Paris in 1818, as the upheavals of the French Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration come to fruition in the aftermath of a naval disaster caused by criminal negligence and tinged with political scandal. Mesmerized by the tales of betrayal, madness, murder, and cannibalism aboard the life raft of the scuttled French frigate Medusa, Géricault takes as his muses two of its survivors. His canvas pits man against nature, its dominant image a doomed sailor futilely raising his hand toward the clouds and salvation.

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt.

From the moment Louisa first catches sight of the strange man who occupies a forbidden room on the thirty-third floor, she is determined to befriend him.Unbeknownst to Louisa, he is Nikola Tesla—inventor of AC electricity and wireless communication—and he is living out his last days at the Hotel New Yorker.Winning his attention through a shared love of pigeons, she eventually uncovers the story of Tesla’s life as a Serbian immigrant and a visionary genius: as a boy he built engines powered by June bugs, as a man he dreamed of pulling electricity from the sky.The mystery deepens when Louisa reunites with an enigmatic former classmate and faces the loss of her father as he attempts to travel to the past to meet up with his beloved late wife. Before the week is out, Louisa must come to terms with her own understanding of love, death, and the power of invention.

The other four books were picked up last week, when I was depressed and needed some retail therepy!

Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble

How do you cope in a world without your mother? When Barbara realizes time is running out, she writes letters to her four daughters, aware that they’ll be facing the trials and triumphs of life without her at their side. But how can she leave them when they still have so much growing up to do?

Take Lisa, in her midthirties but incapable of making a commitment; or Jennifer, trapped in a stale marriage and buttoned up so tight she could burst. Twentysomething Amanda, the traveler, has always distanced herself from the rest of the family; and then there’s Hannah, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood about to be parted from the mother she adores. But by drawing on the wisdom in Barbara’s letters, the girls might just find a way to cope with their loss. And in coming to terms with their bereavement, can they also set themselves free to enjoy their lives with all the passion and love each deserves?

The Empire of the Indus From Tibet to Pakistan – The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

One of the largest rivers in the world, the Indus rises in the Tibetan mountains, flows west across northern India and south through Pakistan. For millennia it has been worshipped as a God; for centuries used as a tool of imperial expansion; today it is the cement of Pakistans fractious union. Five thousand years ago, a string of sophisticated cities grew and traded on its banks. In the ruins of these elaborate metropolises, Sanskrit-speaking nomads explored the river, extolling its virtues in Indias most ancient text, the Rig-Veda. During the past two thousand years a series of invaders Alexander the Great, Afghan Sultans, the British Raj made conquering the Indus valley their quixotic mission. For the people of the river, meanwhile, the Indus valley became a nodal point on the Silk Road, a centre of Sufi pilgrimage and the birthplace of Sikhism. Empires of the Indus follows the river upstream and back in time, taking the reader on a voyage through two thousand miles of geography and more than five millennia of history redolent with contemporary importance.

Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber

More amazing than any work of fiction, yet true in every word, it swept to the top of the bestseller lists and riveted the consciousness of the world. It’s the story of a survivor of terrifying childhood abuse, victim of sudden and mystifying blackouts, and the first case of multiple personality ever to be psychoanalyzed. You’re about to meet Sybil-and the sixteen selves to whom she played host, both women and men, each with a different personality, speech pattern, and even personal appearance. You’ll experience the strangeness and fascination of one woman’s rare affliction-and travel with her on her long, ultimately triumphant journey back to wholeness.

The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho

A profound meditation on personal power and innocent dreams that are manipulated or undone by success, The Winner Stands Alone is set in the exciting worlds of fashion and cinema. Taking place over the course of twenty-four hours during the Cannes Film Festival, it is the story of Igor, a successful, driven Russian entrepreneur who will go to the darkest lengths to reclaim a lost love—his ex-wife, Ewa. Believing that his life with Ewa was divinely ordained, Igor once told her that he would destroy whole worlds to get her back. The conflict between an individual evil force and society emerges, and as the novel unfolds, morality is derailed.

Apart from books, I got myself a really cool pair of gladiators. I’ve been on the lookout for a decent pair since a while now, and finally found a really neat pair at my favorite shoe shop — D&A! Don’t have a picture to post yet, but when I do, I’ll be sure to add it here!

And I almost bought Bulgari’s Jasmine Noire. It’s EXPENSIVE, and I totally love the smell! It lasts really long too, but it wears very close to the skin once the top notes fade. I had to press my nose to my skin until I could smell it! Awesome smell? Yes! Worth the money? Nah!

Slumdog millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire has raised the hackles of a vast section of the Indian society, with a large section of population up in arms at the portrayal of Indian slums in the movie, slamming director Danny Boyle’s realistic cinema saying “this isn’t a representation of true India.”

Well then, what is? It certainly is NOT Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. Nor is it Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger. Both of these writers have written about India for Western audiences. Desai paints first-time Indian visitors to foreign shores as poor desis who cannot wrap their heads around the biting London cold, nor use a western loo, nor adapt to their food. Her portrayal of middle class residents in India isn’t flattering either. In her world, Indians who enjoy English classical music, read English books, and enjoy continental food; whose interaction with the “slumdogs” is limited to their daily chats with their maids and watchman, are mere wannabes, who only want to ape the goras and live in a world totally detached from the realities of their poorer brethren.

Slumdog Millionaire, however, has none of those pretentions. All Indians are not portrayed as mere wannabes or totally devoid of adjustment skills. Instead, Boyle focuses on the journey of two slum children who lose their mother in the Hindu-Muslim riots that gripped Bombay. The movie then follows their trials and triumphs, as they move from one odd job to the next, escape a scheming “orphanage” owner who picks up street kids and forces them to beg, to selling odds and ends on trains, and finally landing up in Agra, where, through their fast-thinking and innocent looks, they manage to make enough money to live a comfortable life. Until, of course, they return to Bombay, where their paths diverge. One brother joins an underworld don; the other becomes an office boy at a BPO company, and through sheer luck, participates in a TV reality show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. His life, which we see in flashback through the movie, helps him answer all the questions on the show, and he walks away with a cool million bucks to his name.

In essence, it is a simple story of grit, determination and sheer luck — inspirational, actually. But the reason for it cooking up a hornet’s nest is because of Boyle’s authentic portrayal of slum life — the underbelly of India. It is this that is making us cringe.

True, there have been other Bollywood movies that have shown protagonists rising from the slum to become famous or notorious, depending on the movie —be it Satya, or Rangeela — but we didn’t protest against these movies because they didn’t become an international phenomenon. Nor did they show slums like Boyle did. Their slums were always glossed over; more fantasy than reality. And reality sure bites!

Yes, there is more to India than the Dharavi slums portrayed in Boyle’s movie. But then, Boyle did not portray Slumdog as the “definitive Indian movie.” He chose to tell an inspiring story, and he chose to make realistic cinema. And since that realistic cinema involved a rather unpleasant look at the slums, we just couldn’t digest it.

We could digest Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, though. His book was hailed as the best book on Bombay. And what did his book focus on? The Dharavi slums — on Hindus who burnt Muslims during the riots and the tales of both Hindus and Muslims; of how the riot changed the landscape of Dharavi, leading to a palpable divide between Hindus and Muslims; and on the life of Bombay bar girls. His visits to the slums were interspersed with visits to Hindi movie director Vidu Vinod Chopra’s house, during the time he was preparing for the shooting of Mission Kashmir. A slim section at the end was a commentary on the rich and famous giving up their riches to take sanyas. If his novel were a movie, it would be far, far more graphic than Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

But, there lies the irony. Mehta’s book was hailed as an exceptional piece of writing, maybe because the Pulitzer Prize and Kiriyama Prize are not as hyped, well-known and universally loved as the Oscars and Bafta in India. Boyle’s movie, though, has become a runaway hit, and what’s more, it’s sweeping of all the awards ceremonies. What this section of Indians cannot stand is the fact that the rest of the world is looking at India’s underbelly, and applauding a foreigner — a Britisher no less —- for portraying the abject poverty in which a vast majority of Indians still live, instead of catering to the middle class Indian’s concept of “India shining.”