Posts Tagged ‘indian’

Imagine a city where you can tell a person’s social position, what language they speak and their background just by looking at them. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head tells us that Shillong, in India’s north east, is such a place:

Firdaus knew that the woman waving to her from the window of the beauty parlour, her friend Sharon, was a quarter British, a quarter Assamese of the tea-planter variety, and half Khasi.

Firdaus is an outsider, a teacher at the Loreto Convent. She has no Khasi blood, unlike the majority of Shillong’s inhabitants – she is a dkhar, an outsider, a ‘permanent guest of the hills-people’. Four years into her PhD, and she still thinks of ‘English literature as a vast grey 19th century amorphousness’. Her supervisor, Dr Thakur, is as scattershot and adamant with his advice as Thor on a bad day, and her thesis topic is sadly undercooked: ‘Something like the values of characters like Elizabeth Bennet … how she manages to get around … prudishness and arrogance and that sort of thing.’

Another local, Aman Moondy, is preparing to sit the Civil Services exam. It’s his second attempt; having been assured by his philosophy teachers that there was no future in that ancient art of knowledge, the exam seems like the only way out of Shillong. What he really loves is music – Aman’s band, The ProtoDreamers, imagine themselves as Pink Floyd and as the trigger for a new creative scene.

This part of India bears the marks of its neighbours – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. Chinese restaurants jostle for space among the kwai (betel nut) sellers and aloo-wallahs. But this doesn’t mean that its inhabitants attend harmoniously to life and each other. Instead, Firdaus and Aman are uncertain of their welcome. For dkhar, violence can bloom like a terrible flower: see a street vendor pummelled for fun by Khasi youths.

Eight-year-old Sophie feels alienated, too. Not only from the people in the Ladybird books she has read (‘Jane, will you help Mummy bake a cake?’), but also from her parents. In fact, she thinks that she’s adopted – how else can she become Khasi, like the others?

Anjum Hasan was born in Shillong. She writes it as a loose tangle waiting to be tightened – racially motivated acts span the gamut from merely rebarbative to fatal. Lunatic in My Head is an immersive way of discovering a part of India we know so little about.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)

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In Laxmangarh, a boy is born. There’s definitely no big star in the sky on that night, showing people where to go: his parents don’t give him a name, nor remember his birthday. He’s called munna, or ‘boy’, for the first years of his life. Eventually, the government bestows these missing birthrights upon him, but the flavour of their choices is decidedly off. His new name, Balram, is the name of the god Krishna’s sidekick: one stir of the cement settling the boy’s inheritance of servitude. Balram’s birthday is decided on election day since the government’s corrupt methods requires another 18-year-old voter. Welcome to the Darkness of India.

Holy nuts, I enjoyed reading this book. The internet must be full of information about it, so I won’t bore you with more plot details or anything like that. It definitely deserves a wide readership: it was very engaging, and Adiga is a skilled writer who has created a fresh, light voice capable of discussing anything from fear of lizards to the insane magnitude of the socio-economic gap between India’s rich and poor.

The White Tiger proffers plenty of exquisitely appalling moments illustrating this repugnant power differential. One of these is the scene a few days after a drunken driving spree by Balram’s master’s wife, Pinky, results in the death of a young boy. The family which Balram serves frames him for the crime. It turns out that there were no witnesses, so the death gets buried by the police, but Balram is not informed that he is off the hook:

The Mongoose and Mr Ashok were sitting in front of a TV screen, playing a computer game together.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Pinky Madam came out. She had no makeup on, and her face was a mess – black skin under her eyes, lines on her forehead. The moment she saw me, she got excited.
‘Have you people told the driver?’
The Stork said nothing. Mr Ashok and the Mongoose kept playing the game. ‘Has no one told
him? What a fucking joke! He’s the one who was going to go to jail!’
Mr Ashok said, ‘I suppose we should tell him.’ He looked at his brother, who kept his eyes on the TV screen.

But just as Balram was a recusant escapee from the prison of poverty, I never gave in completely to the book’s charm. I guess I’m a slightly captious reader, because, as laid out above, there’s plenty to like about The White Tiger. Balram has just enough emotional depth to make him an amiable narrator, but not much more. Like The Life of Pi, my least favourite Booker winner I’ve read so far, The White Tiger recounts traumatic events, but in the denouement is almost too flippant about what went before. Balram is certainly disconcerted by the murder he’s committed: ‘I am not a politician or a parliamentarian. Not one of those extraordinary men who can kill and move on, as if nothing had happened. It took me four weeks in Bangalore to calm my nerves.’ But what he did in those four weeks, you’re going to have to guess. I don’t think Balram should necessarily have been more apparently wracked. It just meant that I didn’t get so close to him. But a greater meaning is served by this absence of emotional turmoil: whether you are from the Darkness or the Light, India will bring out the brutality in you.

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A review of The God of Small Things in the style of the same novel:

When historical circumstances of intricate inevitability converge upon Small Places like Ayemenem, Bad Things Happen.

Circumstances include things like:
a) Caste Systems
b) Family Pride
c) Marxist Politics
d) Oppressed Female Sex-shoo-a-lee-tee.
This novel is an abruptly poetic account of Some Bad Things That Happened. The Things made lots of noises and occurred amongst creatively named shades of green. The abruptness comes from questionable. Sentence structure. That is a little overdone. But the poetry emerges too, irreverently, impressionistically, villanelle-ly. Contrary to Expectations, though, this book does not simply give up its secrets in a hyperelegant manner.
Instead it is an eventually comprehensive compilation of Brittle Historical Chips, the gradual introduction of which may initially have you searching for An Arrative Thread. Be consoled that everything comes together, tessellated, like the release of a long-held breath.
One thing is for sure in Roy’s vision: when History has you in its sights, it never lets go. Also, History can be just another name or excuse for Not Doing the Right and Hard Thing. There is talk of Putting One’s Hand into History’s Waiting Glove, etc. It took me a little while and a little context (Roy’s fierce activism) not to read this novel as simply fatalistic, a dirge sung over bodies lacking the wherewithal to defy inevitable decline. But that would be a Nincomplete Reading of this book. Consider Roy’s opinion of Choices as historically paramount even in Unwinnable Battles.
I didn’t mind it. But quite slow at the start.