In essence, this is a story of how Balram Halwai, a man born in a backward village in the “Darkness” and his ambition to rise above his poverty – to not stay a prey, but be the predator – one with a belly. From a job of splitting coals in a teashop, he becomes a driver (chauffeur) to a US-returned son of a landlord. He commits murder, becomes a social entrepreneur (his words), and finally turns into a businessman. The book is comprised of a series of letters written by Balram Halwai to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
What worked for me
The language. It’s witty, sarcastic, vivid. Very, very irreverent. The “Darkness” where Balram is born and lives is all too plausible and disturbingly familiar. The images of Delhi or the “Light”, as seen through Balram’s eyes are graphic – especially the scene when he sees a masterless buffalo and the lifeless load in the cart it drags. Balram’s state of mind, his observations, and his thoughts are superbly crafted. The plot is simple – or rather there is not much of a major plot here, but a series of episodes or incidences. Yet, the book is a page turner and I was sufficiently invested the characters: Balram, his US-returned employer Ashok, his mini-skirt wearing wife Pinky –all try to break out of their own “rooster coops” - all evoke a sympathy but on very different levels . I liked the fact that the book has layers of meaning. While reading it, I didn’t think much of it, but the fact that it was on the back of my mind for a week, denotes the contrary. I like books that upon chewing them a day or two present undiscovered facets and meanings. It’s like a mini treasure hunt.
What did not work for me
The book is a series of letters that Balram writes to Jaobin. Why? There is no plausible reason for this offered in the book. It felt like a cop-out – a means to bash China while the author bashed India. That is the biggest problem with the narrative. Also, given the scope of the book: India, its dichotomy – Gurgaon and real “gaon”, corruption, caste struggles, poverty, the observations sometimes seemed a bit naïve. Or Jaded. Or both. Corrupt “public servants” sitting under framed pictures of Gandhi is so 1970s filmy. It’s such an overworked idiom. Which led me to think, that perhaps Adiga was aiming this book for an entirely different readership? Not Indians like me, or not Indians at all, but aiming it at the “western” reader who thinks India is all saris and spice. And elephants. Well, there are several mentions of the buffalo in the book, so at least in that regard he is not too far off.
Hot or drop
Hmm. Tough one. If you have nothing else to read, do pick this up. It’s a slightly disturbing read. If you are like me, an Indian, who grew up in India, I wouldn’t ask you to go out of way to read it. But if you do pick it up, it will remind you somewhat of Goodfellas.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009