The book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 was in circulation for a long while at the library. I guess it has done its rounds and I finally managed to lay my hands on it.
My first reaction after a couple of pages was to put the book aside. It describes the dark side of India that I do not want to read about. I mean we have seen so many foreign documentaries that show the filth, the poverty and so on. Almost like what Slumdog Millionaire did… this was even worse. And it goes on through all the pages of the book. Brand India takes a beating… and some of it is rather exaggerated.
But despite being upset with the author, you do realise that there is some truth in what he writes. Maybe not totally as he projects it.
Notwithstanding first reactions, if you have picked up the book, chances are you will continue to read on like I did. The author has an engrossing story to narrate. The language is simple, easy to read and the the book does not drag. But does it deserve a Man Booker Prize? That is questionable.
The protagonist, Balram Halwai grows up in Laxmangarh, Bihar ( referred to as Darkness). Balram refers to himself as half baked – someone who did not finish school and has partial knowledge, like so many children in India, who are pulled out of school to earn a living. ‘No boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school’.
An intelligent child who impresses the school inspector, who calls him a white tiger, a rare prized animal. He is promised a scholarship, but unfortunately is pulled out of school when there is a marriage of his (girl) cousin, and the family needs more earning members to pay off the debts that result .
The story is narrated in letters ( seven of them) that Balram writes to the Chinese Premier who is due on a visit to India. Why the Chinese Premier? China is making impressive progress in all fields, however it lacks entrepreneurs, and the Premier wants to meet some of them on his tour to India. And Balram considers himself an entrepreneur – a half baked successful entrepreneur.
The story progresses as he moves from working in a tea shop to how he gets the family to support his driving lessons. This lands him a job as a driver of the richest family in the village. How he moves with them to Delhi and the city life as seen by the poor. The conversations that he eavesdrops on between his employer ,his brother, his wife, the politicians they associate with, all as he drives them around.
He describes the glass houses the rich live in while the workers wait on them. See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?? Losing weight and looking like the poor."
The corruption, rigging of elections, the evil landlords, filth, poverty. Name it and it is all there in this book.
"It's amazing. The moment you show cash, everyone knows your language."
He likens the life of the poor to the roosters in a coop. The birds are huddled in the coop as the butcher picks up a bird and kills it, the others await their turn. They do not rebel. Just like the worker class. Why? Because of family ties. They remain faithful to their employers, for if they didn’t, there would be terrible repercussions on their family.
Ultimately, Balram does not seem to care about his relatives back home, he knows they will probably be erased from the earth, yet he decides to flee from the Roosters Coop, murders his employer Mr Ashok ( I have not given away the plot for those who may have wanted to read the book- it is mentioned all along from the early pages) – steals his money, and runs away. With his ill gotten wealth he starts a business of his own. He is now ‘one of the rich’ and behaves like one.
And so he ends his tale through his letters to the Chinese Premier. It could have been addressed to just about anyone. Did I miss something apart from the entrepreneur bit?
All in all, a book that makes an interesting read. I know I have to return the book to the library soon. Which I will without regret. I am not too sure if I would like a copy of the book to sit on my book shelf.