Saturday, May 17, 2008

A bloody story, dazzlingly told

Aravind Adiga (in the picture below) attended Columbia University, and followed that up with a high-profile job at the Financial Times. It is surprising then, given his upper class bearings, that he has been able to pen such a remarkably authentic portrayal of the life of the underdog—a representative of the many millions of Indians who are born in, live in, and die in mind-numbing deprivation.

Balram Halwai is born into a family of erstwhile sweet makers in a poor village in the Darkness, a euphemism for Bihar, India's most under-developed state. Balram's father pulls a manual rickshaw for a living, an occupation that takes a toll on his tuberculosis, and ultimately, his life. Balram is accepted as a driver in a land-owning upper class family in Dhanbad, one of Bihar's more prosperous towns (owing to its coal mines). The family's patriarch, referred to as the "Stooge", is a ruthless man who runs a shady coal business.

From here to Balram's "promotion" as driver for Ashok, one of the Stooge's sons, and Pinky, Ashok's wife, we wander through the trials and petty defeats in Balram's life. Ashok and Pinky live in Gurgaon, Delhi's swanky suburb that houses sprawling malls and the glittering offices of American giants. This life, as against the utter, dehumanizing condition of Balram's poverty, is brought out in guilt-inducing contrast by Adiga.

Adiga is so good at imagining the life of the outcast that the novel is an often scary reminder of the pitfalls of overlooking the plight of the underprivileged. When Balram drives his master around Gurgaon, the sight of scantily clad women is a shock to him—not just because women in the Darkness do not dress provocatively, but also because he is humiliated by his inability to have a slice of the "fast life".

Balram, ineluctably altered by the ways of the city, calls himself a "social entrepreneur"— symbolic of the plan he devises to escape the servant's fate. The plan is bloody, and entails permanent damnation for Balram and his family. Realistically though, he executes it and moves to India's other boom town—Bangalore, where as the head of a taxi service company "White Tiger Technology Drivers", he finally makes a name for himself.

Adiga's debut novel is a highly realized work—a dazzling, brutal look at the unsavory side-effects of India's rapidly globalizing economy.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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