A brutally funny debut novel about India in which an impoverished but ambitious young man from a small rural village determines to rise in a society splintered by economic and social inequality, no matter the cost. The book is written in the form of an ongoing letter—composed over the course of seven days—in which our young man looks back at how he became an Indian “entrepreneur,” and addresses his letter to the Chinese premier who is about to visit India for an official introduction to Indian entrepreneurship. Don’t listen to the government, says Halwai, listen to me if you want your people to learn how to make it as entrepreneurs.
And thus we learn how Halwai goes from the kowtowing and much-abused cleanup “spider” in an Indian teashop, to bicycling delivery boy, to chauffeur for a wealthy Indian family, to murderer and fugitive, and finally, to owner of a growing taxi service. Halwai starts out smart and witty, and along the way, he discovers that a moral code is useless in a society which runs on bribery and corruption. He pokes fun at religion (“I should start off by kissing some god’s arse. But which…? There are so many choices. The Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods. Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses to choose from”) and at India’s grand claims of independence (“India has never been free. First the Muslims, then the British bossed us around. In 1947, the British left, but only a moron would think that we became free then.”)
Particularly revealing is Halwai’s “rooster coop” philosophy on life. He says India’s poor are like roosters crammed into a coop so tightly that all their effort is focused on breathing and getting enough food to survive, and not on escaping the coop. Or, as he puts it in the starkest socio-political terms: “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many…. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.” A rather dire view of life in India, but one that Halwai is determined to break with, and so he does, but at what cost?
An excellent and very provocative book, which not only gives us a painfully penetrating view of the gross hypocrisy of the wealthy elites in India (and, by implication, elsewhere), but also raises the bigger question of how to define morality. Is it an abstract concept, or is it one defined by context? A good subject for the next book club discussion, to be sure.