Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #92: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review 26: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is an amusingly dark novel with an interesting conceit. The narrator, Balram Halwai, tells his story of murder, oppression, and triumph through a letter he is writing over the course of several days to the Chinese premiere. It is bizarre, twisted, and compelling, and I highly recommend it.

Adiga’s portrayal of India received mixed reviews from what I have seen. Some critics felt his explanation and details were terribly exaggerated where others felt that he gave a fair, thigh exaggerated, picture of reality. I don’t know much about India so I read it with a bit of skepticism, assuming it to be sort of historical fiction in that respect. The caste system in and of itself is so different from my reality that the treatment of people in t he novel was jarring and horrific.
I really enjoy a story that gets you to root for the bad guy, and Adiga does just that. Balram is an admitted murderer, cold, calculating, narcissistic, and probably a little psychotic. Even so, he gets you to root for them because of the odds he is against, and the system he is caught within. Even though his decisions have probably lead his family to a horrible end, you can see why he made his choices. That sort of uncomfortable championing coupled with an effective use of a non-linear timeline makes for a good read.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #45: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil


My 2012 Booker shortlist adventure continues, this time in the rambling, incoherent world of opium and heroin addicts in Mumbai. I didn’t have high hopes, as I invariably find that books praised for being hallucinatory or delirium-induced end up being dead pretentious and really hard work to read. Once I’d got through the opening seven pages though, which did not contain one single full stop (sigh), it wasn’t that bad.

The book opens in 1970s Bombay (as it was then), and for the most part tells the story of the hijra Dimple, and Rashid, the owner of an opium den. Dimple, who was castrated at the age of 12, is beautiful and readily passes for a biological women. She is working as a prostitute when she comes to Rashid, bringing with her the ornate antique opium pipes that belonged to her now dead friend, Mr Lee. In return for the pipes, Rashid employs her to prepare them for customers. And so an abiding love affair, friendship and business arrangement is born. The novel drifts in and out of periods and narrators, and so we learn of Mr Lee’s past in communist China, Dimple’s childhood, and some of the band of regulars at Rashid’s establishment. They all come for the opium prepared by Dimple, and as the den’s reputation spreads so does its popularity, drawing customers from all walks of life, including plenty of Westerners on the hippy trail. As time passes, Mumbai changes, and so does the demand for drugs. Despite initial resistance, Rashid begins to sell heroin, and as the city descends into the turmoil of riots and violence, so the lives of Dimple, Rashid and the regulars fall apart.

The book is a bit of a mixed bag, at times hitting great heights. Some passages are annoying and boring, and there is a pointless subplot about murders in the city that never really goes anywhere, but the characters are compelling. There is tragedy in Dimple’s downward trajectory from beauty to ageing heroin addict, and Mr Lee’s story of life in Maoist China is absorbing. With a light touch, Thayil also raises the contradictions of the modern India, with economic boom disguising the rot at the heart of Mumbai. Beggars shit in the street, middle-class boys throw their lives away on heroin, and good Muslim sons have no qualms about dealing cocaine. This is a book that will suck you into a twilight zone of the dreams and nightmares of addiction, if you can get past all that poetic and hallucinatory prose that is : )

ElCicco #CBR5 Review#31: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach


After reading a novel about an old lady with Alzheimers who might have murdered her best friend, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provided a much more lighthearted and welcome perspective on growing older and the possibilities that lie ahead before death comes. The writing is often funny, making fun of Brits and Indians, the young and the old, but with an underlying kindness that takes away the bite.

The plot is simple: an Indian doctor in London, married to an Anglo woman, is sick and tired of his crass and randy father-in-law’s presence in his home. Norman has been kicked out of several homes and Ravi is at the end of his rope. After confiding his desperation to his businessman cousin Sonny, Sonny and Ravi develop a scheme to build an old folks home for Brits in Bangalore. The story follows the first year of the hotel/home’s operation and involves a colorful cast of characters — pensioners of varied backgrounds, hotel staff with their own problems and frustrations, and the country of India, which seems to have a hypnotizing allure for those who visit.

The introduction of the elderly Brits is sometimes funny and sometimes poignant. Norman is initially uninterested in moving to India until he hears that the hot young women are plentiful and accommodating. Evelyn is somewhat estranged from her children and lonely. Muriel is a feisty cockney woman who has been mugged and is desperate to find her son, who is on the run from the law. The Ainslies seem to have an enviable marriage and make the most of the opportunities the India affords them. But of course, as we see through the unfolding of the tale, there is so much more to each of them. The crass and bigoted fogeys can be sentimental and kind, the unassuming lady who fades into the woodwork can be bold and daring, and those who seem to have it all may have problems, too.

There’s a lot of “the grass is always greener” theme in this book. The Brits  come to appreciate the Indian ways of revering family and approaching life with joy and acceptance. The Indians seem to want to leave for England and escape the suffocating effects of familial obligations and lack of opportunity. In the end, it’s a sweet story about appreciating the golden years, accepting mortality and being ready to try something new, no matter what your age. This is not great literature, but using the General Maximus standard from Gladiator, I must say, I was entertained.


The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #14: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

For other thoughts on the New Raj, check out my other blog: The Scruffy Rube

In 2007, I went to Mumbai for the wedding of two colleagues. The ceremony was grand and lovely, the reception was the same, all held in one of the finest hotels in the city. After several hours of laughing, dancing and dining, I hopped in an air conditioned taxi and headed for the airport, off on another adventure.

The ambassador taxi, classically-styled and sleek on the dusky streets and in the darkened night, was often my preferred mode of transport. I could recline on a springy seat, and bounce along peering outside to the tumultuous traffic around me, or the cityscapes and country sides if my view wasn’t obstructed. On the airport road, we raced past walls plastered in advertisements for coke and cars, for skin bleach and kitchen tiles, all the while my eyes were scanning, sweeping up all the memories of the stars and the road and the signs.

But beyond my eyes and behind those signs was the Annawadi slum the subject of Katherine Boo’s award winning best seller Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a superb example of modern nonfiction-storytelling. Readers walk alongside the characters, through the crowded slum lanes and past the sewage lakes, confronting real-life dramas too easily ignored. The Hussein family struggles to move up in the world, not to a mansion, but to a more muslim friendly slum across town. Minor politico Asha hopes to move up, not to parliament, but to the position of slum lord…or slum lady perhaps. Their stories, and the quests of others like Fatima, Manju, Sunil and Kalu tap into an essential human striving, a natural desire to do a little better, gain a little more and to obtain the pride that goes with it.

Boo’s beautiful writing captures identity, style and a culture built on community: even if that community isn’t where we’d expect it. We can undersand sons and daughters seeking the blessings of their families and friends as they prepare for marriage, whether its in a slum or the finest hotel in the city. And we can understand how a garbage picker needs a guide to help and protect them as they start in on one of the few career paths open to them.

The goal of all this is not to guilt the reader but to reveal a place too often ignored. It’s not to shame us all, but to invite us to reexamine our preconceptions. I used to laugh about the “New Raj”, the wealthy foreign elite who used India as a playpen; I freely admit what I couldn’t see in the back of that Ambassador cab: I too am part of the New Raj, but now I am mindful of it.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #59: The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Umrigar is one of those authors whom I always enjoy, and while the descriptions of her novels sound like they have the potential to be cliche-ridden, I’m always pleased with the end results. In general, her novels tend to deal with difference between classes, between cultures (America vs. India), religions, and often have her older Indian characters looking back and reflecting on their teen and college years as opposed to their current positions though of course some novels focus on certain themes more than others while some address them all. All of these themes are seen again in The World We Found.

Go here for more.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #16: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.” The Namesake is a poignant and honest observation of family, cultural differences, and self discovery and the ways our experiences and upbringing inform our adult lives.

I honestly don’t want to say too much because I really enjoyed this book and want to let others go into it blind, as I did, as I feel it improves the experience. I will say that for me this is one of those books that really makes you feel what the characters are feeling and succeeds at unifying the human experience by showing that despite cultural differences, we are really at the core the same. It is definitely a read that will stay with you long after you put it down.

Ultimately we are all people trying to make it through. Some have it better, some have it worse, but we are all just trying to make sense of the hands we were dealt. “They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.

As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:

“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”

You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.

ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #8: Basti by Intizar Husain


Translated from Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett, with introduction by Asif Farrukhi.

Basti is a novel set amidst upheaval in Pakistan, particularly the partition and emigration of 1947 and war in 1971. This classic of Urdu language is not so much a political novel as an existential one. When Basti was published in 1979, Husain, one of the most respected and celebrated authors writing in Urdu, received some criticism for not taking a side or offering any answers. But Husain has written a novel not about war and politics but about man and what happens to communities (basti) in times of upheaval. He examines what is happening to man in the modern world.

The overriding theme can be summed up in a line from the Quran which is repeated throughout the story: “I swear by Time, man is surely in loss.” As the main character Zakir, his family and friends endure political upheaval and war, they both witness and demonstrate how man changes and becomes less generous, less connected to those around him. Husain’s work is filled with references to Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist literary and religious works that touch on these points. While it would help the reader to be familiar with the history of India and Pakistan as well as these works, the translator provides useful detailed notes and a glossary to help those of us who are not. And not knowing will not prevent the reader from understanding Husain’s larger point or enjoying his beautiful writing.

Basti is told from the point of view of Zakir, a middle aged history professor in the fictional city of Vyaspur (which stands in for Lahore). It is late 1971, the time of the Indo-Pakistani war (there have been several; the 1971 conflict led to the independence of East Pakistan/Bangladesh). As Vyaspur suffers the effects of war, Zakir reflects more and more on his past in the small village of Rupnagar, where he grew up and his family home is located. Husain assumes readers would know about the emigration of 1947, when the British partitioned India into India and Pakistan, the new Muslim state. This resulted in massive emigration for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Zakir’s family, like many other families, was divided due to partition. Eventually, those family members in East Pakistan were cut off from those in West Pakistan. Husain’s main characters, however, seem not to feel directly involved in the politics of their time. They don’t overtly take a side in politics or war. They seem more like spectators than actors. When Zakir takes tea with his friends, they discuss what is happening without shedding much light on it, as they themselves seem to feel in the dark and unable to have any impact on the situation. At one point, Zakir tries to convince his father that conditions are improving in Vyaspur and beyond, and his father responds, “Son, if conditions improve, it means nothing. People’s deeds have to improve.” It’s not until the very end of the story that Zakir feels that he ought to have done something, that he is somehow responsible. One action that he takes is to keep a diary because, “I ought to preserve the record of my lies and cowardice.”

Husain’s writing has passages involving stream of consciousness, as Zakir takes trips down memory lane and reveals bits about his past and about religious and philosophical thought. This is where some familiarity with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism would serve the reader well. This is also where some of the loveliest writing is to be found.

The rain poured down all night inside him. The dense clouds of memory seemed to come from every direction. Now the sky was washed and soft. Here and there a cloud swam contentedly in it, like a bright face, a soft smile.

Kudos to the translator for weaving these various threads together into a lovely whole tapestry. Ideally, novels are read in their original language, but few of us will ever know Urdu and it would be a shame to be deprived of Basti and its timely message about man’s disintegrating relationships within his community.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #7: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna



This is a sweeping historical drama/romance reminiscent of Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago. It follows a couple of generations of families in the Coorg region of India from the mid-19th century until the movement for independence and features a strong, beautiful heroine, the men who love her and the land itself. Mandanna’s writing is full of lush prose, matching the environment she covers, and her characters are well developed and complex, as are their relationships over time.

The two main characters are a village beauty named Devi and her adoptive brother Devanna. Devi is confident and pursues her desires with singleminded purpose. She can be selfish but she is loyal and devoted to her family, her work, and her true love Machu, the tiger killer. Machu, the scion of a wealthy Coorg family, killed a tiger when he was young and has acquired respect and status locally for this. Devanna comes from the same extended family as Machu, but the circumstances of his being adopted by Devi’s family are somewhat shameful. Devanna lacks Machu’s physical prowess, but he is an adept at the mission school. Taken under the wing of the reverend who runs the school, Devanna is on his way to becoming a respected doctor when tragedy strikes, affecting Devi, Machu and Devanna, as well as future generations.

The themes throughout the novel focus on fighting for what one loves, coping with loss, and forgiveness. This sounds as if it might be rather tired and hackneyed soap opera, but Mandanna has written a very engaging story that shies away from melodrama. She also places her story in its historical context and provides insights on British colonial rule, World War I and British involvement in Afghanistan, as well as the place of natives and of women in an evolving society. One of the passages I found relevant to today involved Machu’s fighting for the British against the Pashtuns and the common (incorrect) view that the natives were too divided against one another to unite and put up an effective defense from superior outside forces. “It was all so ridiculous. Honor, glory — all trampled underfoot in some misbegotten pass. The battle would end soon, he knew, and eventually the war. The world would turn. Men would forget. And then, as sure as the sun was rising even now in the east, the very same battles would be waged again, for reasons that would not matter.”

Every character in this story must deal with not getting what they wanted, with pain that they will carry throughout life. And with that pain and loss comes a resentment of the person who seems to be the obstacle to their happiness. This is especially true for Devi, who is at the center of the story. Her pain and losses are tragic, and she carries her anger and bitterness for practically her entire life. It’s not until very late that the words of her grandmother make sense to her: “… the true beauty of a flower lies not in the size or the color of its petals, but in its fragrance…. Be like the jungle flower that despite blooming unseen, untouched… still gifts its sweetness to the breeze.” The novel ends on a satisfying note. Whether it is a happy ending is up to the reader to decide.