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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.”