Sunday, July 26, 2009

Do not forget the creator while enjoying the creation

I shall begin with apologies to those who might have got miffed over the didactic tone of the title of this post. Let me clarify that by "creation" I do not imply an abstract concept. I am specifically referring to "Slumdog Millionaire". Yes, the rags-to-riches story, whose celluloid adoptation recently achieved monumental success, both commerical as well as critical. Before you start wondering whether I am referring to Danny Boyle, the British Director of the film, as the "Creator", let me clarify that this pride of place goes to the book "Q and A", the debut novel of career diplomat-cum-author Vikas Swarup, which the makers of the movie have acknowledged as their inspiration. One of those rare books which blur the line between serious fiction and pulp, I wager no reader can put it down before finishing it (I myself completed it in six hours flat). It is a pity that bookstores are now lined with editions the novel wherein the original title is subdued by the more celebrated filmy name. What does "Slumdog" mean? If we translate it into Hindi, it would sound something like गली का कुत्ता or गंदी नाली का कीडा। May be, by attaching "millionaire" to this pejorative, the makers of the film have tried to emphasize the triumph of the underdog. I have no issues with that though I am of the firm opinion that the spirit of the underdog is portrayed much more cogently in the book. The protagonist has been very ingeniously named Ram Mohammad Thomas. This is not some sort of phoney secularism but an apt depiction of the mongrelness of the character. Moreover, the guy, struggling his way through a series of depravities (not his own) retains a piety which further justifies his name drawn from sacred traditions of three of the greatest religious traditions of the world. Barely into his teens, Thomas has been locked up by police for winning a quiz show by answering questions which, the society presumes, only learned people may be able to solve. He is rescued by a young female lawyer who listens to his story (unlike the movie where this part is played by a cop) to prepare herself for the case. The life-drama of the guy, which is too loaded with experiences of all hues for his age, has characters ranging from the mundane to the incredible. A British priest who is serving at a church in Delhi, concealing his marital status. An unsuccessful academician whose frustrations drive him to alcohol and ultimately push him to the horrific act of molesting his own daughter. A yesteryears' film star unable to come to terms with the fall in her career graph. A rich lady who keeps her illegitimate child in her estate but refuses to own him and treats him, until his death, as a mere orphan. A diplomat obsessed with keeping a hawk's eye over his surroundings, yet unable to manage his family. Even the young woman who fights the legal battle for Thomas, shares her past with the protagonist in a very touching way. All through these fantastic tales, Thomas emerges as an extra-ordinarily perceptive lad. who is able to draw lessons not only from his own life but also from the experiences of those he encounters. And this is what enables him to achieve the nearly-impossible. Manmohan Desai used to be known for weaving excellent "lost-found-tales". This novel takes this craft a few notches higher. Brilliantly entertaining, it is written in a language that is racy yet not flippant. So, even when you call it a thriller you can not overlook its stark realism. Hats off to Swarup for so convincingly demonstrating that "luck comes from within", to borrow from the very last line of the book. A few words about style. The plot unfolds in a form that is unique. The novel comprises thirteen chapters, each of them telling a story that is complete in itself. Yet, a common thread runs through the entire book lending it a coherence that is so essential to the art of storytelling. The only other book written in a similar style that comes to mind is "Safed Ghoda Kaala Sawaar" by Hindi novelist Hridayesh. Of course, both of them vary vastly in their storylines. Those who have not read it must do so. An enjoyable experience is guaranteed. And yes, the book contains no disgusting scenes of people jumping into a pit of human excreta!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In defence of the "White Tiger"

One of the most popular definitions of journalism is that it is “literature in a hurry”. This essentiality of haste gives this form of writing its much-needed vigour, though, often at the cost of the insight that discerning readers might expect. Of late, there have been numerous examples of professional journalists making attempts, often commendable, to write fiction. Aravind Adiga, who went on to bag the Booker Prize for his debut novel “White Tiger”, is a case in point. The book has had its own share of controversies as many thought the recognition was because of the West’s fondness for “poverty porn”.
Leaving controversies aside, Adiga deserves to be congratulated for weaving a fabulous tale around a plot which could have easily degenerated into an average crime thriller. It is the story of a man who starts off as a driver in a rich household, murders his employer, runs away with his money and settles down in Bangalore where he starts a transport agency with a fleet of cabs and does brisk business in the city dotted with innumerable call centres with odd working hours. The novel has as its backdrop an impending visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, to whom the protagonist writes “letters”, perhaps never delivered, wherein he narrates his own odd “success story”.
The speciality of the book lies in the fact that it does not make one paranoid about the dangers, real or imaginary, that any relatively well-off person faces from his poor servants, drivers and other such people who deserve much credit for making our lives liveable. At the most, it calls upon the reader to look within and introspect how his or her life and conduct does influence the character and behaviour of those by whom he or she is being served and who are likely to emulate, if not idolize, them. In an odd way, the novel reminds one of stories (unable to recollect their names) by Urdu writers Manto and Ashk wherein they had depicted servants driven to delinquency by the wanton lives of their masters. While the aforesaid stories dealt with adolescent domestic helps and took up the singular dimension of sexuality as its theme, “White Tiger” is a novel very much in line with the beautiful definition given by French writer Stendhal - “a mirror which passes over a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the blue of the skies at others the churned-up mud of the road”.
Political flux, illegal coal trade, absentee landlordism surviving with the help of an oppressive feudal order, the tricks played by the high and the mighty to carry out their illegal businesses and also save their skins from punishment for crimes committed in moments of inadvertence, all these things are presented in this riveting novel. For its racy narrative and a fantastic - though firmly rooted in reality - storyline, the novel is certainly worth the time, money and energy one spends devouring it.