As a worthy follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has shaped a collection of evocative short stories into a kind of novelistic portrait of modern India.
I understand why Aravind Adiga continues to live in Mumbai; he is sitting on an endless mine of literary material that would keep him writing into a ripe old age. Although never advertized as such, this is a collection of short stories connected only by locale, the city of Kittur, a microcosm of Mother India with it all its fables and foibles.
And so Adiga takes us on a seven-day tour of Kittur, unearthing its myriad denizens and their bizarre situations: from low castes to Brahmins, violent school teachers to anarchist students, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, bicycle wallahs, crime kingpins, immigrants from the countryside sleeping on the streets, and child beggars. The situations are graphic and unsanitary: a coolie sticking a cow dung-laced finger in anger into a prostitute’s mouth while she services another customer, the factory owner showing his contempt for a corrupt tax collector by mixing him Red Label Scotch stirred with his own shitty finger; after awhile the shock-factor becomes predictable and pales. The tour is supposed to mirror events taking place in the seven years between the assassinations of Mrs Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, although I saw very little parallel.
The messages however, are very strong: communism is being trumped by capitalism, caste lines shall not be crossed even though they are blurring in a changing India, getting married apparently stabilizes a man, a childless woman is a disgrace to her family, and those in the lower depths like our bicycle wallah will die from exhaustion before they reach the age of 40. Fraud is everywhere and circular – everyone is being screwed by everyone else – Adiga claims India to be the world champion in black marketing, counterfeiting and corruption. A few brave ones— the journalist who tries to write one article a day with the truth and goes mad in the attempt, and the Maupassant wannabe who creates characters who do not want but falls for a young woman and succumbs to desire—try to stem the tide and are consumed in India’s relentless march to become a global economic powerhouse.
I found the writing style clumsy in certain stories and colloquial – these stories were probably written over a long period of time as the author evolved into his current Booker-winning stature.
Living among tycoons and terrorists can be a source for interesting fiction, but I wonder what Adiga’s point is. Is it to shock us with insights into this subterranean culture that westerners would find titillating and escapist as the vampire genre or Chuck Palahniuk? Or is it to warn us that as India globalizes, and the world normalizes to the lowest common denominator, the underbelly of a rampant capitalist country, such as Kittur, could one day be our reality as well? Viewed from the latter perspective, this book takes on a cautionary and chilling aspect and is worth the read.