I picked this up on a whim at the used book sale last month. I hadn’t really heard anything about it, but it did win the 2008 Man Booker Prize, so I thought I’d take a chance on it. I’m glad I did, because this was a great little book.
Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.
Adiga’s debut novel follows a young Indian boy named Balram Halwai, born the son of a rickshaw puller in Laxmangarh, as he sheds his caste and life of servitude to eventually become a Bangalore entrepreneur. He spends most of the novel as a driver for a rich landlord in New Delhi, where he experiences firsthand the corrupt government and the immense gap between rich and poor, something that is very evident as the two classes live closely together.
It’s heavily focused on that social divide, which is not a cheerful subject, but this novel can be very darkly funny at times. It’s written as a letter to a visiting Chinese Premier, as Balram tells his story as a way to explain Indian entrepreneurship. He narrates his own story, and it’s his voice that really made this novel for me. It so full of energy that it really made his tale feel personal, almost uncomfortably so, like you shouldn’t be reading it. I really loved how this was written.
As the fire ate away the silk, a pale foot jerked out, like a living thing; the toes, which were melting in the heat, began to curl up, offering resistance to what was being done to them. Kusum shoved the foot into the fire, but it would not burn. My heart began to race. My mother wasn’t going to let them destroy her.
I haven’t read much fiction taking place in India, particularly by Indian authors, so that was a refreshing change. His decision to focus on the darker segment of Indian society, literally what he describes as The Darkness, impoverished rural India, was also a change from the often romanticized view exposed to the west. He shows a country where relatively few rich men have tamed the rest of society, where people are born into servitude and often live that life without question, despite being every bit as intelligent and capable as their masters. This is a novel about a man who does question that system and wants to leave behind The Darkness.
The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor—they never overlap, do they?
See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?
Losing weight and looking like the poor.
It’s hard to tell how true to life Adiga’s picture of Indian is, as someone with very little knowledge of the country, but it was a compelling read. The caste system, which apparently began as a classification based on occupation and eventually morphed into restrictive categorisation at birth, is something I’d like to read more about and understand a bit better. It played a large role in the background of this novel and formed the basis of the plot and motivation, but it didn’t really go into detail.
I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading more from Aravind Adiga.