October 31, 2008

an open letter to aravind adiga

dear aravind adiga

an ostrich was whisked away from its homeland when it was very young. abroad, it was taught many rich things of wonder and beauty. it came back home one day after many years, very posh, bisleri in hand. when its shiny feathers were ruffled by some red dust raised by a few ostriches passing by, it clucked and stomped about in anger: bloody countryfellows! haven’t you been taught how not to drag your feet when you walk!?

i finally finished reading the white tiger, and as i closed the book on the train last night, i felt nothing but a sense of deep relief, and regret. relief, that i had survived reading your book. regret, that one more english-educated indian has learnt what was not part of the syllabus: shouting at the rooftops about how dark and dirty the country is. and look! they even awarded you £50,000 for doing that. well done!

alright. i needed to get that out of my head. now on to the white tiger.

you wrote a work of fiction, as your disclaimer says within the first few leafs of your book. balram halwai is a fictional servant. his master is fiction. and all that happens in between the master and the servant is imaginary as well. this part is good, something different, almost bollywoodish, and funny as well. but then – and here’s my problem with you – why did you, in your moment of glory, dedicate your story to the so-called dark reality of india? why do your interviews read like typical bbc news-reports:

Well, this is the reality for a lot of Indian people and it’s important that it gets written about, rather than just hearing about the 5% of people in my country who are doing well. In somewhere like Bihar there will be no doctors in the hospital. In northern India politics is so corrupt that it makes a mockery of democracy. This is a country where the poor fear tuberculosis, which kills 1,000 Indians a day, but people like me – middle-class people with access to health services that are probably better than England’s – don’t fear it at all. It’s an unglamorous disease, like so much of the things that the poor of India endure.

aww. how considerate. a rocket shoots up to the moon from a country called india, and suddenly there are concerns about millions below the poverty line, sitting outside their roofless houses and scanning the night sky. and my heart almost melted when you said:

If we were in India now, there would be servants standing in the corners of this room and I wouldn’t notice them… That is what my society is like, that is what the divide is like.

tch, tch, poor mr adiga. this is all you see in india. fortunately for you, the poor of india will not get their hands on your award-winning book. except of course, in the raddi shop, where it might fetch them an extra rupee or two, for the hardbound version. but i sincerely doubt if they’ll open and read it. isn’t that why you chose balram halwai as your protagonist? if you are so taken aback by the corruption in the country, you might have also felt, somewhere in your big heart, that perhaps the true darthvaders of india are some of its politicians. why didn’t you pick on them? they wouldn’t read your book either. why a servant, who you would not even notice, standing in the same room as you?

my dear mr adiga, the servitude in india, is not its dark side. it is in fact, for the servile, a potential way out of it. i am not a social service or human rights worker to argue with you over this, but considering that we were born the same year, and that i lived in india for 14 years more than you did, let me try.

india is a vast country. it has one of the oldest civilisations. one of the strongest systems of tradition and prayer. we have the caste system. we have always had kings and a multitude of their servants. now we have the rich and the poor. neither can do without the other. i have been a faithful reader of the time magazine ever since i can remember; i read stories about india on the bbc. but i know in my heart that neither time, or the bbc, will understand that strange balance.

back to your book.

i stop thinking about balram halwai. i think of tarabai, of pandu, sobha, sharda, ravi, heera…all of these who i met at some point during my childhood (i haven’t changed their names; their identity has been threatened already, thanks to you). the servants who scuttled in and out of the houses in our 13-apartment building. i think of laxman, swapnil, auto-drivers from my school and tuition classes, one of who was also a part-time servant at an advertising agency where i briefly used to work. and who often let me travel for free.

i try to imagine an alternate life for them, and i realise how they come with their own class divisions.

the illiterate rich

i recall the times when my mother insisted sharda’s eight-year-old daughter should at least learn to read and write. for no charge or cut in her salary, sharda’s daughter began to come to our house every afternoon. books, pencils and charts were all provided by my mother, and so was the education. about three weeks later, her daughter stopped coming to our home. the parents didn’t want to educate their girl-child. “her father doesn’t like it,” sharda reasoned, “after all she has to also work in some or the other house one day.” my mother used to take tailoring classes at the time, and offered to teach her, without a fee. sharda simply wasn’t interested.

you were right in observing that they are “witty, acerbic, verbally skilled and utterly without illusions about their rulers.” sharda definitely knew her space. as the only maid-servant at a colony of bungalows in lonavala, she earns over rs 2000 a day. they are richer than you think, mr adiga. they are comfortable. and they know what they’re doing. besides, not only are servants paid well in india, they are also given their dues for any extra chores they might have had to do during a wedding or festival for instance, and presented new clothes and baksheesh at the end of the day, from the ‘masters’ who can afford it. (er, you don’t happen to read amitabh bachchan’s blog, do you? i thought so.)

and then there are the rickshaw-wallahs in mumbai. did you, in your travels for time magazine, come across a few who have their own investment brokers and share market advisors? no? i guessed that as well.

as i write this, my mother is teaching heera’s son at home. the tuition master asked for rs 400 and heera couldnt didn’t want to afford it. my mother teaches him for free. and i am sure she is not the only person doing this social service. the servants don’t publish recruitment ads for teachers. that does not mean they cannot find a way out.

the vulnerable

sobha was young, very fast in her work. needless to say she was efficient. it was around the time i was getting married and a lot of guests were visiting us at home. one day, my sister discovered rs 500 was missing from her knapsack. there had been no one in the room that morning except for sobha when she went in to sweep and mop the floor. poor sobha. she thought the bag was a visitor’s and no one would notice. when my mother confronted her she admitted she was the thief. it was her first crime, she sobbed, she felt tempted to steal. five hundred rupees would fetch her a lot of things. but our house was in the midst of a marriage preparation. we couldn’t take any risks. my mother gave sobha the salary that was due, and sadly, had to ask her to leave.

pandu was a child when my masi adopted him. she and her family lived in a farmhouse and had two very young children of their own. pandu would gel in, she said. she fed him the same (freshly-cooked) food that she gave her children, new clothes for every festival, and my cousins gave him the books from school. he managed to learn a little. they shared their love for their pet dogs and the cows behind their house. they lived happily for about 10-12 years. when pandu was 16, he disappeared. my masi was shattered, not because pandu had stolen their valuables or money. he had crushed her faith in him. eventually, pandu was caught and the money retrieved. my masi did next what anyone else would. she slapped him. it was the only punishment he ever received from her.

the entrepreneur

tarabai was a great cook; she cleaned and mopped floors, and washed the dishes at peoples’ homes. her husband drank and used up all her money. she managed to save the rest for her son and daughter who she wanted to educate. one day some illicit liquor killed her husband and many others like him (i’m sure you would have heard or even written about these cases too). she used whatever money she had to set up a makeshift extension outside the kitchen that faced the road. she cooked and cooked. her vadapavs were popular all over thane. her children got the education she had always dreamed of. her son today owns at least a dozen superstalls, and eateries in the city. her daughter was married with pomp. after all, they are now part of the Indian middle class.

one other thing. when you talk about the india rising to be a superpower, with supermalls, and supersalaries for call-centre staff and the IT and the construction and the film industries all doing well, do you think the domestic staff working in people’s homes don’t get a hike? perhaps you must hire one to find out his or her monthly wage? even the veta advertisements in india show the bai to be english-educated and singing an english lullaby if you remember!

this is what the real colour of india is, mr adiga. it is not dark. it is not white. it has millions of shades. balram halwai is but one of them. but for the sake of those 36,000,05 gods, please don’t use him as a representative of india’s servitude class.

you are a good feature writer mr adiga. i remember reading some of your articles in time. but this time, i’m sad to say, the white tiger seems like one long fleeting feature about india from the eyes of an outsider. for the eyes of an outsider. and by deriding the country standing there on the booker podium, you only made it worse.

i hope your next book is a lot brighter, and i hope you find a good servant.

radhika praveen

ps: you should read shantaram by gregory david roberts. the author practically lived in dharavi for twelve years. there were murders and poverty and prostitution in his story as well, but it certainly didn’t feel dark. on the contrary, every word in shantaram reeks of hope and optimism. roberts is not even indian, but, unlike yours, his story reads like it is from the heart.

October 23, 2008

ekda kaay zhala… (once upon a time…)

mrs singh and mrs sood were the best of friends.

both originated from north india; one, from a turban-wearing sardarji community, the other a non-turban wearing punjabi community. mrs singh was simple, they had four children: g-p-s (that’s what he was known as), the bubbly, boastful pinky, and twins the names of whom i forget (i think we simply called them goru and rimpy).

mrs sood was the more flashy kind, loved bright shiny clothes and bright red lipstick. her children: a pampered brat of a boy called babloo, who like his mother, liked to be heard, and a scrawny but cute, almost timid-voiced as a mouse, minu.

there were 13 flats in our single-building-block, enclosed by a narrow wall that had failed to foresee that within a few years, the entire contruction (houses and all) would be overshadowed by taller and larger buildings and their compound-walls. there was space but for about three fiats huddled one behind the other, and two scooters and a cycle. my father, being a better driver and more experienced than the other car-owners, parked his fiat right at the front and away from the exit-gates, while the others often needed his help in taking their cars out without a scratch. the scooters were freely removed physically and parked elsewhere if they were in the way, and if their owners were unavailable.

even in that shame of a parking-lot-cum-playground, we were six punjabi, nine maharastrian, three south-indian children who got along pretty well. not only that, we sometimes also had the karapurkar-brother-sister maharashtrian duo from the neighbouring bungalow that sold milk and other dairy products, as well as the three-banjodkar-siblings from the remarkably well-to-do lawyers’ bungalow a couple of yards away from our building. and there were the late entrants – the three-generation joint family of the bhaskars’, whose four children also joined us in the evenings. we played lagori, dabaispice, hide-n-seek, khamb-khamb-khamboree on the grounds. our gurkha watchman often interfered our games as a referree, preventing fights and at times, causing them. sometimes when it got too crowded downstairs, we all marched the four flights of stairs in a row, where we had the entire cold-colourful-mosaic-tiled terrace to ourselves.

festival times like diwali and holi were the best, when even the parents were out with us, and sometimes we participated in  fancy-dress contests and little skits put together by an enterprising ‘kaku’. it was during these hastily-put-up but heartfelt celebrations when we would realise what it was like, to live in a multi-cultural society. all of us shared and enjoyed our variety of foods. we showed equal enthusiasm for every festival – pongal, holi, gudipadwa, baisakhi or vishu, ganesh chaturthi, rakshabandhan, navratri, kojagiri poornima, diwali, christmas. we were more indian than any of the indians living in any of the other states. this was aamchi mumbai.

like it is with most get-togethers, the parents used the opportunity to praise their kids to the skies about school achievements, or rate them with regards to who was the more studious or the ‘bad apple’ of the lot. we all went to different schools and that’s why the discussions got more livelier if one of us children managed to raise the topic of a particular teacher who was not particularly good at teaching.

ho ka? (is it so?) n-kaku would ask in disbelief.

aaho kaay mhantaay?… (what are you saying?), v-kaku would exclaim.

ho bagha na, ata tya divshee kaay zhala… (yes indeed, now look at what happened the other day…) s-kaku would start to explain.

nahi aisi baat nahi. ab hamare babloo ke teacher ko dekho (no no it is not so, now take our babloo’s teacher for example), sood-aunty would butt in.

and the argument would go on late into the night…. running in between the legs of the collective parent family, we resumed our games again. we had distracted them successfully. no more post-function complaints after going home!

i don’t know if it was one of these discussions that the punjabi ladies took to hearts, and their homes. because before we knew it, mrs sood and mrs singh had turned into the worst of enemies. they quarelled like cats and dogs. they lived on different floors one above the other, and on early-evenings or late mornings when the air was warm and lazy and the sounds travelled in circles around the building, we could hear their kitchen-utensils-banging and the women yelling. each in her own house. one window to the other. that loud.

we spent 14 years in that building. the games stopped gradually, as everyone graduated to higher academic classes, to jobs, or simply, to marriage. but the quarrel between the ladies had failed to simmer. the six punjabi kids had grown up listening to their mothers complaining, and naturally some of the sparks must have stayed in the minds of the two first-born boys, glowing softly like embers until the right temperature was reached: testosterone.

g-p-singh one day saw babloo sood unarmed and unsuspecting, and without a key to his empty house. impatient enough to pick up a fight. one provoked and the other rebuked. that evening, the gurkha wasn’t in his cabin. nor were any of the cars or scooters. there was space, and a lot of anger. they were getting into a fist-fight. we were two families on the ground-floor. my neighbour banged on my door frightened. she was married now, and had come to visit her parents. i was home early from work that day.

radhu come quick! g-p-s and babloo have got into a fight… a real one!!

it was something we all had feared. the elders thought they will soon grow tired of their swear-words, let them fight. but we knew this wouldn’t stop. these weren’t the kids that we knew. these were two angry punjabi communities at war. fuelled by years and years of their mothers’ comparing-and-ranting-against each other. our cries and shouts did nothing to stop them. a 12-inch sear across babloo’s head did, when g-p-s suddenly picked a broken iron-pipe from the floor and whacked him without a thought. then he ran away.

there was a lot of blood. luckily my father was on his way home. while some of us held babloo’s head with cloth, my father rushed a semi-conscious babloo to the hospital. he survived. we hoped at least mrs singh and mrs sood would be happy now.

the spirit of the togetherness with which we grew up was crushed. within a year, all the occupants of the building moved elsewhere. everything that we had learnt in those 14 years as friends growing up together, now came with a fine print. from indians were were reduced to maharashtrians and non-maharashtrians, north-indians and south-indians.

reading about the maharashtra navanirman sena riots reminded me of this fight. it pains me to see the spirit of aamchi mumbai, slowly being trampled under their collective weight. it makes me think of the men and women involved in these anti-non-maharastrian-migrant-worker fight, and how they must have spent their childhood years. who did they play lagori and dabaispice with? most of all it makes me wonder:

what were their mothers thinking?

October 21, 2008

london beware: toddler on the pgrowl…

autumn. it must be the autumn…children like to sleep longer during this time you know.

i didn’t know.

i see, i said. maybe that’s right, suddenly realising that my friend had given me a possible explanation for athri’s odd behaviour since the past seven days.

sleeptime is struggletime, every afternoon and night. and when he does eventually tire out by 4:30 pm, he won’t want to wake up all evening until 8 at least. and then we are all awake until the eleventh hour. walking like zombies. just. wanting. to. go. to. bed. at six in the morning, he’s up again, like a bright chirpy alarm clock: radu, radu, radu…daddaaaaaaaaa…

and bathtime is a struggle too. he used to love his baths. what happened now? actually come to think of it, if he continues his moan-a-raagams so loud each day, he might just turn into a great singer. will i still be sane, clapping my hands and emotional, and wiping a tear with my sleeve while the camera zooms on me in the audience? i try to imagine, and then he starts wailing again.

last night we had a pre-sleep tantrum again. bawls and cries, but not even half-a-teardrop from his eye. and his mouth open so wide i could practically see the inside of this throat from where i was standing. normally i would have packed him off in this state to my friends (and his self-appointed deputy-parents) rashmi and zubin who live close by. when he’s with them, he’s a different person altogether. but even they have left for warm, sunny india, where they will celebrate diwali, the indian way.

so, without rashmi and zubin to call, and when every other trick had failed, i did the next thing that came out purely by instinct. i sat down facing athri, and bawled. he bawled even louder, i continued to imitate him, matching my tone to his. opening my mouth, nice and wide. he stopped for a second, confused. and then bawled again. it was my turn next. again, i wailed.

meanwhile our neighbours were just finishing their dinner. perhaps they were discussing the sorry state of affairs in the country where mothers were killing their children – sometimes suspected of setting fire to the whole house, sometimes drowning a disabled child in the bathtub – when they heard our bawling-duet. they put their forks and knives down, and went to the phone.

at home, athri was laughing now. we were still shouting out loud in turns, but this was not a tantrum. this was fun! at last when i thought the storm had passed, i went back to the kitchen to resume my chores. i got his milk-bottle ready, and that’s when i realised we were out of nappies for athri. very reluctantly, praveen braved the i-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-the-house-now look and put on his jacket and left.

three minutes later, when i was negotiating about the amount of water in athri’s little green cup, there was a knock on the door. i thought praveen had forgotten something, and was back. but he has his keys, i recalled with a frown. athri wanted more water in his cup, i insisted it was just right. the knocking got louder. i walked around athri and out of the kitchen, leaving him still complaining about the less-amount of water (definitely not enough to soak the lounge carpet, which is what he really wanted to do).

i opened the door. it wasn’t praveen. two big policemen stood outside, looking all prepared to send a message on a fat walkie-talkie. my heart beat fast. my mind raced with thoughts: buthow…praveenjustleft…omygodhassomethinghappenedtohim…hemusthavejustgottothecorner…howdidthepolicegethere…sofast!?

it was the taller policeman who read my mind.

nonono, not to worry. everything’s fine. we have just come to make an enquiry.

ohh, escaped from my lips.

we received a call from one of your neighbours who was very concerned. they said they heard a child and a woman wailing out loud. we just came to check…are you okay? do you have a child at home?

i finally smiled. oh i’m absolutely fine. that must have been my son i’m afraid, he’s tantrummy these days. i’m sorry if they were disturbed…

no no, they were worried and made the call. we were just doing our duty and had to check if everything was fine. so, you’re sure you’re fine? is it only the two of you at home?

my husband’s just gone over to tescos…you can come in and wait if you want to. he’ll be right back.

so…there’s no problem of any kind. you were not crying were you? he asked, studying my brown face and exhausted eyes.

i laughed. absolutely sir, no problem. it’s always like this at sleeptime these days.

i was embarrassed. at once the picture of sunny, happy and well-behaved neighbour’s-envy-owner’s-pride toddlers-in-prams came to my mind. how do they do it, i thought. other peoples’ children. as if on cue, athri appeared behind the child-security-gate on top of the steps, standing with his legs apart, hands still holding the little green water-cup, as if demanding to know, what do they want radu? come and give me more water to play with. a complete toddler-dada-in-the-making. my son. bully at home, billi outside.

ah, there’s our culprit, they said together. convinced. they laughed, and left.

i wondered which of our neighbours had made the complaint. the ones next door? i hadn’t met them but i hear their dog bark aloud non-stop, nine-to-six. every day they leave the poor thing alone in the house and go to work. or was it the sri lankan menopausal mother-teenage daughter downstairs, who themselves have a shouting match every other night.

this is the second time in a month that athri has brought the police. the first time he dialled their number himself (the whole seven-digit number of the harrow police station, not the 9-9-9!), when he was at rashmi’s place. they arrived tracking the house number from the landline-phone athri was poking at, by which time he was already back home with praveen, and blissfully asleep.

shaking my head and still smiling, i went to athri and told him, now look what you have done. at this rate you will soon be on their wanted-list, and we will be behind bars for suspected child-torture, when actually it is the other way round.

athri pointed to the tv excited, asking me to switch it on, saying beibies, beibies. i said no, there is no beibies now kutti, they have all gone to bed, and you must too. and then he shakes his head. naooo, naoo he says in his british-accent which i currently find very cute…baaallaaaoorriy. he was trying to tell me something. what is that again? i asked.


i understood.

athri was telling me that i was wrong. that was not the police, it was just pc plum, the singing inspector from balamory!