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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

(My exams are officially OVER, leaving me with six days of absolutely nothing to do, the first of which I spent in Kolkata yesterday, mostly in the wonderful Oxford Book Store at Park Street ......among the prize catches were Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theatre" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth")

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" is a remarkable novel in many ways (leaving aside the Booker brouhaha and the fact that it is a debut novel)The first, and in my humble opinion, the most important thing is that it is, quite simply so intensely readable......I know for a fact that a lot of very voracious readers actually avoid what they refer to as the "Booker-Vooker types" because of what they perceive as complexity in tone and content, inscrutable cultural allusions and sometimes off-putting literary gymnastics in general.

No such troubles here. Adiga's voice is instantly engaging, he talks to us but never preaches, never tries to play gotcha, and manages to be racy without being shallow throughout the length of the 330-odd pages. Moreover, all too often, his character Balram Halwai, "servant, entrepreneur, murderer..." and the "White Tiger" displays often startling insight into the way the world ticks, cloaked in down-to-earth hokum and sly humour.Having a first-person narrative is slippery ground at the best of times, and it requires a very steady hand at the wheel. (In this aspect, Halwai's saccharine-like tone to Premier Jiabao, to whom he tells the story; reminded me a lot of Mohsin Hamid's " The Reluctant Fundamentalist", where the central character Changez's dialogue with the American stranger lends a dangerous edge to the already taut narrative)

For the most parts Adiga has things under control, except perhaps the parts where he desrcibes the parts where he describes the young Halwai describing his father's death due to TB: I felt that the graphic descriptions of a government hospital in disarray, were akin to emotional pornography and looked more in place in an 70's Bollywood flick where the greatly aggrieved child would morph into Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man with a deft camera-stroke.

Having said that, Adiga's portrayal of ordinary village life(in this case, in a village near Dhanbad!) shines luminously. He fleshes out his characters lavishly. One thing Adiga will never be accused of is pulling his punches. And in the feudal system which has the average Indian village in a chokehold, he has got the soapbox of a lifetime. Whether it is the landowners(called animal names like the Stork), the pathetic obsequious peasants or greasy local politicians, Adiga digs in with obvious relish. He makes much of the "other India" the land which he calls the Darkness. It is this darkness that Halwai is so desperate to escape, and he leaves no stone unturned to realize his dream. The Darkness oozes slime, it reeks....and its inhabitants with it. Whether it is Halwai's painstaking efforts to educate himelf, or his pathetic work at the tea-shop or his overbearing stereotypically matriarchal granny, Adiga makes you laugh while making you sit back and think. Sustaining black humour is easier said than done... sample this passage where he talks about the way the poor stay poor:

“Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Here Adiga treads a fine line, for he opens a Pandora's box when he chooses to base his whole plot on the debunking of the "India Shining" blend the personal with the political, using one man's story as a mirror to the society as a whole. It has been done before, but never with such irreverent, take-no-prisoners styled wit.

In Halwai, Adiga has created a bona fide original, a truly unforgettable character, who leaps straight off the pages. He is street-smart, wildly ambitious and till the end, rigidly unapologetic till the very end. For all his supposed grief when he realized that he had to kill his employer, he never hesistated in the actual act itself. He is always very mindful of the fact that he is destiny's chosen child, the one who will make the miraculous leap from the Darkness into the Light. And for that, he is ready to do whatever it takes.......this is perhaps best portrayed when he talks casually about maybe having to kill his nephew, who knew about his crime, someday. Halwai is about as remorseful as Tom Ripley, and a lot more fun.

This is no mean debut. Adiga has at a single stroke, catapulted himself into the big league. Let's see how he fares in the days to come. A month ago, his second book, Between The Assassinations, which he supposedly wrote before this one, was released and has been doing brisk business,expectedly. I hope to get my hands on that one, soon, though I gave it a miss yesterday, in favour of Roth and Rushdie.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Persepolis Experience

(Redirected from my blog at

Okay, so nowadays I am on a graphic novel spree. Having devoured Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (although an outstandingly original work,Persepolis is unmistakeably influenced by “Maus”) Alan Moore’s “From Hell” and closer home, Sarnath Bannerjee’s refreshing debut “Corridor” in the last few weeks, I have read precious little apart from graphic novels lately….. One of the topics that has been done to death whenever we talk about graphic novels or comic-books in general is how the medium is in sync with cinema(although this has its opponents, most notably Alan Moore, who commented that during the 80’s and the early 90’s he concentrated on making comic-books which were , well, unfilmable…….let’s see what he makes of the upcoming Watchmen movie…more about that in a later post!)

Therefore I was pretty excited about watching Marjane Satrapi’s animated film “Persepolis” . I read the graphic novel ( both volumes of it), on my laptop in one go, so jaw-droppingly good it was. It is at once an intensely personal memoir and a mirror which looks into Iran’s troubled past and asks some questions which cut uncomfortably close to the bone. Beginning with young Marjane or Marji’s childhood, we are led on a journey which tells us more about the oppressive regime of the Shah , and the subsequent revolt, than any number of history books could. By the time Marjane is a troubled teenager, a drifter and finally a somewhat mellowed young adult , we are totally engrossed by the simply yet beautifully told story.

Given that the film is co-directed by Satrapi herself, who wrote and drew the book, the film manages to capture the essence of the 350-odd pages over a mere 85 or so minutes. The film is full of highly poignant moments, like the one where Marji realizes how utterly lone she is in France, or the one where she gets expelled from her school for speaking out against the regime, or the one where she meets her favourite uncle in jail for the last time……. The direction is warm, sensitive and funny. In fact, perhaps because I loved the book so much, I felt a bit disappointed because some of the delicious scenes in the book, especially in the second volume, never make the cut in the film. This is one of the reasons why I believe that, ideally, The Persepolis Experience firmly consists of both the novel and the film, in that order.

It is unbelievable that “Persepolis” did not win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, (though it did win the Prix du Jury at Cannes) pipped to the post by Ratatouille, which was funny but, frankly wasn’t even in the same ballpark as this unassuming masterpiece. The film is searingly honest, as it uses the cliches of the bildungsroman(the coming-of-age tale) to chronicle the horrors of living in fear and risking one’s freedom for one’s principles. The structure of the film is such that as the child Marji grows up , previously everyday incidents now take up sinister undertones as she starts to realize the complex dynamics of her homeland. Note that when Marji is brought upto date on the events of her homeland by her father, she reacts not as the adult she has become, but as the child she once was.

Her attempts to lead a life the way she deems fit, with all the trappings of American culture (complete with smuggled Iron Maiden posters) make for some darkly funny moments. The scene where she lets go of her boyfriend’s hand at the wheel stayed with me, as is the one where her mother is verbally abused by one of the moral police hounds. The often trouble nature of Marji’s own morals is all-too clear, as shown by the scene where she falsely accuses a random stranger of making lewd advances, just because she could…… But all is not gloomy and dark, as Marjane does encounter a truly religious person, albeit towards the fag end of the film.

At this point, I must admit that I am in complete awe( and when I say awe, I mean the college-kid droolfest variety)of Satrapi as a writer and an artist……part of it because she is every bit the classic “rebel” intellectual, always stepping on politically correct toes, never giving a damn about how her works are perceived, (a later book, Embroideries, has a story line about an Iranian mother of four who has no clue what the male organ looks like…..) perennially with a cigarette on her lips( she once joked about wanting to be the “world champion in smoking”) she cuts quite a figure and she knows it.

Persepolis will stay with you long after the credits have rolled down……it’s an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blogger's Block

It's been a lean few weeks as far as blogging is concerned, and I'm afraid the coming week isn't gonna be much better, either. My end-semester exams are round the corner, and after that, I have a week's holiday before I'm hauled off to the back of beyond for a field trip to study rocks and all the other good things in life.(I study Applied Geology) Hoping to catch up on the blog(among other things....) during that week. Some posts on the anvil are sure to involve-

1. Aravind Adiga's magnificent debut "The White Tiger" which bagged the Man Booker Prize this year.
2. The weird world of Tarsem Singh who has given us two truly unique, outrageously original films: The Cell and The Fall
3. The works of comic book writer Alan Moore: The path-breaking graphic novel Watchmen, V For Vendetta, The Killing Joke, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
4. My new-found love for animes.
5. Some other terrific graphic novels I read recently, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and the evergreen Maus by Art Spiegelman(which I re-read)
6. Boston Legal, my all-time favourite television series, which will take its final bow on the 15th of December(at which time I'll probably be surrounded by vast expanses of metamorphic rocks, and little else).