This is going to be a long one, so anyone who can’t read beyond 500 words may wait for my next post and skip this one.
I just finished reading the Booker-prize winning book the White Tiger, which my friend Chiquita was kind of enough to gift me as a birthday present. It was excellently written and quite riveting. (Can you sense the ‘but’ coming? Here it is.)
I was unfortunately reading Shantaram simultaneously. So the whole effect was one of overkill. When I read one of these books, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by how well…sub-human and ridiculous… Indians are made out to be. Have you noticed? I can’t deny most of the stuff that is put in these books, I would be lying if I tried. Yes we live in the Turd World, 90% of people use the great outdoors as a Great Outhouse. I refrain from explaining further because you only need to pick up one of these books to learn all about this phenomenon.
90% of us are, of course, desperately, miserably, “the pavement is my home” kind of poor-- that’s true. And when you’re describing the conditions they’re in I understand that one needs to linger lovingly over each scatological detail – ostensibly to portray the sickening existence they endure. But, why, oh why…do Indian authors in English (which Shatantaram is not, we’ll get back to that book in a moment) feel compelled to describe the bowels of even the upper class (evil, upper caste, murdering raping) characters of the story? They go to their gold-inlaid, made-with-the-blood-and-sweat-of-downtrodden-untouchables bathrooms. So why this detailed inventory of what they did there for the readers? I’ll tell you why. Because it is expected of an Indian book in English. It’s almost as if the publishers send the draft novels back to the authors with a note: “Dear Indian Writer in English, there isn’t enough faeces and sputum in the ninth chapter. Please rectify this mistake. Regards, the Editor.
Apparently shit sells.
Do these Indian authors (all of whom invariably come from upper caste/upper class, western educated families, with the luxury to take a year or two off from paying bills, so that they can write a book on circus-freak, black-and-white India and get a Pulitzer prize from the West for writing a 'no-holds barred, gritty expose on Indian society') talk about their bowel movements at those posh wine and cheese parties they meet each other at? Would they even talk to a person who does? No. But when it comes to writing a book, they have to discuss it over two revolting pages for each character, in all its Technicolor disgustingness. The West reads it with fascinated disgust and showers accolades and prizes on these people for ‘telling the truth about India in all its shittiness’.
Do western people not go to the bathroom? If you read their books one might even think that is the case. And that’s how it should be, because it’s a foregone conclusion that all human beings do and there’s no need to dwell on such details just for cheap thrills.
Now that I’ve used the word “shit’ 24 times, “bathroom” 19 and “sputum” once, I shall expect my Booker at the address provided on my home page, thank you very much.
Moving on, I want to point out some things I have noted so far in Shantaram. You can still forgive an Australian for talking about Indian do-dos (after all kangaroo crap is perhaps the only thing you can step in over there) but what I find outrageous (though terribly entertaining) is the exaggeration. Apparently he saw a man with his head on fire running into the sea to douse it while he was riding into Mumbai on a bus from the airport. I have been to Mumbai and traveled that stretch he’s mentioned a few times and never seen a man on fire. Neither have I been in a car accident the very next day and been dragged out of the taxi by my stereotypical cheerfully amoral and perennially ridiculous Indian guide, just in time to be saved from being lynched along with the taxi driver by an Indian mob.
All the Great Indian Novel stereotypes are tiresome. There are millions of people in this country of all shades and beliefs and humours. Are we all to be divided into cruel overlords and tortured low caste farmers? This is not to say that the sordid stuff they put in books about India doesn’t happen at all (they DO happen, unfortunately) what I object to are the generalizations. I read with disbelief as Adiga made sweeping generalizations about how people treat drivers in India. My parents have hired a succession of 3 drivers over the last 10 years (the drivers leave when they get better opportunities, my parents didn’t kill them, nor did they hunt down and kill their entire families down to the last third cousin when they turned in their car keys.) and not once has their been any rumors of my family members asking these gentlemen to wash their (the former’s I mean) feet in hot water. Nor in cold water, I hasten to add. They have never been asked to sweep the courtyard or play ball with the children either. Strange but true. And as for their being asked to pour whisky for their masters from a bottle that’s always kept in cars for the purpose AS they drove, let me tell you I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life. And it hasn’t been such a short time for me in India either.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Adiga spent a lot of time in the West because he refers to the character throwing away food in anger in two places in the book. Indians, especially someone as poor as the protagonist, NEVER throw away food. At the most, you might throw away some on your plate that you JUST could NOT eat…but throwing your share of the chicken curry against a wall of your mud and thatch hut in anger? That’s just fiction. If an Indian family has an argument over dinner they shovel their food into their mouths as fast as they can and stomp off only when dessert is done.
I wish someone would write a book or two about the wholly different trials and tribulations of the middle class, maybe a family that doesn’t torture the help, if we can be so daring. Maybe we can just put a note at the beginning of the book that it is understood that these people DO go to the bathroom, but entire chapters have not been devoted to it in interests of brevity. Maybe this family’s problems can be more universal, like yours and mine…problems at work, problems in love, problems with parents and kids, making friends losing friends people dying (but not necessarily because an upper caste overlord beat them to a pulp because the temperature of the foot bath was wrong, or because they tried to escape from being a sex slave)…you get the drift.
I will personally give such an Indian a prize. The story might not be exotic or Booker worthy, but it’ll be a subtle story about lives many of us literate middle class professionals live; and thereby identifiable. Anyone brave enough for the challenge out there?