Saturday, November 08, 2008

Talking about a revolution

I’ve now lived in Delhi as an adult for thirteen years, and can safely say that while I think of it as my brick-and-mortar, tap-needs-fixing, hang-up-my-hat, extended family home, it’s definitely not my political, social, cultural, moral, spiritual, administrative, or any other kind of home. Which begs the question: What the hell am I still doing here? I’ll let you know as soon as I know.

You would think that being around this long might inure a person to some of the more glaring contradictions we live with. But in my deeply complicated thirteen-year relationship with India in general and Delhi in particular, though I’ve come to accept horrifying economic differences as part of life, I’ve simply never been able to wrap my head around some of what passes for normal social interaction. A few basic sample questions:

Why do English-speaking Indians talk about their Hindi-speaking compatriots in English in the presence of said compatriots, assuming that they couldn’t possibly understand English words like “stupid” or “fool” or “these people”, or that they are somehow excluded from literacy in body language and tone; or, worse, that it doesn’t matter if they do understand?

Why, for that matter, do Hindi-speaking Indians talk about their domestic help in their presence as if they weren’t there?

Why do employers of domestic help refer to them as “these people” and “they” even when they’re talking about one person?

When a doorman opens the door, or a car park attendant hands over the key, or a courier person rings the doorbell, or a roadside sweeper stops raising dust to let you walk by, why does nobody look him or her in the eye and say “Thank you”?

Why do poor people automatically defer to and leap to the aid of anyone who looks richer than themselves on the street (say, to change a flat tire, or give directions) and why do the rich automatically expect them to, and why doesn’t it ever work the other way around?

Why are employers paternalistic to the extent of withholding a poor person’s salary until after the holidays because “they’ll only drink it away”?

And so forth. The basic attitudes and common courtesies that should ease human interaction even in the face of vast economic difference don’t seem to count for much in good old India; the rich aren’t terribly keen to examine or modify their behaviour because it’s much easier to lord it over other people and not waste time on niceties like human rights and courtesy.

But there’s only so much beating, physical or psychological, that people can take before something gives way. I’ve wondered for a very long time why the revolution hasn’t yet turned up, but much of me thinks it should. I like to think it’ll be a civil affair, a socio-cultural movement; but I might be able to empathise if they decide to find people like you and me and put our heads on pikes.

That’s why I’m so enjoying The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning first novel about a man from “the Darkness” (as opposed to from the more commonly written-about light of ‘India Shining’), nursed on the usual poisons of poverty and oppression, who breaks out of what he calls the chicken coop, to journey into his version of the “Light”.

It’s deeply sad that this excellent, extremely complex and nuanced novel must be lauded for a ‘different’ view of India (as Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People was); you have to wonder why more people don’t write about this stuff. I highly recommend that you buy it and read it; at the least it will make you think hard about whether your head looks better on your shoulders or on a pike.


wordjunkie said...

Good to finally read someone saying something nice about Adiga's book. I really enjoyed it too, it's compelling reading and it's real. And yet, there a million blogs shredding the book, not for its story, or his prose, but his failure to present a positive picture of India to the Great White World. As if every Indian writer should be a PR agent for India Shining first.

Anonymous said...

I liked the edgy style of the writing, thought Adiga went overboard at times (drivers are not allowed in Malls, really? haven't seen that in Kolkata at least), but was rooting for Sea Of Poppies for the Booker.

Deepan said...

I lived in delhi wondering why no one else talked about it. Its the new caste system of the rich and poor, and the poor know the only way to get out of it is to be rich and then they can treat the poor the same way.

Where's the time for a revolution? the poor are to busy figuring out their next meal.