November 03, 2008
life in general: aravind adiga "taking heart from the darkness"
Aravind Adiga's book The White Tiger has come in the limelight recently because of it winning the Man Booker prize for 2008. The book covers the dark side of Indian society that we (those among us in India who are sensitive to what's happening around us) already know. But the world needs to know too, not that there aren't enough dark stories in the most developed of countries. But still.
On Saturday (1 Nov '08) at about 9 pm, as I was commuting back home in the local suburban train, I noticed a fellow commuter, sitting a bit far from me, reading Adiga's book. I could not resist taking a pic on the sly. See to the right; i have marked the guy and the book in a white circle.
Before the prize was awarded to Adiga, he had written a column for Tehelka magazine that talked about the driving force behind his being able to complete his book.
Here it is:
Taking Heart From The Darkness
Twenty rickshaw-pullers gathered in a dingy shed in Kolkata needed more space than a newspaper article. They spurred a novel
Author, The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga's debut novel The White Tiger, an insightful but also drolly funny worm's-eye perspective of the vast class gap in contemporary India, is on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. In this essay, Adiga, TIME magazine's India correspondent between 2003 and 2005, recalls the encounter that provided the impetus for his book.
IN 2006, I quit my job with TIME magazine, and spent the first few weeks of the year trying to finish a novel that was tentatively called The White Tiger. I gave up by March. The novel was going nowhere; I was restless. I went to Kolkata by train.
It was meant to be a holiday, but I knew no one in the city and after a day, I was bored. I was too used to being a journalist: I called an NGO and asked if there was anything to cover. “The government wants to ban the handpulled rickshaws of the city so that industrialists will feel comfortable investing here,” the spokesperson said. “Would you meet one of the rickshaw-pullers and present their point of view in an article?”
The man from the NGO took me to meet a group of rickshaw-pullers. There were nearly 20 of them, all from Bihar, living in a large, dingy shed. One rickshaw-puller, as if reading my thoughts, seized me by the wrist and took me around the shed, showing me the brooms, and explaining that there was a twice-a-day schedule of sweeping and mopping. “We are clean people, sir,” he said. “And good people. I am a Muslim, but I live here with Hindus, and there is no trouble. We have separate kitchens, and we respect each other.”
He agreed at once to let me interview him. He had heard of a British correspondent who had written about a rickshaw-puller in a big newspaper abroad; the rickshaw-puller had got the article framed and sent home to Bihar. He hoped I would do the same for him.
Since I knew nothing of a rickshawpuller’s life, I explained, I would like to meet him every evening, after he was done with his work, for perhaps a week. “You can come for a year if you want,” he said. “No one has ever wanted to talk to me before.”
“Will there still be rickshaw-pullers a year from now?” I asked. That got him started. “There will be rickshaw-pullers 10 years from now,” he said. “In 1947, when Pandit Nehru came to Kolkata, he said that rickshawpulling was not fit for human beings and had to be abolished. For 60 years, every Prime Minister who comes to Kolkata says, we must get rid of these rickshaws. And nothing has changed. The Chief Minister of Bengal says he is ashamed of us, but he knows that Bengalis are too lazy to walk from one part of the city to the other. Why don’t these people just admit they need rickshaws, and stop harassing us?”
Although he was illiterate, he had picked up the language of the trade unions, and spoke of his “fundamental rights” as a working man. He didn’t support the Communists, though. “They’ve kept the peace between the Hindus and Muslims, I’ll say that much for them, but they don’t care about the poor. No one cares about the poor, because the poor don’t care about themselves.” He had nothing nice to say about the Bengalis whom he took about in his rickshaw, but he loved Kolkata. “There are no rules here, like there are back home in the village. Even your language becomes free here. People who come here from Bihar are astonished when they hear me talk. They say I get the kaa and kii completely mixed up now,” he said, beaming, as if this were a matter of pride.
As he talked to me about his village in Bihar, a boy sat by his side — “my son”. While taking a customer about the city, he had seen an advertisement for the Indian Air Force. “I want my boy to join the Indian Air Force. He can do something for the nation; when he gets his pension, I can live off that, when my bones are broken from this work.” He made the boy write his name, in English, on my notebook. “Remember to tell the world that my son can write in English,” he said.
On the third evening, he asked me: “You’ve been listening for a long time. But I don’t know what you think of me. Do you look down upon me because of my work?”
“No,” I said. “But I keep wondering why a man who is as smart as you is doing this work. There must be something back in Bihar. Even tilling a field; there is dignity in that. Why pull a rickshaw?”
He smiled. “You’ve seen my boy, sir. But I also have three daughters; they stay with my sister in another part of Kolkata. The eldest girl is now 15 years old. She’s in school. All three are in school. If I go back to my village,” he said, “The first thing I will have to do is take them out of school and marry off all three of them within a year or two. There is no choice for Muslims of my background in Bihar.
When he stopped to catch his breath, I noticed that the other rickshaw-pullers were sitting in a circle around us and listening, in the dim light of the shed.
“This place may seem like an animal’s abode to you, but for someone like me, who has learnt to speak and think in the city, home is darkness: and this Kolkata is like light. I send my boy to the village each year, but my daughters will never go back.”
I couldn’t convince any newspaper to take my article on the rickshaw- pullers of Kolkata. But in December that year, when I returned to The White Tiger, what I had heard in that shed in Kolkata came back to me in a flood.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 38, Dated Sept 27, 2008