Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The White Tiger

I read this novel last week. It is a debut novel of Aravind Adiga, published in 2008 in both US and UK by Freedom Press and Atlantic Books respectively. It is really what it says on its cover - completely bald, angry, unadorned portrait of India, as seen from the bottom of the heap ... (quoting Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times). I usually am not a fan of books published by western publishers on India - especially written by Indians. They normally depict India in a very bad manner. "Bash India" series of books seem to be particularly attractive to the western press. Look what happened to "Slumdog Millionaire" - that's the India which appeals to a Western mind, probably.

I read the novel with this bias and I realized my mistake. I realized why this book was awarded the Booker Prize in 2008. This novel is a brilliant page turner, full of anger and dark humour, an epic battle of loyalty to master, dedication to family and a strong desire to be someone. What ultimately wins is clear in the beginning chapters itself - but how it all happens is what compels you to read the novel.

I won't spill the beans, but try to tell you what it is all about. Okay here I go:

The novel is a story of a gecko fearing village boy transforming into an entrepreneur White Tiger who "drives IT forward". Between these two end points lies a tight, crisp narration of the transformation as dictated to the visiting premier of China. The transformation lifts Balram Halwai from the north Indian village darkness into entrepreneurial lime light of Bangalore. It happens, thanks to someone else's money, hard work and dedication - an overall urge to break out of the "Rooster coop" and "make it". Of course, Balram was never seeking glory but only breaking away from the darkness. It sounds a like an ideal plot for the next Hindi movie. I can imagine my friend Santo sketching it in his mind. But it is not.

Author surprises you with his accuracy and keen observation. Some of the themes are continuously sustained - for example - making of the rich, anger of the deprived and craving of the rich. Though guilty of a heinous act, the hero remains tender. The balance between these two is well achieved in the novel.

Vijay - the uniform clad local bus conductor evokes dreams of success in the young Balram. Despite granny Kusum's iron grip on everyone's life, Balram learns driving, acquires his employment as a driver through drama and moves to the position of the head servant by exploiting an important find. Then begins Balram's transformation from darkness to, could I say, light. Also well-narrated is the opposite journey of a sensible man, Balram's master. Initially Balram seems to be happy with his short term goals of emulating his master. But one incident which invites Balram to be part of his master's family and the way "they" corrupt his good master accelerates the breakaway - and ultimately Balram snaps. His ability to spot opportunity and lessons from his own life helps Balram to complete his transformation in a somewhat positive way. Yet, his sense of servitude doesn’t seem to go away as he is still willing to massage the lotus feet of his master and visiting premiers.

The novel employs some of the concepts which are fairly known to its readers - at least the Indians. For example: corruption, village education system, election disease, honour amongst the themes to name a few. But, there are new ones such as hierarchy amongst servants, "side-business" opportunities for the employed, cravings of the rich etc. The vivid descriptions in the novel made me to close the book in shame only compel me to reopen. To my horror, I could relate to some of the thoughts expressed in the book. May be, there is a part of Balram in each of us.

Iqbal, Ghalib and Rumi are referred here and there. Some of the things stick in your mind from this book - whether it is said by Aravind - the author or the Muslim poet. Here is one teaser for you: “... the moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave ...”

And one more:

You were looking for the key for years

But the door was always open!

Well done Aravind, kudos.

Viva Barcelona!

Viva Barcelona - I am not the first one to cry so. But I am happy to join Barcelona lovers club, if there is one.

I visited Barcelona with my family (wife Rama and son Siddharth) and we fell in love with the city for multiple reasons – the atmosphere, space, variety, grid-based- architecture, bold-unique-modernistic public arts, multiple transport options, sun, sand and the sea.

Space: First thing that strikes any visitor, especially those from crowded cities like Bangalore and London, is the space. You feel relaxed and enjoy higher per capita air.

Whole city is designed on the concept of horizontal and vertical roads creating a near perfect matrix. Roads are quite wide. Even the “side road” has 2 lanes. Pedestrian and cycle paths are more than respectable.

Order and Simplicity: There are only a handful of circles or round-abouts – so, less confusion. And to make matters further simple, there is only one diagonal road cutting across whole the city with motorway at one end and the sea at the other – aptly named, you guessed it right, “the diagonal”.

A noteworthy point of this “Diagonal” is that it is home not only for a large number of commercial establishments but also for innumerable parakeets.
Sadly, all these order dissipate into a canvas of chaos when you see the city from either of the hills and from atop high raised structures. The sight reminds me of some areas of Bangalore with fewer trees.

Variety: Barcelona has a variety to give you. It is not just one city – it is a whole package deal. Two hills, warm beaches, take-life-easy type of metro, cycle friendly roads, many museums, gardens, environment friendly smart-trams, two cable cars, funicular rails, Olympic village with a surprisingly small stadium, impressive port of call for luxury cruise liners and so on.

Like in India, shops stay open longer – upto 10 or 11 PM. There are loads of huge shopping malls. And many small Bangalore-shop like outlets for small scale buyers. Pace of life seem to be slow, but, people talk so fast – makes you wonder why! May be they want to finish all possible conversations quickly so that they can get back to relaxing.

Art: Then there is art. I don’t mean the “gallery” type of arts. It is there in rich form too. But I am referring to public art. You know – buildings and metal or concrete thingummies that occupy intersection of major roads and square open spaces. I saw strange designs – tetris kind of objects, Olympic rings that seem to have buried half into the ground, humanoid metallic beast, Mobius strip kind of shapes that warp and bend effortlessly. And there are fountains – lots of them. That too in working order! Not like a few we have in Bangalore that works, well, on hard-to-guess schedules. 

To me, the Barcelona public art and design looks like an “expression” of the city. It seems to say “Yes – I am young and modern. I am interesting and occasionally weird. I have it all. Love me for what I am.” One can see clash of cultures, mix of methods, controlled chaos in these works of art.

Tributes: The city pays tribute to its famous residents as artistically as possible through impressive museums, statues. Some of the famous residents include Рceramic and stain glass designer Antonio Gaudi whose creations are all over the place (La Pedrera, Sagrada Familia etc.), the great artist Pablo Picasso, one of the three tenors Jos̩ Carreras, cellist Pablo Casals (listen to this impressive piece of music РSong of the birds), former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch (I was stunned to see the accolades he received as IOC president Рnow hosted in Olympic museum) and Barcelona Football club founder Joan Gamper.

Even few visitors are honoured. For example, there is a statue of Christopher Columbus on a tall column. Though he is pointing in the wrong direction of the “new world” – America, the lions at the base of his statue are proud nevertheless!


My vote for “My favourite city so far” still goes to London. But now – Barcelona is emerging as a serious challenger. I appreciate London for its leafy suburbs, culture and “predictable” metro. I almost went crazy as Barcelona metro didn’t tell me when is the next train due. May be I was looking at the wrong display or one must be a bit Spanish to ignore it.

Like life, everything was not hunky-dory during our visit. There seem to be innumerable places to eat and drink. But, vegetarians and vegans are likely to have a tough time. Our options were pastries, breads, buns, fruits and vegetables, edible cardboard (aka pizza), expensive Indian restaurants or potato based junk such as “Patatas Bravas” or “Fritas”. Confident vegetarians try vegetarian versions of Tapas and Paellas but vegans – beware. Overall, it is an expensive place. I was wondering at the price of ordinary things such as Patatas-Bravas (3 to 4.5€ per plate of 10-14 potato wedges). For a change, McDonalds felt cheaper than road-side shops!

I would go to Barcelona again and I recommend it to you too. Watch out for the 2010 European Athletic Championships at Barcelona.

Just before leaving, I couldn’t help noticing a sign of frustration of a Barcelonan with tourists!

Equating a tourist to a terrorist is a wee bit too much. But it is okay, we are thick skinned. I say, neat handwriting and a good choice of colours!

Few more Pictures

City Features:
On Road and Off-Road beauty

Cute Cycles for hire

Long Walk to Freedom

Keep it straight son

Multi Road Intersection

Early 19th century road lamp

Olympic Ring based public art?

Less-clutter roundabout

A circle

Son, Sun and Sand

Beach side piazza?

A part of 4 km beach

The Port

Copying Dubai?

Sea for yourself

World Trade Centre

Especially expensive boats need covering up

Old Port - can you see my boat? It is the second one from left on the third row

Landmarks and Buildings:
Arc-de-Triumf - hardly crowded

Completing Gaudi’s unfinished project – Sagrada Familia

Europe’s Largest Football Stadium – FC Barcelona – can seat 100,000 people

Crucifixion – Sagrada Familia

1992 Olympics:
Barcelona Olympic Gold Medal

Silver Medal

Bronze Medal

Few Oddities

Reverse Auto - you can hire it and drive it yourself

Are they AA Batteries or LR6?
Maroon colored building?

Cars “downloaded” and ready for delivery – is one car missing in the grid?

Snow Peaked Mountain close to Barcelona?

No leaves, only fruits

Amma Tower, Paapa Tower and the yellow post box

Where is the God in this mess?

Reference to Bangalore:

A road in Malleswaram?

A new layout in Bangalore?