I’ve never been to India, and I doubt that I will ever be able to go there but all the same it feels like I have been to India, and that the experience has left me amazed (and hungry, because many descriptions also have to do with food!)
So far I have read four books about life in India, and three of them were written by Indians. The fourth book was written by an American, and his storytelling is about how easy it is to be lost in India, the same way anyone can get lost in his own country when one is not in touch with its realities and the length and breadth of its history, the waking and breathing energy and the grief of its people.
In the Sari Shop, the story evolves around the life of a young shop clerk in a sari shop and how he responds to the life he believes was not meant to be his. He is surrounded by beautiful saris, but his life is barely influenced by beauty: an orphan, he lives alone and makes do with the most meager of means. Happiness is not something immediate to him, not even when he experiences it does he recognize it for what it is.
The India in this book deals with the divides between the rich and the poor, and how even within the ranks of both rich and poor there are divides. The poor take advantage of their fellows, and the rich live their life trying to be foreign even as they keep an iron grip on their superiority as upper-class, upper caste Indians. All this awakens in the young shop clerk an awareness of how his future was stolen from him, and its shames him to realize that even the knowledge of this injustice fails to goad them into changing his life. He fears leaving the confines of his small world despite the unhappiness and the lack of fulfillment. He is trapped in a sari shop, the same way India is trapped by its culture and traditions that refuse to recognize individuals, only classes, only caste.
John Irving wrote “A Son of the Circus” and while his protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, was born in India, he is lost in his own country and struggles to be Indian. It is a novel written with humor, but its observations can all the same cause visceral pain.
Farrokh loves his country but fears that all that he knows about India is what he learned from the exclusive country club, the Duckworth Club, he belongs to. He studied in Vienna, married an Austrian, and practiced and settled in Canada. Every three to five years he goes home to India, but or the most part since his father (a famous orthopedist and a virulent Anglophile) was killed by religious extremists, ‘home’ has been the Duckworth Club. He lives as an awed spectator in his country where cows are worshipped, 11-year old girls can be prostitutes, eunuchs are invited to bless newborns and there are processions in tribute to elephant-headed Ganesh. He knows his country’s violent and tumultuous history before Independence, but he would be the last to say that he understands it. He is a man who tries hard to be good, but in his heart of hearts he worries that he isn’t because he is bewildered in his understanding of his nation and his people.
The India in Son of the Circus is vibrant and colorful, noisy and exotic. One can practically smell and see the stench and blackness of the gutters and the shanty communities.There is violence, there is religion, there is politics and all three combine to create a nation still a long way to coming to a peaceful understanding of itself. Farrokh is the immigrant, a stranger in his strange country, the same way so many Filipinos are alienated from their own country and culture because of colonial mentality, ignorance of history, and the deliberate efforts of the state to blind us from reality.
I’m only three-fourths through Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ and its almost impossible to put down. It’s not surprising that it won the Booker Prize in 1980 and has been touted to be one of the best books in the last 100 years. It’s an amazing read and unputdownable. It’s allegorical and political and fantastic. The novel is clever and funny and it affirms how powerful literature is, how it can be used to both document and understand history, but it all depends on whose vantage point you’re using. It’s all about connectivity and relativity, the role even the seemingly insignificant can play in the most important events that impact on a nation’s struggle to be whole. It’s about tracing your roots in your nation’s history, and the folly of not learning from it.
The protagonist, Saleem Sinai tells his the story of his birth and his youth as he writes it down in the form of a biography. His personal history is woven with details of the political and social upheavals in India from the time of the Mahatma to Nehru to Indira Gandhi. At birth — on the stroke of midnight of August 15, 1957 , the day that ushered in an fledgling nation, an India independent of British rule- he was endowed with the ability to hear people’s thoughts and to communicate telepathically with the 1,001 other Indian children born the same hour he was, but he discovers this ability only on his 10th birthday, also the tenth year of India’s independence.
He tries to convince other midnight’s children to use their powers and gifts for some useful purpose, but being children, they are at odds with each other. Language, religion, class and caste, upbringing separate them, and around them extreme poverty exist hand-in-hand with religious conflict, regionalism, and fanaticism. Saleem represents India, and it is an India that cannot come to terms with its various gifts, sometimes tragically wielding them against itself.
The novel also rushes the reader through the conflicts India has had with China and Pakistan, and the impact is more bewilderment (and the storyteller, Saleem, also sounds bewildered and lost). Hindus versus Muslims and against foreign aggressors and even among the ranks of the leaders of the Hindus and the Muslims there are divisions and the narrator, a teenaged Saleem, cannot provide any explanations for the wars and what he implies to be the senselessness of so many, many violent deaths.
I first read Arundhati Roy’s first novel and Booker Prize-winning work in 1997 when it first came out. Reading it was nothing short of a journey –towards an affirmation of certain truths internal and basic to myself, and the realization that in this life, the precious and fragile things are often crushed under the weight of selfishness, malice and even mere apathy.
The God of Small Things is a graceful and strong commentary regarding the social and political realities of the author’s native India; its history, and the cultural, religious traditions that both shape and maim its people. It’s also a critique of revolution: the one that encompasses societies and what transformations could be born in its wake; and the kind that involves the self and how one comes to terms with what society has forced on the heart and mind.
I understood more about the caste system reading the novel than all the lectures I’ve heard on it in high school and college. How it divides the nation, how it separates those who love and the ones they choose to love; how it has resulted in the brutal killing of many who spoke out against it and the vicious oppression it brings.
These lessons in history, politics and culture Arundathi delivered (pointedly, painfully) through the careful weaving of the tragedy of the luminous young mother Ammu, her two-egg twins with the single, Siamese soul, eight-year olds Estha and Rahel, and the man they loved, the Untouchable Paravan Velutha. Ammu is a woman and a daughter in a culture and society where the worth of women and daughters are measured by the monetary value of the dowries their fathers can give for them. Intelligent and strong willed, she is forced to live at the scornful tolerance of her family. She raises her twins by herself, having divorced an alcoholic husband.
It goes against all that’s humane and compassionate in human nature to why barriers have to be formed to separate people from others. The laws of physics, geography and biology are more than enough to create distances between people; but other people still — through specific perverse and self-serving motives, using the deceptive language of greed and power, the weapons and means of capitalism and acts of treachery and pretense to progressive mindedness – contrive to erect more barriers, create more laws that divide and make the distance even harder to breach.
In the meantime, Arundhati also makes her own feelings about communism and the humanity of genuine communists felt in how she depicts Velutha.
All four books have allowed me to see, feel and taste a little of India, and all four of them in their own respective ways serve — as all good and meaningful (to me) literature does to the nation it describes and the culture it mirrors– as insightful commentaries on India and its culture, its people, its society and its history. India in the four novels, remain a nation still in the process of uniting with itself and its contradictions. Its people possess such a wealth of gifts, but collectively, they have as yet to fulfill their destiny as children of midnight, the hoped for harbingers of justice, democracy and equality who will create a humane society.
Many philosophers since Plato have tried to interpret the world and the unwritten laws that make people hate and kill, love and nurture, create and destroy and then defined them in terms of religion, science, race. Some have taken to categorizing them as the boon or bane of the gods or one single God. The German philosopher Karl Marx, meanwhile, synthesized these laws for humanity and labeled them as elements of class struggle.
India possesses one of the most influential cultures in the history of civilization (contributing to the world’s art, literature and science) , and even if it doesn’t know it, it will be force to reckon with once it gets its act together. In a way, India is like the Philippines which, despite being a so-called Christian, Catholic country, is full of conflict, and not a few of them caused by religious bigotry and the ignorance fostered by the narrow interpretation of faith. The Philippines cannot come to terms with its history, and many are in denial or too scared or too stupid to acknowledge the past. Because of its tragic failure, there is no genuine movement towards progress and development.
Next time I’ll try to write reviews of National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose’s books. They’re quite angry, and they’re all about what makes Filipinos the way we are.