Sunday, July 26, 2009
My half-baked thoughts on...
When you get here, you'll be told we Indians invented everything from the Internet to hard-boiled eggs to spaceships before the British stole it all from us.
Nonsense. The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop.
Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench....On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken...The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.
The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.
Aravind Adiga has created a complex character in Balram Halwai, a young man who knows his place in the mass of humanity that is his home in Laxmangarh, India. He knows that his religion and the education that he has managed to obtain have conditioned him to behave in a certain way. He knows that stepping out of bounds in certain ways can bring shame and even death to the rest of his family.
The reader knows, early on, that he will murder a rich man, his employer. Murder is very wrong, but there's a turning point, when this young man's rage becomes all the more personal: after a scene that seems to be an homage to The Great Gatsby, Balram realizes that he might be forced to go to prison in place of the master's wife, who has drunkenly run over and killed a child with their big car. It is lucky for Balram that no one seems to miss this poor, homeless child.
Balram Halwai breaks out of the Rooster Coop, but he is forced to act against his nature at every turn; he does things that he doesn't enjoy admitting. This story is full of moral ambiguity. Since this is one of our book discussion group novels, I know that someone will ask, "Did Balram win you over?" My answer would be, I suppose so. He has an egotistical side that rubs me the wrong way, but on the other hand, he does not act like his previous masters. In the end, the people he hires are his employees, not his servants, and he does learn how to grease palms while being fair to his underlings. And he never forgets that he's murdered someone or the fact that his family must have suffered for his crime (except for a lucky nephew, who he is raising). Yes, his actions are ultimately selfish, but then he was pushed too far by a corrupt servitude system in a chaotic region. That he finds some way of making a life for himself that is not miserable is something like a miracle.
The above quotation is actually from the very middle of the story. Balram is writing letters to the Premier of China, and these letters are a vehicle for the telling of his life story. Whether or not these letters are ever actually posted is anyone's guess.
I can see why this book is an award-winner. It's well-written, provocative, and engaging, and I would definitely recommend it.