The Free Press imprint of Simon & Schuster has produced a paperback version of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 “novel in stories” about an Indian town. He also won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Now from this author comes a collection of interrelated tales of characters in Kittur, India, where, of 193,432 residents, only 89 declare themselves to be without religion or caste. Remember that, for caste, religion and social class seem to rule the peoples’ lives — as they always have in the subcontinent nation. For a good overview of these issues, see my review of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger.
A unique aspect of this slice of life in a fictional town on the southwestern coast is that it takes the form of a travel brochure or guide. The front matter provides a crude sketch of Kittur, as if drawn on one of the filthy napkins we find in a local tea shoppe. Brief historical synopses precede each of the 14 “sights” to visit during a week-long stay. The epigraphical trip excerpts also help visitors remain oriented to the town’s various locations.
What follows the mini-introductions are gritty and sadly realistic descriptions of the underbelly of small town Indian life. Much of the chaos is fueled by the conflicts that rise from a close confinement of Muslims, Christians, Brahmins, Hoykas and other minorities of religion, caste, and social class. I might slip in “gender” because all the stories feature men. Women function as wallpaper, carpeting, and practically slaves. Again, see Doniger’s The Hindus.
The story has been described this way:
A twelve-year-old boy named Ziauddin, a gofer at a tea shop near the railway station, is enticed into wrongdoing because a fair-skinned stranger treats him with dignity and warmth. George D’Souza, a mosquito-repellent sprayer, elevates himself to gardener and then chauffeur to the lovely, young Mrs. Gomes, and then loses it all when he attempts to be something more. A little girl’s first act of love for her father is to beg on the street for money to support his drug habit. A factory owner is forced to choose between buying into underworld economics and blinding his staff or closing up shop. A privileged schoolboy, using his own ties to the Kittur underworld, sets off an explosive in a Jesuit-school classroom in protest against casteism. A childless couple takes refuge in a rapidly diminishing forest on the outskirts of town, feeding a group of “intimates” who visit only to mock them. And the loneliest member of the Marxist-Maoist Party of India falls in love with the one young woman, in the poorest part of town, whom he cannot afford to wed.
The juxtaposition of the upbeat, nonjudgmental epigraphs resonates dissonance with the ensuing painful views of real life, such as that seen near The Cool Water Well Junction. Now boarded up and functioning as a roundabout, in a middle class neighborhood housing professionals of all castes (religions). It boasts “the most exclusive club in town” and a hospital, orthodontist clinic, many intellectual groups and the posh Rose Lane.
It is in these environs that a small brother and sister beg for money, food, and, finally, heroin for their addicted father. The family appears to live outdoors, no matter the weather. Their companions participate in every dreary, nasty, humiliating incident that happens to the family of Raju and Soumya.
Interspersed among the chapters are sections often seen in travel guides that offer further insights to the makeup of the people: “The Languages of Kittur,” “Kittur: Basic Facts,” and ending with a “Chronology” that begins October 31, 1984 with the BBC news of Indira Gandhi’s death, continues with Kittur events of politics, employment, society and ends with the May 21, 1991 CNN news of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.