Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Adiga Wins the 2008 Man-Booker

Well, smack, as they say, my fanny, and call me Diana (or Charlie, if you prefer). A rank outsider has won the Booker; what a surprise! Arvind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, an acidic satire (is this a tautology?) on modern India, blew Michael Portillo’s socks off, and landed the glabrous Indian with the 2008 Man Booker prize. In recent years the Booker awarding committees seem to take special (and, you can’t help wondering, malicious) pleasure in proving the bookies wrong. They have done it for the fourth successive year, awarding the prize, as it happens, to two Irish and two Indian authors. Indeed, being tipped by the bookies as a favourite must, now, be counted as a certainty that the novel—it was Sebastian Barry’s misfortune to have been backed by the bookies to win the prize this year—will not make it.

For the record, Adiga is the fourth Indian born author after Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Desai to have won the Booker. One can add to this list V.S. Naipaul, who, while he wasn’t born or lived in India, is of Indian ancestry. He (Adiga, not Naipaul), at 33, is the second youngest author to win the Booker, after Ben Okri (who won it when he was 32). He is the fourth author after Keri Hulme (1985), Arundhati Roy (1997) and DBC Pierre (2003) to win the award for his debut novel. In an interview to BBC Radio 4 Adiga laid to rest any fears that he might suffer the same fate as that of the two women, neither of whom has published another novel after their prize-winning efforts (although Roy, to be fair, has published a couple of works of non-fiction, and is rumoured to have been working, after a decade, on her second novel; Hulme, as the cliché goes, has disappeared without trace). When asked whether he was thinking about writing his next novel, Adiga replied that his next novel—he was rather coy about its subject matter, and mumbled some unconvincing clichés about writing being an intensely personal and private activity—was more or less complete. One imagines that after the Booker success he would not have much trouble in finding a publisher.

Adiga’s novel, which he has been at pains to clarify (a) is not so much angry as funny, and (b) was a ‘bestseller’ in his home-country, India, even before it was long-and-short-listed for the Booker (one hopes that the novel, which has so far sold a meagre 3000 copies in the West, will do better post-Booker), is about what he describes as the ‘other India’, comprising, he would have us believe, the majority of that country’s denizens, who have not reaped the rewards of the economic liberalization in the past decade or so. (Given the sobering statistics, announced by the World Health organization this month, outlining the extent of the problem of malnutrition facing modern India—40% of the world’s malnourished live in India, and some states in Northern and Central parts of India are apparently on par with some of the sub-Saharan African countries—there may be some truth in this claim.) This vast underclass, Adiga claims, is the real India, not the 5% of the affluent, educated, privileged class, to which, incidentally, he, a son of a doctor, belongs. Some have questioned Adiga’s credentials to write about underclass to which he does not belong, the implicit assumption being his view, therefore, is that of an outsider, not, somehow, quite echt. This is rather harsh. Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London is no less authentic because he belonged to the chattering classes. (It is not a very well known fact that in writing Down And Out in Paris and London Orwell was no more than a literary tourist. Orwell lived as a homeless and unemployed, all the time secure in the knowledge that he could return to the bosom of his wealthy family any time, which is what he did after a few weeks, having gathered, presumably, enough raw material to write a novel.) Adiga worked, for a few years, as a business journalist for the Time magazine, and, during his travels, had, allegedly, the opportunity to look at the downtrodden of India from close quarters. The White Tiger was the result of these travels, a novel, he has revealed, he wrote a few years ago, although it was published only recently. Adiga says he took upon himself to write about ‘the brutal injustice’ of the Indian society—‘India is a society of profound inequality and inequality is not just a moral vice, it also leads to instability’, he declares— since no one had done it, according to him, previously. By this, he probably means English language novels written by Indians. India is only a partial English speaking country, but it has a long literary tradition; there must be wealth of local literature waiting to be translated into English. One imagines literature was getting published in some or more of India’s several local languages—each state has its own language— for a while before some or more of the educated Indians cottoned on to the idea of writing in English, thereby attracting a wider audience, recognition (and possibly royalties) for their works; and it stretches the limits of credulity somewhat to assume that the disadvantaged and dispossessed went unrepresented in Indian literature before Adiga got his brainwave. In a recent interview Adiga drew comparisons with Flaubert, Balzac, and Dickens—nothing wrong in that; you might as well do it yourself if no one else seems to be in a rush to do it—claiming that his work, just like theirs, threw into sharp relief the injustice of the society; and he hoped that Indian society would be a better one as a result of his endeavours, just as French and British societies became better ones as a result of theirs. One has to admire the nobility of the young man’s ambition.

I have often wondered how a winner of such awards is chosen. There must have been books which were unanimous choices of all the judges. I should like to think that Schindler’s List and The Remains of the Day were two such winners. According to Paul Theroux, one of the judges on the 1979 panel, the winner that year, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, which holds the record of the shortest book to have won the Booker, was a ‘compromise winner’: the panel was apparently equally divided between those who felt V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was a masterpiece and those who were determined (Theroux amongst them) to ensure that Naipaul, who, even then, had managed to antagonize many, did not win the Booker the second time. The White Tiger, by all accounts, was not a compromise winner. There was a fierce deadlock with Adiga edging out Barry, the Bookies’ favourite, 3:2. One judge was said to be in tears when she (or he) could not win over a third person to Barry.

Finally, what about Linda Grant, my choice for the Booker? Well, she might not have trousered the £ 50,000 award, but, according to her (appropriately named) blog, The Thoughtful Dresser, on which she was agitating for months about not having a suitable dress to wear for the ceremony, she was the only one of the short-listed author who ‘walked away with a free Oasis Clarke dress.’

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Chronicles of A Dyspeptic Man: Workout

It is early in the morning and you are working out on a cross-trainer in the exercise room. The room unsuccessfully attempts to give an illusion of being twice its actual size by dint of a carpet-to-ceiling mirror attached to the wall directly in front of you. It also means that you can’t help looking at, from time to time, your own contorted face as you labour on the cross-trainer. On the sidewall is a plasma screen television showing news: a sultry brunette newsreader is discussing with a foxy blonde economic analyst the credit crunch and the crisis on the Wall Street. Both have an air of mild excitement about them as if they had, both, just then, received, or were waiting for, with eager anticipation, what they hoped to be a jolly good rogering.

The door of the exercise room opens and in walks a muscular man of above average height. He is not bad looking in a stolid, dull, vacant way. He seems overjoyed to see you and gives an ear-to-ear grin, revealing a full set of shiny white and rather larger teeth. You feel obliged to rearrange the muscles around your mouth, with an aim to position your lips in a way that could be construed as a hint of a smile.

This turns out to be a mistake. The man takes it as a cue to start conversation.

‘Are you having a good day, so far, sir?’ he asks.

It is a quarter to six in the morning. You had had a late and not very pleasant evening the previous day. You ate in a Chinese restaurant, the company not very sparkling, the waitress over-familiar, over-talkative, over-enthusiastic (and middle aged), feeling it was her duty to inform you how each and every dish you’d ordered was prepared—‘We marinate Mongolian Beef overnight’—till you’d wanted to slap her, and the adjoining table being occupied by a family with destructive toddlers who either wanted the same seat or the same apple juice or their mother’s attention at the same time. One of the toddlers was a girl who, having recently made the discovery that she could speak, was yakking non-stop (shamelessly abetted by her mother, who, instead of telling her to shut up so that others could eat in peace, was beaming at fellow diners with pride every time the girl made some inane comment, as if she had split atom), while the other toddler, a boy, not having attained, yet, the same level of linguistic competence, was throwing forks and knives in different directions with grim determination, much, you’d noticed, to the merriment of his father. One of the missiles had missed your nose by hair’s breadth and you’d felt obliged to tell the father that he ought to control the little brat more effectively, and he’d taken great pleasure in informing you that while he’d noted down your concern there was precious little he could do about it—‘Children will be children’. You had washed down the Mongolian Beef and Hakka Noodles with a bottle of Turner Road Merlot and had woken up at four thirty in the morning with a bursting bladder and your throat feeling as if someone had rubbed hot sand on it with a polish paper. Having considered your options, and voting in favour of exercising over a wank or watching porn, you’d come to the hotel’s gym, hoping that you’d not be disturbed. And then this saphead walks in.

Ignoring that you have ignored his greeting, the man walks towards the window of the third floor exercise room and, looking down at the car-park, declares, ‘Gorgeous day!’ He seems pleased with this discovery. You carry on peddling on the cross-trainer, hoping that he’d shut up or, preferably, go away.

‘You want a towel?’ You look over your shoulder and he is standing behind you, holding a small Turkish towel from the rack in the corner, provided by the management.

‘No, thanks.’

He makes his way towards the weights and looks down at them. You are looking at him in the mirror. He flexes his upper arm and gives an admiring glance to his bulging biceps. He then proceeds with the weights and is soon emitting sounds not unlike those one makes on the bog when constipated. As your ill luck would have it he pauses just when you pause to take a breather.

‘Where are you from, friend?’ he asks.

Not knowing, immediately, how to disabuse him of the misguided notion that you're his friend, you tell him.

‘Oh! My brother lives there,’ he exclaims. Every second fuckwit you meet these days seems to have a relative hiding in some hole in the city you live in. You know, with a sinking heart, what is going to follow.

‘He is in Computers,’ the man says.

‘Oh!’ you reply with tremendous incuriosity.

‘Yeh! Has been living there for almost ten years. Says he likes it there. I can’t see myself living there; I’d feel cramped.’

‘Have you been there any time?’

‘Nah! Jim—that’s my brother— invites me every time we speak, but it’s too long a distance to travel. I have never travelled to abroad. Never felt the need.’

‘There are aeroplanes, these days, you know. You can reach the other part of the globe in less than twenty four hours. Mind you, you’re not missing anything. It is an over-crowded, over-polluted, over-inflated, over-hyped place where there are only three seasons: miserable, more miserable and absolutely dreadful.’ You don’t know why you are saying this and prolonging your agony; you don’t really want to carry on with this conversation.

‘Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! You’re a funny guy. I’d love to share a few jokes with you over cocktails.’

‘Unfortunately, my schedule is rather tight.’ While the chances of your meeting this man during the rest of your stay in the hotel (three days), outside of the exercise room, are very slim, you tell yourself you are wise to take precautionary measures.

‘This is a beautiful state,’ the man ventures more information.

‘Compared to what?’


‘It was just that you said you’d never travelled out of the country. I was just curious to know what your reference point was.’

‘Yeh! Just that,’ the man replies. You suspect that the full range of human potentialities is rather limited in his case. Or, as Aldous Huxley would have put it, out of ten octaves that make up the human instrument, he can compass perhaps two.

The man walks to the water-fountain in the other corner of the room and starts drinking greedily, as if he has remembered, just then, how to do it. You return to your cross-trainer. He then walks back to the middle of the room and lies supine on the floor. He stretches his arms behind his head and lifts his hips in what you assume is some sort of stretching exercise. As his pelvis rises up, his loose black shorts fall back, partially revealing his balls and limp penis. He remains suspended in that position for a few seconds, then brings his pelvis down, his buttocks landing on the floor with a soft thud. You look the other way, quickly, before he attempts the manoeuvre again. A side-on view of the-word-you-think-is-Carajo-in Spanish is not something you wish to see first thing in the morning (or for that matter at any time of the day) on an empty stomach (or for that matter on a full stomach). The man gets up; in one quick motion readjusts the position of his penis (and scratches his balls); and returns to the weights. But not before making some more observations, this time on the national game.

‘Did you watch the World Series final last night? Cracking game.’

‘World Series final? Which game might you be talking about?’

It turns out he is talking about baseball.

‘I am afraid I don’t follow baseball. Is it possible to hold a world series for a game that is played in only one country?’

This query is met with the expected non sequitur. ‘We are crazy about baseball, here. You guys play a similar game, don’t you? Cricket? Very quaint.’

‘Yes. Very. It is played in a few countries.’

‘Do you follow it?’

‘Oh God! No! What’s the point in watching a game which goes on for days and ends without a result? And I can’t be bothered with all that jargon: you are in when you’re out, and out when you’re in’; rubbish like that.

‘Is it Football, then?’

‘Hate it. Entertainment for the lobotomised by the lobotomised.’

‘Which sport do you follow then?’

‘Let me think. Tennis. Women’s tennis to be precise. When Sharapova is playing, to be more precise. When she is bending down to receive a serve and the camera is focusing on her ass, to be even more precise.’

‘You are absolutely cracking me up.’

Well, as they say, de gustibus non est disputandum.

‘Wow! That’s, like, profound. What does it mean? Is it Latin?’

‘You are wrong there. It does sound like Latin, but it’s in fact Sanskrit.’

‘Are you sure?’ The man asks dubiously. Perhaps he is not as simple as that.

‘Absolutely. And it means: in matters of taste there is no argument. Anyway, it was nice talking to you; I have to get going, now.’

‘Well, it was great talking to you. Have a smashing day.’

You leave the exercise room thinking the rest of the day would indeed be smashing if you did have to listen to his vacuous drivel.

Later . . .

You walk into the breakfast room, which is half-empty, and, to your dismay, you see the man sitting on his own with a pile of rashers on his plate. He grins at you and you wince at the sight of those teeth; he indicates with a wave of his hand that he’d be delighted if you joined him. You really are left with no option. You go to the counter; add breakfast cereal to your bowl and pour (virtually fat free) milk on it. Then you walk slowly back to where the man is sitting, and sit on the next table. You turn to him and, in the immortal words of Sid James, say to him: ‘Do us a favour sunny Jim; go and fuck yourself.’

Book of the Month: Girl with Green Eyes (Edna Obrien)

Girl With Green Eyes is the second novel in Edna O’Brien’s celebrated Country Girls trilogy. The first, The Country Girls, appeared in 1960, and announced the arrival of a fresh, exciting voice on the British literary scene. Girl With Green Eyes, originally published as The Lonely Girl, appeared two years later, affirmed that O’Brien was a major talent.

The Girl With Green Eyes traces the lives of Cathleen (who prefers to be called Cait) and her childhood friend, Baba, both young women in their early twenties, who have moved to Dublin from the Irish countryside, and are, in their own ways, trying to get as much away as possible from their sheltered, puritanical Roman Catholic upbringing: they drink, dress up, spend evenings, whenever they can afford, in the dance halls; and, if they have not yet had had affairs in Dublin, it is not because of want of trying. The period is not clearly defined but is most probably the ‘50s. Baba, the daughter of a veterinarian, is the more adventurous of the two, and manages to cadge invitations to exhibitions and do’s. Tall, slim, and not exactly shy, Baba is not short of admirers. Cait, plump and ample-bosomed, is bashful and gauche, and follows Baba to the parties, loitering in the background, wanting to commingle with young men, but not quite having the courage to strike up conversations. However it is Cait who manages to becharm Eugene Gaillard, a filmmaker who is several years older than she, whom she meets at an exhibition. Eugene is non-Catholic and estranged from his American wife who has moved back to the States with their daughter. When an interfering busybody wises up Cait’s alcoholic father about what his daughter has been getting up to, via an anonymous poisonous letter, the father, accompanied by fellow drunkards from the village, arrives at Eugene’s house where Cait has taken to spending nights (although the relationship is not consummated). Bad girl Baba, in the meanwhile, manages to get a bun in the oven by sleeping with a married man. Cait sees Eugene as a great lover, while he sees her for what she is: an immature, insecure and confused girl-woman, who is rebelling against but is also a victim of her rigid upbringing. It is a fundamentally unbalanced romance, which is doomed to fail. When Cait leaves Eugene after one of their contretemps (which are becoming frequent), leaving behind a note that she is leaving for England together with Baba (who has—shock! horror!—had an abortion), inwardly hoping that he would come for her, she—and only she—is in for a surprise and heartache. The novel ends on an elegiac note for the lost love, but also with the hint that the young narrator has matured.

Given Edna Obrien’s rigid, Catholic upbringing—her family apparently was vehemently against anything to do with literature and O’Brien described her village community as ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted’—, the question has been posed repeatedly whether the trilogy is autobiographical. O’Brien has never answered this question directly. In an interview she replied, rather tartly, that the novels were autobiographical insofar she was born and bred in West Ireland, educated at a Convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense of outrage.

Girl with Green Eyes, together with the other two novels in the trilogy, is rightly regarded as a work of high feminism. Its bold (for the times) themes—young women, raised conventionally, rebelling against their upbringing and exploring their sexuality—coupled with the irreverence displayed towards the traditionally strict, Irish religious customs meant this seminal work was banned in her native Ireland. In some ways, The Girl with green Eyes, indeed the trilogy, is a forerunner of the motif of O’Brien’s later works: women who are victims of harsh, almost cruel, upbringing, and who get entangled with men who let them down in a variety of ways. The difference here is that the young heroine of The Girl with Green Eyes is not resentful despite the rather callous and patronizing ways in which she is treated by her lover and family respectively, perhaps because she has the optimism of youth, or because the disappointments and reversals of life haven’t yet become wearisome and bred cynicism. This innocence and naivety is also conveyed very effectively by the unselfconscious, casual, almost bawdy tone of the narration. The ambiance of the novel is affectionate (without being affected) and effusive (without, at any time, being kitschy), in stark contrast to the rather isolated and dreary existence of Cait and Baba. It is impossible not to warm up to the two leprechauns. You may even shed a tear or two when young Cait suffers the inevitable heartache.

In Writers at Work Edna O’brien wrote: "They used to ban my books, but now when I go there, people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back. Then again, Ireland has changed. There are a lot of young people who are irreligious, or less religious. Ironically, they wouldn't be interested in my early books - they would think them gauche." Nothing could be further from truth. The warm, affectionate glow of this delightful novel will continue to enchant readers for decades.