Journeying Below the Line
When income disparity, in its entire ghastly splendor, begins to climb high on the walls of nations like India and Pakistan, people growing up between those walls lose the ability to raise vital questions like the ones India’s Aravind Adiga and Daniyal Mueenuddin from Pakistan have dedicated their debut novels to. Like any region carrying millions of offspring in its womb; when tragedies such as extremism, poverty and illiteracy raid the weaker children of South Asia, it silently aborts them to the hands of fate without anyoneever hearing their cries or remembering their lives. In recent years many gifted young South Asian writers—bitten by the ambition to bring this complicated tragedy of the region to life and to give it an identity beyond simplistic emblems like Taj Mahal and War on Terror—have received enormous attention in eminent literary circles. Adiga and Mueenuddin are a part of this clique of subcontinental talent. In this article we compare Adiga’s The White Tiger and Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
Both authors belong to a category of curiously suspended outliers who studied in the chichi-est schools of the West but never quite lost their empathy for the predicaments of the Eastern countries they belong to. A winning combination of personal lifestyle and poetic talent has enabled them to spray light on the many hopes, aspirations, and vicious dilemmas of the colossal but dangerously quiescent low-income South Asians living below the poverty line. Reading these books, it seems that anything that drops below that line loses its ability to make a sound. Mute and useless, it surrenders to the financial and political prowess of those walking above this ill-fated boundary. Hallelujah though, to talents such as these young men that now some of the mute have a voice, albeit again mostly in the chichi circles of the world.
Still, someone somewhere is flipping through the pages of their stories and peeking into the colorful aspirations of Husna from the seedy Old City of Lahore trying to be the dying multi-millionaire K. K. Harouni’s ultimate mistress or the almost schizophrenic Indian driver Balram’s maniac ambition to one fine day be his own master. The writing styles of the books are tremendously different, but the uncannily identical themes – that make the reader room for a few days beside the poorest of the poor South Asian menials – easily allows for shelving them in the same fiction genre.
Adiga’s protagonist, The White Tiger, also known as Balram, is a complicated character who screams of all that goes on in the silent mind of a non-entity driver who cleans your Honda’s windscreen with his spit every night; and who tries to resist the temptation to kiss your magnificently spoiled American wife when she sits in the car with her cruel short skirt. He has dangerously naive ambitions of becoming as rich as his owner one day, but more than that his vivid daydreams—puddles of paan expectorate on a road talking to him about either being moral or becoming a murderer; Ganga carrying deathly dirt and darkness in its mane but everything next to the ocean in Maha Bharat being lit up in hopey happiness—force you to see India the way only a poor man like him, always dangling below the line, sees it. “The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor – they never overlap do they?” he asks, baffling one about the sad and profound pithiness that is masked behind an otherwise invisible tool like him. His acute insight into what poets like Ghalib and Iqbal truly meant when they loftily praised the bulbul or flowers is almost scary and his mastery of words like “cannonades” and “particulated” is bound to raise a shrewd reader’s eyebrow more than once.
The story, however, has “refreshing” written all over its juicily perplexing start that adamantly grips you and often takes you into uncomfortable scenes. Scenes that might leave you scarred by the time they are done showing you the nasty political mysteries of this below-the-line galaxy. Situations like the one where Balram takes you into his master’s feet as he washes them and shows you how “The chatter of coal and China got mixed up with the aroma of whiskey from the glasses, the stench of sweat rising from the Stork’s feet dipped in the warm water, the flakiness of his skin…” make you instinctively wrinkle your nose and nod in strong assent when he ends the page with “after you have massaged a man’s foot, the smell of his old, flaky skin will stay on your skin for an entire day.”
Mueenudin’s characters, on the other hand, stay on the surface of the reader’s general sympathetic capability. They do not penetrate your day with the force and murderous zeal of Balram, but then they are loosely connected pawns in a volume of short stories and Balram is not what they want to be to begin with. They hang like a string of pearls – worthless, murky, frantically scratched – connected to each other, without knowing, with the careless cord of the positively wealthy landlord/businessman K. K. Harouni. One by one each bead makes its way into your hands, starting with Nawabdin the entrepreneurial yet vengeful electrician and ending on the most unfortunate Spoiled Man of a gardener who falls in love a little too late. Each of the pearls through its thoughtfully constructed character gives you an intimate view of the scratches on its surface, the gashes on its soul. Midway through the story of Saleema the maid who easily slept around with other servants, you know all the angles of her disparate insecurities and insatiable craving for love. When she marries a boy who “looked so slim and city-bright, and soon proved to be not only weak but depraved.” you understand well why “These experiences had not cracked her hard skin, but made her sensual, unscrupulous – and romantic.” Through such delicately built details of fate and character Mueenudin manages to educate even Pakistanis about the sadness that lurks in the souls of their timid employees.
Another creative aspect of the book is Harouni’s disconnected character. Like a fruit sliced in slithers and spread across different tales, glimpses of him appear: his old-age vulnerable liaisons with Husna the greedy, ambitious low-class mistress to Helen the circumspect Yale undergrad almost-engaged to his wannabe poet nephew in Paris. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is one of those rare books that keeps piecing together (after the book is done with), the fruit of its self, its seemingly disconnected and brief protagonists, and the powerful man who is to serve as glue but mostly remains dry and invisible. And later it makes you smile when one day during the most mundane of tasks you figure out the Harouni-link between Lily the non-conformist who fell for a man about whom she liked how “he had well-used solid things, [a] car, the gun, and binoculars…” with Zainab the housekeeper whose secret husband day dreamed that she wanted him “to find her there, caring for the child. [In] The darkness of the house, its dampness, the expectancy of the salt and pepper shakers carefully aligned on the table and the sadness of the toothpick holder…”
Slowly digesting the masterfully dispersed slices of Mueenudin’s lonesome fruit; or consuming the runny, nauseating gravy of unfairness of the rich begetting unfairness in their poor that Adiga has placed in our mind’s mouth, there is no question that one leaves the table feeling satiated, indulged, and maybe a little dyspeptic. Horace, the prominent Roman lyric poet from the time of Emperor Augustus made judging the worth of a literary piece easy. He said any collection of words excels its purpose when it both delights artistically and is useful for raising moral questions. In that regard then, both these stimulating desi works succeed as they are aesthetically delightful and also inspire a tingle of useful moral curiosity in even the most hardened reader.