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Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Free Press
Man Booker Prize 2008
My poor stomach was made to twist again and again as I read this distasteful, vulgar, Man Booker Prize-winning novel. There’s nothing quite like this description of poverty: not in terms of humble, hard-working, and cheerful peasants, or having a single bar of chocolate for your birthday, but rather the hot, putrid stench of sweat, filth, and excrement stirred eagerly in a rusty pot with cheap alcohol and tobacco spit.
There’s poverty in sweet old children’s books and then there’s poverty in the slums of Northern India, and the central figure of this story—hardly the protagonist, but still in the role of narrator—is angry as hell. Balram Halwai, from the caste of sweet-makers, pulled out of school, and living in the wake of the death of both his parents, is buoyed only by his mad hope that one day he will become like his idol, Vijay—the lowly bus conductor turned politician, who climbed the ladder of success to such dizzying heights that he actually got to wear a uniform. Balram consequently becomes a personal chauffeur to a wealthy businessman, but, alas, his education in the ways of the rich serves to fuel his class fury.
His boss, his beloved Mr Ashok, must be sacrificed in the name of progress, of a better life, of “entrepreneurship.” This is not a ‘spoiler-alert’ moment—we know this from the beginning. But the catch is not in the act of murder itself. It’s in Balram’s scathing account of the realities of poor India—the “darkness.”
Money is both god and devil in his world. It is his only hope for salvation, and it is the burden bending his back in slavery. That’s why he’s never the hero of the story. He is never truly free to make right decisions, since he’s placed his faith in the power of wealth. Wealth says to him, do whatever it takes.
Read this book if you wonder what it might be like to grow up in a poor Indian village, or if you honour the choices of the Man Booker Prize judges, or if you want to renew your appreciation for the comparatively clean streets of Wellington.