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Chapter And Verse
Published: Volume 16, Issue 6, June, 2008

From the first-person confession of a murderer telling the tale of a very raw and real India to a story about tradition and sacrifices that lead us to our destinies, Verve checks out two debut novels

Musical Ties
The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant
(HarperCollins)
One of the first things you notice after settling down with Ameen Merchant’s debut novel, The Silent Raga, is that despite its Indian classical music metaphor and ‘Ravi Shankar-at-Woodstock-pleasing’ cover, we are not in India Exotica land.

Even as we meet the protagonist Janaki Venkatakrishnan for the first time in the past, in a village – much before she has become the famous Janaki, the prodigy on the veena running away to the big city lights of Bombay – we realise that Merchant’s story is about a character who finds herself flitting through places, situations and, above all, meeting and re-meeting people, including herself.

The language that Merchant uses to narrate his tale of the return of the prodigal daughter is with lyrical restraint. A scene that has Mallika, Janaki’s sister, an employee at the United States Information Service (USIS) in Madras, awaiting her sister’s almost unbelievable return, is as poignant as it is flowing. Gopalan, the security guard at the USIS, wants to talk to Mallika even as her mind is full of nervous expectation about meeting her famous sister after years. ‘What is it, ma, this craze for America? From two in the morning peoples are queuing for visa, you know?’ he says, incredulously, and continues, ‘Is it really a fine country?’

The character of the runaway Janaki is delicately wrought, as the author investigates the idea of betrayal, the loss of innocence, the ability to tackle disappointment and radical change. These are played out through the pages of the book like a long badminton rally between the two sisters as they remember things that they shared and come to terms with everything else that they do not. It does not come as a surprise that the evocative novel has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008.

Letter of Truth
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
(HarperCollins)
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, is both playfully comic and deeply serious. An entertaining page turner that delights, offends and saddens, often in the same breath, this novel exposes the world that lies hidden beneath modern, middle-class ‘booming’ India. Written as a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the book recounts the narrator Balram Halwai’s journey from a village in the Darkness (complete with corrupt school teachers and rigged elections), to the Light (Gurgaon, overflowing with American-style malls and call centres), where he becomes driver to the U.S.-returned ‘Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam.’ Finally ending in Bangalore, where Balram has re-fashioned himself as an entrepreneur, the story is meant to enlighten the Chinese Premier about the ‘real India’ that Balram believes official guides won’t provide.

This real India includes a silent majority that serves the middle class and is trapped in what Balram calls a ‘rooster coop’ mentality, ‘A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent… to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.’ The White Tiger tackles the undesirable truth about the growing inequality in India, but without the heavy-handedness or sermonising that the subject often inspires.

Adiga’s sharply observed view of the Indian underclass and the impact of globalisation on that world will be a refreshing change to those weary of reading stories of curries, saris and arranged marriage in ‘exotic’ India, or boundless corporate and official enthusiasm about ‘India shining’. The real India is, of course, all these things, but Adiga deserves credit for bringing some stories of the ‘Darkness’ into light. A frank, fresh and impressive debut; we look forward to reading more from this young, Mumbai-based author.

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