In one of the most impoverished and destitute villages in India, a young boy is hungry to learn. However his circumstances and the cultural conditions prevalent make it almost impossible for him to do so. Availing of the limited opportunities present to the son of a rickshaw-puller, he finds a way to escape the vice-grip of his joint family and becomes a driver to the son of a wealthy land-owner. Intelligent and quick-witted, he quickly comes to terms with the divide between rich and poor and understands the difference between poverty and destitution. Possessed of ambition and an innate honesty born out of an observation of the truly intelligent, he spends his time learning how to breach the divide, how to create opportunity and survive in a world where not only the other, but ones own class is the enemy. One day he realizes his path to his goal, a path that must begin in murder and end in the ultimate severance: the parting from ones own identity. He must now break the centuries-old shackles and flee for his life and from his old life to meet his destiny.
The novel is set through a period of thirty years, culminating in the modern day. It is an exploration of India from the eyes of the lowest socio-economic strata of the population and it exposes the other India, the one for which words such as GDP, Stock Exchange Boom and Recession are meaningless. A world where there is no assurance of food, shelter or even life for tomorrow.
The book is written in first person, in the form of letters addressed by the protagonist to the Premier of China. The narrative is gripping in its blatant, almost shameless, detail. The humour is dark and the tone of the narrative is generally bleak. The characters are uni-dimensional as indeed they would appear to such a person as the narrator who sees only a few facets of each person. The digressions are few and it holds tightly to plot, giving it a racy character which makes it hard to put down even in its less glossy moments.
I read this book the same day I had to visit a police station to file an FIR. Apalled at the shocking conditions, inefficiency and the blatant callousness of the force, I was able to digest most parts of the narrative with considerably less shock than I would have otherwise. I believe that the sheltered classes still live in oblivion to the very obvious truths faced by the poor everyday and this is an excellent attempt to bridge the knowledge divide. However the monotonic character of the novel lends it its bleak, monochromatic appearance. It could have been infused with a little more colour, this is where I believe that it is different from a true-life representation.
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