Sunday, October 16, 2005

75%, 25% - where's the story?

P. Sainath, critiquing media coverage of the Mumbai and Delhi rains, makes a larger point: 'The media have locked themselves into this mode. And it is in part due to the narrow gene pool they're trying to cover. If you decide that 75 per cent of the country does not make news, you're shrinking your potential zone of coverage. And if you decree that only a small section of the other 25 per cent does, you've painted yourself into a corner. It's like an overgrown adult swimming in a child's tub. It looks about as stupid, too. If we could accept that the 75 per cent too could make news — and not just when they die in large numbers — things could be better.'

This makes me think of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram - a spell-binding 936 page tome that I am currently reading, that deals - in large part - with the 75% that does not generally make it into the hallowed precincts of Indian writing in English. If you don't know what the book is about, the blurb will tell you enough to make you want to pick it up:

In the early '80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan...Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions...'

The inside bio continues -

After surviving the events dealt with in Shantaram, he was captured in Germany in 1990 and eventually extradited to Australia. On completing his prison sentence, he established a small multi-media company and is now a full-time writer. He lives in Melbourne.

I can't fully explain what this book is doing for me - it is a gigantic, jagged work, raw and powerful with the most uncannily matter-of-fact, even placid narrative style. There's almost a disjunction between what he is describing and the tone of voice with which he is doing it. His account of life in the slum will stay with me forever. I feel more than a little self-loathing that the first written account of life in a slum that I have read comes from the pen of this gora. Much of that account is deeply sentimental, but he can't be accused of romanticising the lives of the poor because he lived that life and is simply describing his lived and felt reality. The contrast with the cantankerous VS Naipaul who travels and describes fantastically and makes you smell the shit but remains tragically incapable of empathy, of putting himself in the shoes of another, of imaging alternative rationalities, of connecting or communicating with the objects he describes - the contrast could not be greater. Roberts doesn't describe, he just lives and he tells you how he lived. And this account of slum life by an insider in English - no translation - this is as unmediated - for the English-speaking world - as it can possibly get.

Roberts inhabits so many different worlds that seem to intersect effortlessly in his person - not just the usual expat circuit in Bombay that meets in Leopold's and Mondegar and goes to art exhibitions in Jehangir, but the slum, the mafia, Arthur Road jail, Bollywood. This is Hari Kunzru's Impressionist - only much much better because the transitions from one persona to another aren't contrived or accidental (or like Kunzru's protagonist, too easy to be credible), but a product of Roberts' own personality - his need for disguise, his survival instinct, his openness to learning and new experiences, his compassion and ability to see humanity in everything - no matter how shit-encrusted.

And many of these worlds that he inhabits are of precarious - or downright dubious - legality, perhaps even morality. These are transgressive, sometimes subaltern worlds (this book should be the literary companion to Sarai's Reader '05: Bare Acts), and Roberts is endowed with the sort of X-ray vision and multiple personality that enables him to be part of all these worlds at once. I mean the guy sits in Cafe Leopold - Leopold's for god's sake! - and sees more than I ever will. He makes me feel like I have only scratched the surface of life.

And watch your moral compass spin out of control as you read about these worlds and their characters - often engaged in the sorts of activities that would make a serial rapist look angelic, but moved by love, honour, generosity, respect, learning, sacrifice and everything else that 'decent' people would want to teach their children.

Read Shantaram.

Read Shantaram.

i will. i'll steal your copy.
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