14 September 2009

The Blue Note Book by James A. Levine

Well told, but almost all unreal
This book is set in Mumbai, but I felt myself in a foreign country. It wasn’t only because the sad cages of the child prostitutes of Foras Road and the impoverished villages of Madhya Pradesh are as far away from me as, say, Burundi or Timor-Leste. One reason was the strange names used: the very first line introduces a character called “Mamaki Briila”.
Confused, I turned the book around and read the publisher’s rave: “James A. Levine is a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned scientist, doctor, and researcher. For his scientific work, Dr. Levine has regularly appeared on CNN, the BBC, the CBC, and the Discovery Channel. He lives in Oronoco, Minnesota.”
Appeased by these credentials, it struck me that since I didn’t personally know each of India’s billion people, perhaps a few of them did actually have such a name. Then, when I encountered Nir, Yazak, Master Gahil, Oojan Tandor Mr. Vas, Purah Singh, Mr. Ghundra Chapur, Chief Repaul and Bandu the barrow boy, I wondered whether the world-renowned researcher James A. Levine had deliberately distorted Indian names to avoid legal action. But no – there were a tiny handful of real people there too, like Puneet, Iftikhar, Mr. Mitra and Bhim.

Batuk is fifteen years old. The Blue Notebook is her diary and in it she writes that her father brought her from their village in Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai when she was nine and sold her.
Batuk had learnt to read and write at “the missionary’s medical clinic, where I was sent when I was seven.”
The first word she learnt, from a book which had a rabbit and a wheelbarrow on the cover, was apparently “shashak”. How strange! Everyone I know says “kharghosh” for rabbit, and considers “shashak” archaic - but that's the very first word a seven-year-old is taught to write!
Then James A. Levine proudly inscribes “bandhura” in Devnagari and explains that it has a double meaning – crane and prostitute. Not one of the Hindi-Visharadh people I asked, not Aunty Google herself, could tell me a single meaning of “bandhura”.
Perplexed, I tried repeatedly to find out what sources James A. Levine had used but the publishers kept resolutely silent.
Batuk stayed at “the missionary’s medical clinic” (a full day’s ride away, in Bhopal) for twelve weeks and had reading lessons three times a week. After a total of not more than 36 reading lessons, she was apparently able to read aloud from “the great poets, stories of boys who went to the army, and even translations of some English books.” (At age seven! Amazing!)

More amazing still is that after another two years in the village and then six in the cages, where she is exposed only to sexual exploitation, a non-stop procession of hurried customers and ill-treatment from her owner, she is capable of expressing her inmost feelings, situation and personal philosophy of life, writing with a grace, self-awareness and fluency, far better than most of the women I know could, despite all their IQ, reading, affluence and exposure.

The last Batuk I encountered, the evil-comic Batuknath Lalanprasad Malpani in Chaalbaaz was more believable!

What I’ve been wondering is: if a "famous" Indian doctor was to write a deeply moving account of (say) the sad guys, abandoned by their families, victims of a cold, loveless, fragmented society, who live off roadkill in the U.K. and give them names like Orpington, Pronathan, Churchbottom or King Kong, would it even be considered worth a review?
Having said all this, why am I now not telling you that you must throw this book on the ground and “stomp” it in disgust for basing such an important representative story, which will be read by thousands around the world, on such a carelessly constructed premise?
Simply because, although it fails to capture the essence of the Mumbai streets and lacks a feel of their grime and overcrowding (Batuk bathes in a bathtub, if you please!), it does create a very strong sense of the imprisonment and despair of a trapped and abused child, and it keeps you turning the pages, agog.

No comments:

Post a Comment