10 August 2011

A free man by Aman Sethi

Like a journey to the moon
This book tells the story of Mohammed Ashraf, a day-wage worker at Bara Tooti, a place in Delhi where people go to hire labour for construction work. Written by Aman Sethi over a period of five years during which he spent days at a time with Ashraf and his friends, it is partly a diary of his experiences and observations, and partly descriptive narrative. Like the best biographies, this book gives a strong sense not just of the person, his inner strength and demons, but also his geography, culture, politics, and the fabric of society which he inhabits. And Aman Sethi has pieced together this history like a jigsaw puzzle from a number of conversations, much contradictory information, sudden revelations; he has coloured it with his own feelings, insights, and contextual information.

Some people believe that the life of a mazdoor is equal parts azadi and akelapan: independence and solitude. And sometimes Aman Sethi feels he may have asked too many questions:
It’s bad form to keep asking people about pasts that they are reluctant to confront. At Bara Tooti people come and go all the time. A man could get up from a drinking session, walk down the road for a piss, keep walking till he reached the railway station, hop onto a train, and return after a year without anyone really missing him.
But what about tickets?
‘You don’t need tickets. If the checker doesn’t come, you travel for free. If you get caught, you simply go to jail.’ Jail, according to Ashraf – who has never been to one – is an acceptable way of spending three months of a life in exchange for a short train ride. ‘They don’t make you work if you are in for less than six months,’ he claims. All you do is eat and roam the premises.’
It’s a complicated journey that Aman Sethi takes us on, exploring Mohammed Ashraf’s life. How did he get to be head kasai of Fauji Halal Shop in Malad, Mumbai? Never mind – we learn here fascinating details of why speed is crucial for anyone working there.
As Ashraf goes about finishing his half bottle of Everyday,at the haunt of a successful woman entrepreneur, the memory of an Everyday hangover has prompted Aman Sethi to refuse politely. We learn that new recruits often shun this intoxicating brew, in favour of more bombastic brands like Hulchul that shake the very foundations of a man’s being; Jalwa Spiced Country Liquor that speaks of youth, fire and passion; Toofan, infused with the pent-up vigour and vitality of an impending storm; and Ghadar Desi that is a perfect antidote to colonial oppression.
Sitting at the chowk, trying to look sober and employable, Ashraf and Lalloo are saved by the lucky charm he saves for such situations: his ‘kandome’.
The kandome is a broad, heavy brush with long, thick bristles encrusted with paint. The bright red handle is solid wood and fits just right. It is the most useless brush Ashraf owns: it’s too heavy and soaks up too much paint. ‘I bought it when I was just starting out. It looks like a brush a professional would use.’
A well-stocked bag is a sign of tajurba, experience. A maalik likes a workman with impressive-looking tools. At the chowk, where safediwallahs are arranged like mannequins in a shop window, the maalik is drawn to the one with five, six, seven, brushes in his bag. He thinks this man is a true karigar; he has a different brush for each surface. It’s not a brush, it’s a badge of honour. “It’s just like a kandome, Aman bhai. On TV you may stand next to Shabana Azmi and promise to use it, but you know you never will.’
These are people who live on the fringe. They have come to Bara Tooti from pasts in different places around the country. Their lives are expendable to those around them, even to themselves. Each has a different story. The one that chilled me most was the one told to Aman Sethi by Guddu, a young man of twenty-two, who ended up in Bara Tooti when his first dream ended in disappointment. Tired of working as newspaper boys at Lucknow Railway Station, Guddu and a friend took a train to Jaipur in search of a hospital that bought kidneys for about two lakh rupees. ‘We would spend the money in full masti, and when it finished, buy a ticket to Bombay and become full-time beggars outside one of the mandirs where all the film stars come to pray.’
And Aman Sethi hauls us, agog, to the Beggars Court at Sewa Kutir, the place where designated government employees bring beggars to trial and punishment. Begging in the national capital is a serious offence, and under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, the Department of Welfare can arrest anyone ‘having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about, or remaining in a public place in a condition or manner, [that made] it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms’. How would these skilled government employees ever know the difference between any of the Bara Tooti majoors and a beggar? Aha – they certainly can, it’s easy, read this book to learn the unmistakable signs.
Unlike the Beggars Court, which has an office with a signboard, the kidney snatchers of Ashraf’s nightmares are harder for Aman Sethi to find. But he did meet and interview some of their victims whose stories are also given here.

Grimmest of all are the wards of RBTB, the Rajan Babu Tuberculosis Hospital where hapless families leave victims of drug-resistant tuberculosis. To get discharged doesn’t mean the person is cured. But it is not an entirely bad thing either – because even if someone is dead, or even if he or she will now carry the infection out to others – it does mean that a bed is vacated for another languishing patient. To visit RBTB is to risk illness and possibly death – but it’s certainly safer than driving an autorickshaw. One of my favourite parts of this book is when Aman Sethi’s sister visits one of the Bara Tooti gang there, to bring him underwear, a mug, a bucket, and some soap.
The writing in this book is exceptional.
The smell of blood is overwhelming; it prowls along the alleyways of Kasaipura like the ghosts of the buffaloes that lie dismembered before me. The floor is sticky – a chip-chip texture that holds my shoe soles just a fraction more than the tarmac road outside, but could as easily turn slick and treacherous. It’s a bit like walking on congealed blood – in fact, that’s exactly what it is.
And here’s a description that felt to me like poetry:
Money: About one hundred rupees.
The half bottles are over. Fifty rupees have been spent on something, but on what exactly? Ashraf isn’t sure. There was some food – boiled eggs, maybe a roti or two? With dal. If there was roti, there must have been dal. Possibly a cup of tea. Six rupees were spent on squishy packets of water – that is certain.
The pauwas, or quarter bottles, are still intact; Ashraf keeps them in his breast pocket. He keeps the money in his shoes. He wraps his shoes in his pants. He puts his pants under his head – like a pillow. He throws a shawl over himself.
Even the translations show the author’s flesh-connection with language. The Urdu word kaafi Aman Sethi describes as, “Enough: not ‘just about enough’ but closer to ‘more than enough’ – enough with an emphasis”.
Towards the end of this book, Aman Sethi becomes involved with Ashraf’s life in a way that builds suspense for the reader and brings an experience of the terrible pain and cruelty of life. I think it unlikely that anyone who reads this book will ever get any closer to someone like Mohammed Ashraf than between these pages.

08 August 2011

Desperate in Dubai by Ameera Al Hakawati

Arabian Nights comes to 2011
I’ve never been to Dubai so I dived straight in and this book turned out to be just what I needed to make yesterday, my first Sunday after months without enormous looming deadlines, pleasant and relaxing. The four Dubai women here give a good tour of the city and lifestyle, and though it added character that the book was strewn with phrases like “wudhu for Salaatul Fajr” and infused with the intoxicating scent of “bakhoor”, I did sort of wonder wistfully what they meant.
Dubai is a place teeming with single women on the make – most, but not all, just looking for the financial security of a stable, uncomplicated marriage. (And, depending on the woman, the man could be fat, old, balding, ugly, smelly, obnoxious – even short.) It’s not normal for a decent Arab guy to just leave two girls alone in a club without offering to drive them home, or at the very least, see them to a taxi. And Arabic hospitality is remarkable – they are generous with their time, attention and material possessions. Says one of the characters,
I can’t imagine being invited to join in someone else’s family picnic in Springfield Park. In fact, they’d probably nick our stuff when we weren’t looking.
In hijab, you get labelled as that “Muslim girl” rather than the “Indian girl” or the “short girl” or any other part of your identity. And:

Emirati men are incredibly thick-skinned when chasing their prey, and usually never take no for an answer. They firmly believe that a woman who ignores their attention is simply feigning indifference. They understand a downward gaze to be a prentece of chastity, an open car window an invitation to sinful acts, and a direct look a declaration of lust.

And you know all that stuff about family honour, right?
The bread in Dubai is awful – but it’s a place you don’t have to watch what you eat because all food is halal food. Your salary is linked not to your experience or competence – but to your nationality. And you can get away wearing huge Chanel sunglasses even at nine in the evening.
As this book progressed, I was drawn into the plot, agog as secrets unfolded, suspense built and collision was imminent. Most of the women characters, even the ones painted negatively, were likable and worthy of admiration – or sympathy. And in a book like this, what can you expect but the promise of a happy ending? So I didn’t like the fact that some last links in the elaborate plot had been left dangling. And while the language is racy and flows beautifully, neater editing would have ensured that “impart” was not used instead of “impose”; removed phrases like “amount of men”; and resulted in fewer confusing sentences like
I glance back at the couple and realize that the guy is Daniel, her Daniel, and the way he is looking at her suggests that their relationship isn’t purely platonic.
I didn’t much care for the nicknames of some characters – Lady Luxe, Goldenboy, Mr Delicious and others – though I suppose veils do make a subject more fascinating in a way.
But I did very much enjoy this book’s fabulous – rather Shakespearean – coincidences.
What I liked best about this book is the pervading sense of religion as a means to strengthen and stay in touch with your inner self – rather than something that isolates you from a world that views you with revulsion as violent and unpredictable.

06 August 2011

The vague woman's handbook by devapriya roy

Neither here nor there
I started reading this book because a friend passed it on to me saying she had quite enjoyed it.
Why I continued reading till I reached the end I have no idea, but I did.
The Vague Woman’s Handbook is a brilliant and attractive but basically misleading title. It is not a handbook. I looked for, and didn’t find, guidelines for instructional use of how to cope with a woman’s vagueness – your own or others’ – or turn an asset into it, or anything related to instructional use or application of women’s vagueness.
Then, there is a basic dichotomy in the content. It is a contemporary story, with a number of progressive features. The young couple – neither is even 24 yet – are setting up a cosy establishment all their own and are coming to terms with a life of their own choosing. There’s a teeny bit of wish fulfilment here because they have broken away from their parents’ oppressive demands and are experiencing exhilarating, though sometimes painful, independence. I liked the other main character in this book – an endearing woman more than twice the age of our heroine, and the fact that the two became best friends.
However, the other basic fabric of this book is its horribly archaic language. Compressed between the fab title and the trendy author photo is an alarmingly large collection of yesterday phrases and usages. Can anyone in post-1991 India relate to the concept of “church mice”? With qualifiers like “for one” and “not exactly”; expressions like “voila” (used seriously and not as parody); an overdose of coy parentheses, exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis, I felt as if I’d suddenly arrived in Blyton-Wodehouse Wonderland.
There’s something else that rather alarmed me about this book. It’s a story about a young married couple – and for heaven’s sake they never have sex! Not even the slightest hint of it. Perhaps if this book was written specifically for a readership of under-tens, it could work. Otherwise I’m sorry to say this young couple is a very poor role model for the younger generation :-)
This author has the skill to create a plot, weave believable characters, establish a good beginning, middle, and end – and even look glamorous in a jacket photo. I sincerely hope that her language and situations mature to produce more realistic fiction of a higher literary quality in future.

04 August 2011

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

No Booker for this one
The White Tiger was going to be a hard act to follow. Still, I was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much. It wasn’t just the story and narrative style that I found less gripping. Aravind Adiga says he loves Bombay more than any other place – but I thought that while he wrote about Delhi and the rural north like an insider, in this book he is an observer, not a participant.
I did like some turns of phrase and descriptions. Mango sellers wait by the station for returning commuters – each mango a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of its trains.
It’s the new India, where construction workers’ children clean their teeth using toothpaste, though still only by the water pump under the tree.
And there’s that shopkeepers’ refrain: a man must want something. Everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake, and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will turn again into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian Sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?
Shah, a ruthless land developer is touring a building site, musing. A worker’s family was spending the nights on the unfinished fourth floor, which one day a technology executive or a businessman would occupy. Shah touched the workers’ washing, which hung in the alcoves where Versace would soon hang; their little bars of soap and detergent did the work that expensive perfumes would soon do.
Folding a twenty-rupee note, he left it near a bar of soap as a surprise for the worker’s wife.

Is this book about an old schoolteacher in Bombay, a lonely man who lives by his principles?
Is it about a “housing society” where people from different backgrounds, different ideas, different values, different aspirations – different ways of speaking the same language – live side by side, because that’s the way things work in Bombay?
Is it about drab lives and what greed can do to them?
A man has to bend his rules a little to enjoy life in Mumbai. Just a little. Now and then. But the law in Mumbai was not blind: far from it, it had two faces and four working eyes and saw every case from both sides and could never make up its mind.
Powerful, wealthy men – dying of lung disease. Ruthless men with complicated relationships devoid of love – but employees so loyal and devoted that they sign cheques for them as part of their job, and go home to their scrupulous single-room shanty dwellings.

On page 301, after three-fourths of the book was over, I finally caught a glimpse of the real hero of this book: a gaunt, middle-aged man in a dirty blue shirt.
He looked Muslim because of his beard. Masterji guessed he was one of those he had just seen pulling carts on the road. The labourer picked a biscuit from the stainless-steel plate and chewed. Done with it, he breathed, picked a second biscuit, and chewed. Each movement of his bony jaws spoke of fatigue; the permanent fatigue of men who have no one to care about them when they work and no one to care about them after they work. The thin body broadcast a raw minimal silence. Middle-aged? No. His hair was greying at the edges, but youth had only recently been exorcised from his face. Twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the most. Masterji watched this young man with sunken, shocked eyes and barely enough strength to lift one milk biscuit at a time. This is his daily life. Pulling that cart and coming here for these biscuits, he thought.
The tired Muslim man returned Masterji’s gaze. Their eyes met like foreign languages, and the labourer, without moving his lips, spoke at last. Have you never before noticed how many are all alone?