For the last few weeks, I was absorbed reading Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger which had borrowed from Eddie’s Kitchen 🙂 . My interest in the novel was based on the Booker Award that it received last year. Frankly, I was not aware of Adiga’s writings before I came across the piece of news that he had beat Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies in the race for Booker. The blurb claims that this novel is a “page turner” and can be read at one go. But I took longer to complete it than my usual pace since I found the “realities” described in that text very difficult to digest. Not that the “realities” described are “unrealistic”, but rather are too “harshly-realistic”, sometimes at the cost of language, style and aesthetic sensibilities. Probably, the author had deliberately chosen a style that is anti-aesthetic or “anti-literary-ness”. However, Adiga is not the first author to have presented “India” in this fashion, there are many known and unknown authors who have headed the brigade. In fact, Adiga seems to be directly influenced by none other than Sir Vidya, i.e., V.S. Naipaul and his India writings, especially An Area of Darkness. Adiga keeps invoking the term “darkness” in his novel reminding us of Sir Vidya’s experiences of India as a mind-boggling, problematic “area of darkness” in the first of his India trilogy.
Keeping aside the literary jargon that we usually get entangled with, Adiga’s novel brought some of my own real life experiences fresh into memory. I have been asking the question, “who is a human?” from the past few experiences that I have had. About a month ago, while I was waiting for a friend to arrive at the Ghatkopar station had a strange experience. Mumbai starts sweltering by mid-March and noons are especially hot. It was around 1 pm and the station was apparently less crowded than usual. I stood at the magazine vendor, peeping into some of the new titles that are on stand this year. Each local train that arrived at the platform dumped hordes of unknown, unnamed faces, each face seeming no different than the other and then another departing local would come and scoop away half the population like mushrooms scooped with a soup spoon from the soup bowl. The heat made people angrier and more restless than possibly they would be. Each one seemed to be in a hurry to reach some mysterious destination. With perfect nonchalance, I kept my eyes fixed on the new numbers displayed at the magazine stall and muttered under my breath a distorted version of T.S.Eliot’s Wasteland: “March is the cruelest month that mixes sweat with anger” (original: “April is the cruelest month mixing memory with desire”) .
Suddenly, I spotted a tattered old man, more clarification, a tattered blind old-man, trying to alight from the footbridge connecting the platforms. He was desperately seeking help from commuters requesting them to guide him down the stairs of the steep footbridge. No one listened to the old man and none stopped to help him either. I was in the other end of the platform and far away from the old man, could only helplessly observe him faltering in his steps, trying to balance himself as he got down the stairs of the bridge. Somehow he did manage to get to the platform, but his ordeal did not end there. The man intended to board a local train bound for Ambernath and evidently he was unable to board it himself . He badly needed help and went on requesting people to help, but to no use. Finally, in utter desperation the man put one hand on the shoulder of a passerby and requested him to just make him board the train. The passerby who probably was also one of those innumerable faces who had to hurry for some destination, rudely and angrily jerked away the blind man’s hand. He was so rude that the poor old man just lost his balance, lost his stick, tumbled and fell down badly on the platform. He was bruised, hurt and the dark glasses he had was broken into pieces. Except a young student who came running from the farthest end of the platform to assist the man to get up, no one else bothered to even stop for a second. The gentleman had tears in his eyes — tears of frustration and tears of blindness. I had come running from the another end of the platform to see if he was ok, and could make out that he was just very shaken and hurt. He just said to me in Marathi that he wanted to go to Ambernath to meet his daughter and son-in-law, but people thought he was a beggar and was just creating nuisance. Hmmm! What difference does it make to have or not to have eyes? We are also blind….
My friend reached on time and we came out of the station. Outside Ghatkopar station there was a queue for the BEST buses. It did not contain 5, 10 or 15 people; there were thousands waiting for one bus. The queue snaked down to the streets and almost covered a kilometer distance. Frustrating! In the heat, in the full summer noon, thousands standing in queue to board a bus. My friend sighed and said; “thank god! we have auto rickshaws here! It would be a torture to wait in queue for these buses!” We had to pay just 40 rupees to reach IIT by an auto, quiet simple and affordable. But for some of those who were standing in that queue for a bus, that 40 rupees was half-a-day’s salary.
These days I wonder what happens to the “super-power” nation that India is prophesied to be. With elections just round the corner and each political party bragging of its greatness, the question of “who is a human?” becomes even more pertinent. “Murk” is the only word that defines the situation here. Maybe we will have a “super-power” consumer nation down the years, all that we have now is easy money, minority politics and post-election alliances. The rest are indifferent people like us who get an easy ride through auto and taxis, a comfortable room, malls to shop, air conditioned labs, air conditioned airplanes to gain a safe passage out of the country and lead rest of the life in some “cool” place, sighing over the deteriorating human situation of India. People like me, Adiga, Arundhati Roy, Danny Boyle, etc. have one aspect that is similar — we all live in safe ghettos while talking or writing about the “inhuman”. I bet I will never stand in a long queue to get to board a bus and so will Danny Boyle who can never substitute real “shit” for his “peanut butter” to shoot another Slumdog and so will Adiga who may not choose to visit the “darkness” that won him a Booker. The question of who is a human applies to us as well.
If being “human” has certain values, “virtues” or “expectations” attached to it, then the term has got really problematic dimensions. But, if being human means just being a higher-ape, a biological being, I have no issues. In fact the term “human” has of late come to substitute “man”, as the latter was considered to be gender insensitive by some thoughtful critics. Terms like “physically challenged”, “mentally challenged”, etc. also came into vogue as terms which carry “sensitivity” towards the “lesser capable” and to give a more “humanitarian” angle to certain physical disorders. But, that day in Ghatkopar when I saw the gentleman struggling and being insulted in the platform in front of thousands, my idea of these “sensitive” terms completely changed. They are mere terms in critical jargon having hollow meaning, because there are millions out there who will not sympathize or empathize with a man as “physically challenged”, but might just identify a person as a “blind man” or a “leper” or a “deaf” person. The physical attribute goes as an identification mark, because all these jargon of gender-sensitive, physical attribute-sensitive, are limited to bookish, snobbish, aristocrats like us who hardly venture out into the platform to help a “blind man” cope with his “blindness”.
Who is a human? Still the questions lurks in my mind…