Continental Divide

The fantastic fiction of the new India remains less strange than the hard lives of its poorest people.

Last August, India, the second most populous nation in the world, celebrated 50 years of independence from the British with all the expected fanfare. The usual icons, living and dead, were thrown into the spotlight--Gandhi, pilgrims on the banks of the Ganges at Benares, Jawaharlal Nehru, the slums of Bombay (recently returned to its native name, Mumbai)--in a publicity-fest which resembled a seven-day package tour. Amid all the hubbub a meritorious but relatively low-profile lot caught the edge of the light: India's fiction writers.

Until last year the term Indian literature, in the minds of the English-speaking Western public, usually stood for Salman Rushdie (a British citizen), V.S. Naipaul (a Trinidadian of Indian descent), or R.K. Narayan. But in The New Yorker's special "India Issue" which appeared last June, Salman Rushdie countered that perception: "The prose writing--both fiction and nonfiction--created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 18 'recognized' languages of India, the so-called 'vernacular languages,' during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books."

Today, less than a year later, the latest Booker Prize winner is Arundhati Roy (for The God of Small Things), and names such as Gita Mehta, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni can be referred to in this country to some flicker of recognition.

One among this burgeoning number of "Indo-Anglian" authors is the 27-year-old Kiran Desai, daughter of the aforementioned Anita. Her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (Atlantic Monthly Press), a portion of which was published in the "India Issue," has been hailed by Rushdie as a "highly original, Calvinoesque fable." I would call the same effort Rushdie-esque, and only moderately original. The brand of outlandish exoticism popularized by Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, whereby characters and story lines are defined by freakish idiosyncrasies (the man who ages at twice the normal rate, the girl who, sleepless, paints India's entire history on the walls of her bedroom), is at play in Hullabaloo as well.

Hullabaloo's main character, Sampath Chawla, was born during a drought into a family of eccentrics, and he has grown into a timid and reclusive young man, forever lacking in ambition. He works in the lackluster post office of his provincial hometown, opening strangers' mail for his personal amusement and staring off into space, dreaming of places pictured on the postcards. When he loses this job--after disrobing at the wedding of the postmaster's daughter for no particular reason--Sampath becomes an even greater burden to his disappointed family.

As taunts and complaints pour from the mouths of his sister, father, and grandmother--"Arre, Sampathji how could you do that?" and "Now you really are keema kebab"--Sampath experiences one of the stranger epiphanies recorded in literature. Holding a guava fruit offered to him by his mother Kulfi (whose own idiosyncrasy is to wander about the house like a somnambulist, whispering the names of anything edible), Sampath watches in amazement as the fruit suddenly swells and explodes, showering the entire neighborhood with seeds and creamy flesh. At that moment, Sampath decides to go off to a guava orchard, climb one of the trees, and never come down again.

This being India, his madcap action is taken for a sign of holiness and soon the guava orchard is swarmed with the town's inhabitants asking for advice on personal and spiritual matters. Sampath at times recalls the dim gardener Chauncey from Jerzy Kosinski's Being There; as he unrolls silly metaphors from his high perch his believers nod gullibly, mistaking them for divine wisdom.

And this being a Rushdie-esque novel, the story of Sampath's escape from the world into the branches of a tree soon swells to include a cacophony of other voices: spies from the Atheist Society; Sampath's love-addled sister and his enterprising but bungling father; and the drunk monkeys that terrorize the neighborhood. To Desai's credit, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is a well-written and frequently entertaining novel, if also one that calls to mind a handful of superior ones with a different name on the spine.

While Rushdie notes that India's great literary oeuvre has mostly been written in English, what is tacit in this statement is that India's literature has mostly been written by the educated classes who share a familiarity with Western texts and Western intellectual life.

As such, we might safely state that the creation of Viramma: Life of an Untouchable (Unesco/Verso) is not an everyday literary event. This oral history of a poor, illiterate woman from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, recorded over a decade of conversations with Josiane and Jean-Luc Racine, is entirely fascinating, and to Western ears, much stranger than fiction. India's Untouchables (also referred to as Harijans--"children of God," or Dalits) constitute roughly a seventh of India's nearly one billion inhabitants, and their lives bear only a passing resemblance to those of the middle and upper classes.

Although Indian law technically prohibits caste restrictions, taboos intended to maintain the segregation of Untouchables are still widely observed. Viramma, her husband Manikkam, and their three children (nine others died of various diseases) live in the village of Karani, a few miles outside the former Portuguese colony of Pondicherry, one of the largest cities in Tamil Nadu. As Untouchables, they live in a ghetto on the outskirts of the village with other members of their caste. They draw water from separate wells and worship at separate temples. They are agricultural laborers and serfs to the local landowner, for whom they perform a variety of back-bending tasks for miserable pay. (One of the features of Untouchability is ritual defilement and physical "impurity"; hence, executioners, gravediggers, butchers, pig herders, leather workers, and launderers are a few professions also characterized as Untouchable.) If, on some days, there is no gruel and lentils, Viramma, her husband, and their children go to sleep hungry: It is a truth without any nuance.

The bare facts of Viramma's life are shockingly cruel, but the book doesn't pander to the reader's moral outrage. Viramma, whose storytelling talent is prodigious, dutifully traces a life marked by universal human experiences: childhood, marriage, sex, children, work, community. Her language is rich, vivid, and, when sexuality is concerned, definitely bolder than that of your mother-in-law.

Speaking of having sex with her husband on the floor of their mud hut in Karani, Viramma says: "At those moments, he was ready to do anything. Once, to punish him for having been so brutal at the start of our marriage, I made him lick the soles of my feet and my toes!... I found out with him that the ears and the hollows behind the knees are places that give great pleasure. Not only that. I looked admiringly at his little hairy balls and his sting which was thick and hard as a sugar cane with its violet head. I was always very moved at those times, and I felt feelings I had never known before."

Viramma's words construct a whole cosmology that the reader has never known before: With its detailed descriptions of countless religious ceremonies, harvest rituals, and day-to-day secular customs, Viramma is the anthropologist's dream sourcebook. Viramma recounts the sociocultural landmarks of her life with a combination of infallible memory and engrossing vivacity, in such a way that every ounce of turmeric powder, each banana leaf or stick of incense are the necessary building blocks of a life steeped in tradition.

Tradition is ultimately Viramma's salvation and her crushing burden. What could hold this woman together but the belief that her dharma--"behaving well in life"--will ultimately save her, at least spiritually, from lifelong slavery? How else could she justify her miserable lot in life but through the belief that only the gods have control over it? And conversely, with Viramma's station in life fully legitimized by Hindu religious beliefs, what hope of change is there for her and about 130 million others?

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