This books counts for the International Book Challenge.
Munna, later known as Balram Halwai, was born somewhere in the interior portion of India. He did learn how to read, but he didn’t have much of a chance in life. He wasn’t even given a proper name; Munna means Boy.
His father is a rickshaw driver, his mother is dead, and the grandmother is a true matriarch. He and his brother survive the best they can by working in tea shops and other minor jobs. He has to practically bribe someone to teach him how to drive; the tutor is so horrible to Balram, telling him he will never drive, because he is of the sweetmaker caste and doesn’t have the brains to learn such a difficult task. He does master the car.
The ruling family comes back to the home village of Balram, and he is employed by them to be the driver.
The novel is set up in an unusual manner; Balram is writing a LOOOONG letter to Wen Jiaboa, a Chinese Premier, who is coming to visit India. Balram’s is a memoir, an essay of the defects of Indian society that prevents its advance, and a reflection of what attributes India needs to adopt to have the economic prosperity of China.
Some of the facts of India not progressing are known to me: corrupt government, disdain for anyone living in the provinces, crazy traffic, high pollution levels, beggars, and discrimination according to caste, even though it’s been outlawed. However, Balram shows us the people who work just a tad better off than the squatters. He has to sleep in a dormitory with the other servants, he has a filthy bed with a net to keep out the roaches and other vermin, he shares a communal bathroom to keep clean, he works 7 days a week, and other indignities. He notices workers who are constructing skyscrapers live in tents next to the building, and there are no sanitary facilities for them.
The one thing that I didn’t like and other reviewers have commented on is that Balram reveals a murder that he commits too early on, in one of the letters to Premier Jiaboa.
Despite this being a bit depressing, I found it hard to put down this novel. I wanted to know what Balram would do next in the big city.
I also liked learning about some little things:
- Empty Johnny Walker bottles can be sold; they make great containers
- Regular working people don’t have time to do yoga or to meditate
- Used, dusty books from the UK and the USA are sold for a fortune in markets
- Chauffeurs and maids can’t go into shopping malls; a guard keeps them out.
Caveat: you need a strong stomach to read this novel. Don’t read anything after a big meal.