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[681] The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais

1foot

The Hundred-Foot Journey spans way beyond a hundred feet in the sense of how far the young lad has gone to fulfill the dream. Spanning from the protagonist’s native India, to England and then France, the last leg via a tricolor caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes that chugs through much of Western Europe, it’s the story of the making of a chef. Hassa Haji, second of six children born to a poor cotton farmer family, is a Muslim boy raised on the edge of a slum in what was still called Bombay. Among putrid streams and pungent smell of charcoal fires that insinuated the shantytown, Hassan has developed a keen sense of smell and taste. He is born with the innate culinary equivalent of a perfect pitch. The sudden and short-lived real estate boom allowed his father to capitalize on his acreage.

Somewhere in the middle of the play tears began streaming down my face. I am not exactly sure what happened . . . but I realized, about the human soul when it has a destiny—at odds with the society around it—and how this destiny drove people into exile. It was all about homesick men achingly missing their mothers and comforting food from home . . . (Ch.4, p.46)

The horrific death of his mother at the hands of a Hindu mobs upends the family, sending it over to rural France by way of England (portrayed as a food wasteland). In Lumiere his father finds a mansion, converts it to a boisterous Ballywood-esque eatery, with Hassan as the chief. Directly across the street, a hundred feet away, is a celebrated country inn that is the archtype of French rustic elegance. This is, of course, where the novel really takes wing. The clash with snobbish Madame Mallory.

Did you see that placard? Hear that plinky-plinky music? Quelle horreur. Non. Non. He can’t do such a thing. Not on my street. He’s destroying the ambience. Our customers. (Ch.6, p.73)

Embittered by her failure to earn a third Michelin star, Masdame Mallory, a well-trained chef reared in generations of prestige, declares war on her foreign neighbor—over fresh grocery, over customers, and even over noise abatement. But it doesn’t help matters when she comes to dine at Maison Mumbai, ready to crow over its mediocrity and discovers that the untrained Hassan is a culinary genius. She takes him under her wing and teaches him French cooking.

The clash between Madame Mallory and Hasaan’s Papa is no doubt the best part of the book. They are both very nuanced characters. But the book somewhat sags after they drop off the pages . In a wanly sketched Paris, Hassan charts his ascent to the pantheon of top chefs as if ticking off bullets on a resume. In spite of his success he preserves a very human side, which I find very touching. He seems to be always nostalgic of his family, of Madame Mallory and the food of his home. He never forgets the humble upbringing and remembers all his mentors through culinary associations. The book is light and proceeds with a brisk pace, despite it’s not evenly written. It’s a satire of the absurdly over-the-top, style-over-substance food porn culture that Le Guide Michelin helps overblow to an incredible disproportion.

250 pp. Simon and Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[616] The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

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” In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself . . . This was why he retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended in humiliation for the person in authority. He had done his duty as far as it was any citizen’s duty to report problems to the police. ” (Ch.40, p.289)

The Inheritance of Loss has an epic, globalized outlook. From the author’s native India, caught in the chasm of rift between Nepal and India, to Harlem in New York, the exposure to the world has confused and humiliated Desai’s characters.

An aged judge, Jemubhai Patel, lives in the highlands of north India. As political and ethnic tensions between the Bengalis and the Nepalis stretch through the mountain air, the English-mannered, Cambridge-educated judge reconsiders his humble origins, his education, his career, and most ruefully, his pre-arranged marriage to a country-bumpkin wife whose dignity, he comes to realize years later, has divested.

Sai had always been calm and cultural during these months, the only time when her life in Kalimpong was granted perfect sense and she could experience the peace of knowing that communication with anyone was near impossible . . . And in this wet diarrheal season floated the feeling, loose and light, of life being a moving, dissipating thing, chilly and solitary—not anything you could grasp. (Ch.18, p.117)

The arrival of Sai, orphaned after the parents perished in an accident in Russia, where her father was trained in the Indo-USSR space program, forces the judge to examine a past life. That in Sai he sees himself makes him acquiesce to something in the past that has survived and returned. As a young Cambridge student he strives to to assimilate to the English manner, the correct his pronunciation, to strip of his accent, and to master the English decorum. Now his granddaughter is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns, as estranged Indian living in India. In her the judge realizes the painful truth: he envies the English but loathes the Indians. He has worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become. He embodies the lopsided policy and bias of colonialism.

Oh, this country, people exclaimed, glad to fall into the usual sentences, where human life was cheap, where standards were shoddy, where stoves were badly made and cheap saris caught fire . . . (Ch.49, p.338)

The cook in the judge’s rickety mansion has a son, Biju, who eventually forms the centerpiece of the book’s complex, rather rambling story. Biju has emigrated to New York, slaves away in the dungeon kitchens of fast food outlets and restaurants. He dreams of home and hopes to return with honor.

The Inheritance of Loss, like its mystical setting in the misty highland at the foot of Himalayas, reads like a fairy tale. What binds the seemingly disparate, eccentric characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation. They all grapple with a world that only ever seems to admit them partially and rarely on their own terms. Desai’s prose has an uncanny flexibility and poise, juxtaposing scenarios that are funny, threatening, and tender at the same time. But the scenarios flit in time and space too often to make a point. The overall story has the potential to take reader somewhere amidst the globalized confusion of identity, motive, unrealized dreams and desires, but eventually it falls flat and settles for a complacent sense of “that’s how it is.”

358 pp. Grove Press. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[164] The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

“I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars. Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film. He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then turning around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell.” [237]

The White Tiger is Balram Halwai’s confession of his murdering the master. It’s a letter (isn’t epistle the trendy literary form) addressed to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, before his imminent state visit to India. Balram speaks in recollection under this chandelier over seven nights. The incendiary remarks with which he carps on China’s lack of democracy can never be more timely apropos of the Beijing Olympic Games:

“I gather you yellow-skinned men, despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy.” [80]

But this viciously sardonic voice does not just gnaw on China, it’s meant to be satirical of India. Balram spells out his pieces of mind, which seem rather random at the beginning and sound like ranting, about his country—poverty, corruption, and marginalization of wealth. Trimmed to the bone The White Tiger is the rueful tale of how he is corrupted from a sweet, innocent, family-loving village fool into an urbanized fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness. All these changes happen in him partly because they have first taken place in his master, Mr. Ashok, who has returned from America “full of stupid ideas.” A servant is like a son to his master—and servitude is perpetual, just like being born into the lower caste is for life. Critics accuse Adiga’s writing about poverty at home being opportunistic, but aren’t books on China’s human rights just as opportunistic?

Revealed from the layers of social nuances and scenes of New Delhi lives are the deeply disturbing truths of a man-eat-man world: You eat or get eaten up. As befit to the beastly allusion of the title, humans are metaphorized as animals that struggle to survive:

“Go to a teashop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that teashop—men, I say, but better call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms…” [43]

To deal a heavier blow on the imbecile post-colonial government, Balram equates the most corrupted and depraved politicians, those who would do whatever it takes, even to kill some along the way to reach the top, as wild animals that attack and rip each other apart.

“—the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals ripped each other apart and the zoo became a jungle.” [54]

Small people—the forgotten, the stricken, the unprivileged, the impecunious, and the homeless are caught between power struggles of political struggles. They are trapped in the vicious cycle that usually renders their lives even more miserable. They are like wounded stray dogs:

“A pink patch of skin—an open wound—glistened on its left shank; and the dog had twisted on itself in an attempt to gnaw at the wound. The wound was going crazy from pain—trying to attack the wound with its slavering mouth, it kept moving in mad, precise, pointless circles.” [213]

Through Balram’s eyes, we see India as we have never seen it before: the cockroaches, the prostitutes, and the worshippers of multiple gods, which don’t create morality. Trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible is the white tiger—nickname given to Balram for his merit in school. Soon he realizes money cann’t solve all the problems, but at least he could make the leap from darkness into light, which, paradoxically, is darker than darkness. The White Tiger is a well-written book of our time. Its amoral and irreverent themes are authentically contemporary in a world shaped by massive globalization.

Other Reviews:
Book Crazy
The Mookse and the Gripes
Tuesday in Silhouette

White Tiger? Booker Prize?

Book review: [164] White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Despite critics from all over are shocked at Aravind Adiga’s surprise winning of the Book Prize, I have taken up The White Tiger. Eileen Battersby at the Irish Times comments about his “surprise victory” of winning the award for this novel. She further notes that Adiga’s win “left the literary establishment gasping, perhaps even bewildered.” Whether the book is crude and opportunistic as Miss Battersby has deemed, it is definitely an eclectic read, I mean, somewhat weird.

Balram Halwai tells the transfixing story, which is meant for Chinese Premier (god knows why) Wen Jaobao, of how he came to the success in life with his own wits. But he is a murderer who cuts off his employer’s neck. He recovers his story over seven nights under this preposterous chandelier that barely fits his room. Anyway, when he was a boy, his family took out a huge loan to finance his cousin’s wedding. Taken out of school he had to break coals for a living. being the brightest kid in school, he was dubbed the White Tiger:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In this jungle, you are the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation.”
He paused.
“The white tiger.” [30]

Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or novel, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are very unsettling. So far it’s a bit weird and shaky. Booker Prize?

The Short List:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)