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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Past Affects the Future Even When the Future Arrives

I used our blog to check an old posting! It was after seeing the movie, Life of Pi, that I checked the record of our group discussion on the book. Although the blog post was short, it told me when we read the book, which was in 2003, and also told me what aspects of the book were most prominent at our discussion. The combination of seeing the new 3D movie and reading the old book discussion summary made me want to reread the book! And of course, it made me want to record just about everything we say at our meetings. (Not really, but it did give me some affirmation about keeping records of our discussions.)

Last Monday, we gathered to discuss another book about India, The White Tiger: A Novel, by Aravind Adiga. Tigers appear in both Life of Pi and The White Tiger. That coincidence and the few other similarities are not of significance in my mind, although I wouldn't be surprised if there were articles comparing the two books.

Most everyone enjoyed the book, although Jan thought it too dark throughout and Carla had a dislike of it for a while and ended up deciding she liked it. Often it is the books with the most likeable characters that are the most beloved books, but sometimes, as in The White Tiger, it is compelling to read about the thoughts and actions of unpleasant characters. The main characters in The White Tiger, The narrator, Balram and his boss Ashok, were both very flawed. But their story was surrounded by the situation of realities of India that come across as so much more flawed than those characters that we end up rooting for them despite their weakness and even criminality.

Our discussion dug into relationship between the poverty of India and its old caste system as both coexist with the modernizing of India that is occurring with technology and the globalization of the marketplace. Change was a big theme of the story. Marla suggested that if the caste system doesn't change, it will become old fashioned. In this story, Balram was born into a family of sweets makers and was able to become a driver for a rich man. So, Balram somewhat raised himself within the caste system. Yet he was still a slave, and his understanding of Indian society clearly showed that he felt that he could not raise himself further without doing something criminal. Our group debated the situation, as to how deeply set in destiny an Indian born into the cast system is today.

We uncovered extreme differences between the American way and the Indian caste system. Americans can be born into poverty but still are taught in school that they can become President. Generally, Indians born into lower socioeconomic castes are still much more stuck in poverty than Americans have ever been. How deeply ingrained these low caste poverty problems are seemed to be a question outside of most of our understanding. Modernization has allowed many Indians who are not among the very low castes to get educations, in India and abroad. Frank noted that many Indians who go abroad don't want to go back to India, and we also talked about Indians who take their educations back to India to live at a higher socioeconomic level there than they could in the United States. A good business in India can afford its owner a fine home with servants, whereas the same degree of success in the United States might buy a smaller home and, of course, no servants.

An interesting aspect of the story was why the narrator was ostensibly revealing his secret identity to the Chinese Premier, in the name of telling the Premier the "truth" about India as opposed to the lies he would probably hear from the Indian officials who would be hosting his impending visit to India. What if Indian officials saw what Balram had written? Balram was essentially a wanted criminal in hiding. Was his epistle to the Premier an act of hubris, did he have an altruistic urge to help the Chinese official, or was he trying to undermine the Indians currently in power? Was the author giving us something to wonder about? I am reminded of the recent Olympics in China, where it became clear that Chinese politics included a lot of lying and covering up of poverty problems in China.

 We enjoyed an insightful discussion about the character Balram and his boss, Ashok, and we also enjoyed some admittedly "half-baked" discussion about many aspects of India that none of us were informed about!

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