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Friday, October 17, 2008

Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga lays bare the truth of India's poverty

  India, which for decades after independence was shackled in the Western imagination to images of grinding poverty, is suddenly seen through the equally distorting lens of Bollywood glitz and Bangalore call centres; headline-grabbing corporate takeovers and endless seminars discussing when (not if) India will become the next global superpower.

  In the space of a decade, the poor of India - who today still account for as many as 800 million of the country's 1.1 billion population - have been virtually erased from our perception of the world's largest democracy.

  But enter now, centre-stage, after winning the Man Booker prize, 33-year-old Aravind Adiga and his novel The White Tiger.

  A book which, if the critics are to be believed, lays bare the troubled reality of modern India to a world that has become so entranced by the mantra of its economic ''miracle" that it has forgotten the grinding reality of life for most Indians.

  The novel certainly affected the chairman of the judges, Michael Portillo, who said that the book about a poor, rural rickshawallah being corrupted by his move to the big city, had challenged his own assumptions about India and poverty itself.

  "It changed my view of certain things," he said, explaining why Adiga's book had won, "like what is the real India and what is the nature of poverty."

  Stories have always trumped statistics when it comes to getting a message across, and Adiga's novel, which his publishers reckon could sell 500,000 copies in Britain alone, has the power to encourage the world to take a more realistic view of modern India in all its corrupt complexity.

  But while facts and figures might be dry compared with Adiga's narrative, they are also worth repeating because they reveal how India's economic success has failed to deliver enough to the country's poor.

  Despite the much-vaunted decades of seven per cent economic growth, and the rise of a middle class, the ''dark side", (Mr Portillo's phrase) of India remains.

  In modern, nuclear-capable India, 63 infants die per 1,000 live births. In war-torn Eritrea the figure is 45. In India, 400 out of 100,000 women die in childbirth. In Botswana, the figure is 100.

  And despite a decade of economic expansion, a staggering 47 per cent of India's under-threes remain malnourished.

  Only on Wednesday, an international study found that the level of hunger in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is comparable with that of war-ravaged Ethiopia. Punjab, the best-placed in the survey of 17 Indian states, still ranks below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam.

  It is this kind of poverty that forces millions of poor Indians to migrate every year to the slums of cities such as Mumbai, India's commercial and entertainment capital, where nearly half the population live in stinking, narrow-alleyed shanties.

  It isn't just the smell of human faeces that makes the outsider dizzy, but the jarring proximity of those rich and poor worlds which, thanks to the prevalence of television and migration to the cities, are now starting to collide in India.

  One encounter during my four years in India as The Daily Telegraph's correspondent illustrates the widening gulf.

  I spent a day interviewing a young man and his wife, Subir and Shenaz, who made their living sorting rubbish in a Mumbai slum near the city's airport.

  For 12, sometimes 16 hours a day, they sifted Mumbai's household waste for metal scraps - a bed spring, the aluminium collar of a light bulb, a copper solenoid from an old transistor radio - anything that might be worth a few rupees from a scrap dealer.

  They lived in conditions in which Europeans are not allowed to keep animals. Their ''house" was a wooden box no more than 10ft square, perched on the edge of an open sewer.

  Here they sat sifting hour after hour, Shenaz, herself running a fever in the Mumbai summer heat, nursing a sickly baby as she worked, actually and metaphorically at the bottom of India's billion-man economic dust-heap.

  Surely village life was preferable to this, I wondered? Shenaz smiled. "Here we eat every night," she said, "and, until I fell sick, we even saved some money." She hadn't come to Mumbai for pity or charity - there was none on offer if she'd wanted it - but for opportunities that her rural village could never give her or her child.

  Subir explained that they had hoped Mumbai was going to provide them with a better life, but that he'd spent all his money paying bribes at the local state hospital to get treatment which, legally, he should have had for free.

  It was a story typical of the petty corruption that blights the lives of India's impoverished masses. One day, the couple said, they wanted their child to go to school and learn to read and write - something they had never been given the chance to do.

  The couple were angry. Looming over their hovel on the gantry of a nearby flyover was the grinning face of India's playboy billionaire, Vijay Mallya, owner of the Kingfisher beer brand and often described as "India's Richard Branson".

  From a giant billboard Mr Mallya could be seen exhorting Mumbai's upper classes to "Fly the Good Times" on his recently launched airline, itself a beacon of the new, booming India.

  So what, I wondered, did Subir think of that poster? Did he find it an inspiring emblem of a new, prosperous India or a galling, taunting reminder of the fact that there was absolutely no chance that he'd ever be ''flying the good times" in one of the planes that came thundering over the tin roof of his shack every five minutes.

  He didn't take long to give his answer. "I don't want to go flying in a plane," he said, "I just want enough money to eat and to buy medicine for my wife. One day I want my son to go to school. Today I cannot even afford to give her a sweet for the Eid festival. There is no honour in this life."

  None of this is to understate the undoubted progress India has made over the past two decades, but merely to temper the notion that India is on the cusp of becoming a developed nation, where poverty will be eradicated and everyone has a mobile phone.

  The fact is that hundreds of millions of Indians live, like Subir and Shenaz, a barely sustainable existence. Amid all the celebration of India's progress, Adiga's novel will perhaps provide a reminder to the wider world of how far India still has to come.


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