Four stars, read in January 2015.
Around the halfway point of this book, if you’d asked me what I was going to rate it, I don’t think I would have been able to tell you. I found it intriguing in the same way that A Confederacy of Dunces is—you sort of hate the protagonist, but you have to admit he’s got an interesting story. Balram’s could be even more so, because it takes place in India and addresses major philosophical, political, and social issues head-on.
I started out listening to the audiobook, but I hated the fact that the narrator was a white British man doing an Indian accent. If I hadn’t been able to tell just by listening, that still would have bothered me the way a white man playing an Indian character in a movie bothers me—but I could tell by listening, too. So I picked up the print copy after the first two discs, and I don’t know if it’s causation or just correlation, but soon after that point I began to find the protagonist much more relatable. The organization of the book is such that current Balram is telling us how he arrived where he is, and current Balram, in the beginning, is arrogant and irritating. For a long time it was difficult for me to reconcile his younger self with the one telling the story, and I was ready to just find him completely unlikable to the end.
But the thing is, the world Balram Halwai lives in is not an okay world. It’s a toxic and corrupt world, organized very specifically to keep people in their designated places, even though the ones doing the organizing have no right to be doing it. And as you get to know the world he lives in, you see how he is shaped by that world. You start to wonder if you would have been much different in his place, and that takes just a little bit of the edge off your dislike for him.
In fact, once I reached that point, I couldn’t put the book down. I read most of it in about an hour, and when I had to leave for work this morning, I decided to put the audio back in so I wouldn’t have to stop. I was ready to ignore my irritation with the narrator’s voice—but then, it never came. Was he reading differently, now that certain things in the book had changed? Was I just hearing him differently now that I’d connected more with the character? I don’t know. I still would prefer an Indian narrator, but my feeling about that no longer interfered with the story.
It’s typical, isn’t it? You judge a character from the beginning, thinking that regardless of what’s going to happen, the guy’s an ass and you don’t have to like him. And that’s true, you don’t have to like him. But then you learn more about him and inevitably, this changes your perception—which is something you should have known in the first place, but pretended you didn’t, because it’s a lot more satisfying to dislike an obnoxious person than it is to realize you can empathize with them.
This is the first of my POC in 2015 reading theme, and I read it almost by accident; I just needed a new audiobook for the car, and this was one we had at the library. It grew on me almost exponentially while I was reading it, and I think it’s continued as I’ve been writing this review. The more I think about it, the more important it feels to me, and the more I want to think about it. I’m sure now that I’ll want to pick up something else by this author, and I’ll probably read this one again at some point, too.