Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Recognizing humanity

I'm in the middle of Aravind Adiga's award-winning book "White Tiger", and one of the things that strikes me about his character Balram Halwai is the miserable circumstances in which the guy grew up in, and the fact that, seriously, the dude's a sociopathic a**hole.

Pardon my French.

Seriously. He has a bit of Jack Sparrow in him, in the sense that you know he's a jerk who can't be trusted with anything, and yet you want to get on that ship to see what trouble he lands into, and even hope for his safety against your judgment. I'm about half-way through, and this book is truly a feat of characterization and voice, in that paints strips all the characters of any easily categories: The rich people do some vile things, even as they are not always vile themselves; the police extorts, not protects; and the poor people are certainly long-suffering survivors, but they can be vultures and relish the chance to oppress themselves. There are no heroes here. In the book, we spend a lot of time with rickshaw-pullers, chai-walas, drivers and servants, all of whom are depicted in as unsparing a manner as land-owners and ministers and businessmen. I can imagine many thinking that Adiga's dark picture of modern India is perhaps a bit unfair (I imagine this, because I'm sure as much will be said if the city was Lagos, not Delhi and Dhanbad), but I think that Adiga's hit upon something real and profound when he does not treat any of his characters with kid gloves.

One-dimensional representations of the rich or poor should not be par for the course, that's really not the case, is it? The representation of poor people more often than not vacillates between pity and disgust, so it always surprises me when someone depicts poor people as, well, people. But that's what they are, isn't it? They laugh and cry and have weddings and drink more than they should and manipulate and fret and fuss. They sometimes spend their money on worthless crap. They sometimes don't even realize how much they lack. They're not always nice to each other. And however bad things get, they always, always, find a way to deal. In recognizing that people somehow face down the most dire of circumstances to build lives for themselves and have weddings and birthdays and burials has always filled me with more a sense of wonder than pity. It is something to be admired, and to me is key in recognizing the humanness of us all. And how do you help someone, truly help, when you don't recognize their humanity? How do you expect best-laid plans to "help" when you don't even know who these people are? Mono-dimensional representations of anyone -- Middle-Eastern, gay, black, [insert-minority-here] -- are always, always vehicles that aid and abet in their continued oppression.

This really would only merit a shrug on my part if it didn't affect policy approaches meant to help poor people. I think Bill Easterly explains that part better than I do.

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