Riding and Reading; The Safe Way to Commute

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Five days a week I, like most other people, go to work. There are potentially dozens of ways for me to get to work: car, bike, segway, helicopter, skate board, or hitch hiking; the options are potentially endless. I have chosen to go the traditional route and commute via the bus. On my way to work I take a TriMet bus (#44, #54, or #56) from stop #925 to stop #7803; on my way home I take a bus from stop #7586 to stop #955. The ride to work takes 13.5 minutes. The ride home takes either 15 or 21 minutes depending on which bus I catch. During this time I read. During most other times I like to babble. This blog combines all three: books, buses and babble.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dead hair and bits of skin; a promotion?

Book: The White Tiger
Bus: #44; 6:12 a.m.
Pages read: 51 - 61

As Balram is begging for a position as a driver at Ashok's home, fate steps in and "The Stork" appears at the gate demanding to know what Balram wants. You see, "the Stork" happens to one of Balram's Village landlords (read mob boss, a la the Godfather) and this connection causes the Stork to actually consider Balram for the position. Adiga uses his descriptive prowess:

Balram, amid wails and tears, kisses the Stork's feet. As he rises to face the Stork, his "big uncut toenails scratched [Balram's] cheek." pg. 51. Absolutely, ugh. Enough in those 6 words to make me cringe in disgust. How often do you encounter that in a book? (the ability to disgust in one short sentence, although the cheeks getting scratched by uncut toenails is pretty rare too)

The Stork does a background check on Balram, which involves confirming that Balram has a good family back in the village. Balram's locatable family ensures that he will be a loyal servant b/c it is standard practice for landlords to kill a servant's entire family for any betrayal. Most servants find this ample motivation to provide good service.

FYI - the stork has two sons, Mukesh Sir (the Mongoose) and Ashok. Balram will primarily serve, and eventually kill, Ashok.

Balram becomes a driver, which is a significant step up from human spider, but not much; After all, Balram still lives in India (not wooed over yet). The job comes with some perks, the most significant being a khaki uniform. This is huge. Let's just say that a UPS driver would be worshipped like one of India's 36,004 gods. Balram has arrived.

As a driver, he makes tea, chases cows out of the compound; and cleans stainless-steel spittoons full of red paan expectorate. But, just in case you were not convinced that Balram and others of his caste have a shitty, shitty life, we learn that one of Balram's regular duties - as a driver - is to massage the Stork's feet in a bucket until the water cools and is full of "dead hair and bits of skin."

This one simple scene; Balram on his knees with his hands submersed in a bucket of dirty water dead skin floating around this arms with a fat disgusting man talking over him as if he was just a dog at his feet provides the reader with so much information. This is a job. Balram could get up and walk away. Anyone with any other prospect in life would get up and walk away from this "job," but he stays. He stays. You now comprehend what Balram/Adiga is trying to convey - you are what you are born into in India and if you choose to enter the world through the wrong birth canal you are screwed. Balram is a subspecies that has evolved over time and that fills a pretty crappy niche. His life is the equivelent of that subspecies of penguin that huddles in a massive group on shit-covered ice in -40 degree weather without any food for three months balancing a single egg on its webbed feet that will eventually hatch and demand regurgitated food that mom will have to hunt for while avoiding the sea lions that lurk just off the iceburg waiting to tear it in half.

Connecting with Balram

Book: The White Tiger
Bus #56; 6:35 a.m.
Pages: 0

Have you seen the movie "Speed"?

This morning's bus driver has.

A few hundred feet past where the bus picked me up there was an unexpected detour. The usual route is a direct shot onto Barbur Blvd (a main road into downtown), it takes about 30 seconds. The detour was a much longer ride down a very windy (typical SW Portland) road which takes about 8 minutes (at least).

We made it in 2.

If a deranged technological genius had rigged the bus so that it would explode if it went slower than 50mph, we would have been safe. I audibly gasped when we swerved into the on-coming lane just before a blind curve to avoid smashing into a truck slowing to a stop. As I tried to regain my composure, I looked around at the other passengers. They all looked completely at ease; I was alone in my terror. At that moment I felt a kinship with Balram. Just as I was the only one scared of dying in an out of control bus, little Balram was the only one in his school scared of the lizard living in the cupboard. My fellow passengers were Balram's classmates, perfectly at ease with the giant lizard prowling their classroom, and I am Balram.
I didn't read this morning, b/c I left my book by my computer. It wouldn't have mattered if I did have it, b/c I was too terrified to take my eyes off the road.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Death be not proud; driving lessons

Book: The White Tiger
Bus #56; 6:02 a.m.
Pages: 41 - 51

Balram does not elaborate on his stint as a mass murderer. Rather he jumps to the story of how he came into the employ of his master (and victim) Mr. Ashok. Using his mastery of the macabre (remember mom's burning toes?) Adiga describes Balram's father's death. Dad, like mom, spends some time spitting blood, motivating Balram and his brother to take him to the hospital. Instead of doctors they find a blood thirsty snarling cat, a line of diseased eyes, raw wounds, and delierous mouths, and goat turds "spread like a constellation of black stars" on the floor. pg. 40. His father dies and he and his brother mop up dad's infected blood as the ward boys pet a goat and feed it a carrot.

I am now convinced of Adiga's literary genius.

After his father's death, Balram leaves his village and moves to Dhanbad. Once in Dhanbad, Balram learns that drivers make tons of money and he uses his unstoppable determination to take driving lessons. That determination also allows him to persevere in his search for a job as a personal driver. Two weeks of knocking on doors and being rejected, he found Ashok and opportunity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Book: The White Tiger
Bus # 44; 4:10 p.m. (ride home 9/23)
Pages: 33-41

The bus has been pretty uneventful lately. Thank God.

I am beginning to wonder if Balram is crazy. Not "isn't that person's logic fucked up because he grew up in a place where sewage and water buffaloes played a major role in village life and parents weren't charged with neglect for not naming their children and a school's walls are wallpapered with red paan spit" crazy. No, I mean crazy like, "I have no grasp on reality and I kill people" crazy. Why do I think this? Let's see:

What does my laughter sound like?
What do my armpits smell like?
And when I grin, it is true – as you no doubt imagine now – that my lips widen into a devil’s rictus?
Oh, I could go on and on about myself, sir. I could gloat that I am not just any murderer, but one who killed his own employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probable death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer.
But I don’t want to go on and on about myself.” Pg. 37

I don't know about you, but this makes me think Balram might be a tiny bit psychotic.

After getting your attention with that little deranged rant, Adiga does an about face and we return to the Balram we have come to love and sympathize with. Adiga hints at what Balram, the entrepreneur, does for work. He starts work at 3 a.m. and people in crisis call him after all the American call-center girls and boys leave work. Is Balram one of those foreign voices that gives you unintelligible advice on how to defrag your computer? we'll see.

Adiga again scores "how did he come up with that" points with me when Balram explains that he does not use a cell phone, b/c "they corrode a man's brains, shrink his balls, and dry up his semen." Pg 33. Ah, this would explain the high rate of shrunken ball syndrome in the U.S..

Adiga employs some symbolism involving an abandoned black fort on a mountain in Balram's village. Balram spends his childhood looking up at the fort too scared to climb up to it (this fear intentionally made greater by his loving grandmother telling him that there is giant lizard living in the fort). As Balram readies to leave the village he makes the triumphant climb, realizes there is no lizard and disdainfully spits down from the fort onto his village. I take this to represent Balram's resolution to escape the shackles of his caste and his refusal to complacently accept the mores that pervade India. Maybe not. Maybe it is just a fort, a hill and a fear of lizards. After all the fish was just a fish.

Quotable: "They remain slaves because they can't see what is beautiful in this world." pg 34

The White Tiger revealed.

Book: The White Tiger
Bus #56 (inexplicably labeled Moran Garage); 6:04 a.m.
Pages: 26-34

I almost killed a cyclist on my way to the bus. I exaggerate. My acceleration to 80 m.p.h. as I turned into my commuter lot made hitting him/her very unlikely.

Adiga gives us another hint about Balram's crime. It involved stealing money; enough money to buy 10 silver Macintosh laptops from Singapore. Referring back to the wanted poster's description of the perp, Balram criticizes that it omits his education. Balram asserts that a man's description should always include his education. Balram offers his up: "The suspect was educated in a school with two-foot-lizards the color of half-ripe guavas hiding in its cupboards..." pg 28. I love this.

The book's humor comes from the way Balram's character describes things that are ridiculous, hideous or unjust without seeming to realize their ridiculousness, hideousness or unjustness. For example, Balram explains how none of the children ate at school b/c the schoolteacher stole the kids lunch money which was meant to buy the free food provided by the school. How great is that?

Apparently, "sister-fucker" is worse than "mother-fucker" in India.

Despite the food shortage, Balram's life was looking up when the visiting school inspector singled him out from the other kids from school as being "an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots." He tells Balram that he is the rarest of animals in any jungle...the white tiger. This is the part where you stand up and cheer for little Balram.

Then you immediately sit back down. As Balram so wisely puts it, "[T]he one infallible law of life in [his village] is that good news becomes bad news -- and soon." pg. 30. What is the bad news? His cousin-sister (apparently sister-fucking isn't that bad after all) got engaged. Balram follows this with, "because we were the girl's family, we were screwed." I laughed out loud.

So cousin-sister had an enormous, lavish wedding that made the water buffalo jealous, and Balram's family was sold into slavery to pay for it. Balram is forced to leave school and work as a coal breaker in the pig shit smelling tea shop.

If you are going to live in India, do so as a water buffalo

Book: The White Tiger
Bus #44; 3:30 p.m.
Pages read: 13 - 26

Before I continue, I need to interject an important part of the book which I have failed to write about before now. Balram has committed some crime in the past. We know this b/c Balram is using the information in a police wanted poster as an "outline" for his autobiography in the letter to the Premier. We don't know what that crime is, but we do know that when he committed it, he was stylishly dressed in a blue checkered polyester shirt and orange polyester trousers.

I took up the story with Balram describing his mother's funeral. The narrative of the funeral made the vision of mom spewing blood seem bland. It was a traditional, run-of-the-mill funeral pyre type situation, except that Balram got to watch as the toes on his mother's exposed foot melted and curled up. Surprisingly, little Balram fainted. I almost did too.

In this portion of the book (and the letter), Balram describes his village (lovingly referred to as the Darkness) and his life there. Conveniently, Balram's village had a street split in two by a "strip of sewage" making the need for DOT workers to paint yellow lines down the roads unnecessary. In addition, the village's tea shop would fill with the smell of dust, sand and hog shit whenever the stray dogs and hogs scattered from out in front. But not all life in the village was bad, the family's water buffalo had a charming life. It was well-fed, lovingly cared for, and its only complaint could be having to spend all day in its own "stupendous crap."

In addition to the cow, Balram lived with women who regularly pull each others' hair.

Thankfully, Adiga gives us a glimpse of some positive things in Balram's life. Adiga deftly describes how Balram would welcome his father home from extended stays by climbing over his dad and lovingly caressing his dad's face and neck. For any parent this scene evokes a genuine feeling of pure love.

Adiga also manages to show that dad, despite not feeling it necessary to name his son, has that apparently rare quality in India to want Balram to live a better life. Dad was insistent that Balram get an education (which pissed grandma off b/c she wanted her grandson to join the ranks of India's child laborers). When Balram refused to go to school b/c he was terrified of the lizard that lived in the school's cupboard, dad went to school and killed it. I ended my commute with dad smashing the lizard's head and stamping on its neck, so that Balram would feel safe to return to school. Dad, then made the praiseworthy proclamation, "My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey. All I want is one son of mine -- at least one -- should live like a man."

Yeah dad. And yeah Adiga for salvaging the book's story from getting lost in a dreary fog. By inserting a few small glimpses of love, Adiga gives the reader a reason to not give up on Balram and allows us to buy into any future storyline that makes Balram out to be a decent person.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sunrises, Mount Hood, & Urination

Book: The White Tiger
Bus #44; 6:12 a.m.
Pages read: 0

I didn't read this morning. I wanted to listen to the songs I downloaded last night on my iPod. Whenever I put a book down and notice the things around me while riding the bus, I generally see things that I am glad I didn't miss. This morning is a perfect example: Mount Hood silhouetted by the orange glow of the rising sun. Beautiful.

But not everything I notice is so picturesque. Last month, while the bus was stopped a light, I saw a man peeing in the sidewalk. He wasn't leaning into a building, secreted into a door front, or in a side alley. No, he was in the middle of the sidewalk peeing right down the center. From where I was watching, I could see the geometrically perfect arc of urine.

Moral of this post: It's good to put down the book now and then and take in the world around you...but only now and then.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Olfactory nightmare

Book: The White Tiger
Bus # 44; 3:30 p.m.
Pages read: 5-12

Reading on the bus is not just an activity, but an experience. Today, the ride home was an olfactory nightmare. Usually, my bus route is pretty safe smellwise, but every once and a while it reminds me that humans are animals. Really disgusting animals. This was one of those days. So, I spent the ride home trying to read while holding my breath and wondering what ta hell caused such an awful smell.

The book's first mystery is solved. The swear word turned out to be a swear phrase: "What a fucking joke." Balram disclosed this just a paragraph following where I stopped reading this morning (I bet you can guess that I never read the last page of a book before the end).

I like Balram.

He starts his autobiographical letter to the Premier by explaining that people in his country start a story by saying a prayer. To this he adds,

"I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god's arse.
Which god's arse, though? There are so many choices.
See, the Muslims have one god.
The Christians have three gods.
And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.
Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from." pg. 6

Using the word "arse" scores major points with me.

Balram then acknowledges that some people believe that none of these gods exist. Here is his brilliant response to that: "It's true that all these gods seem to do awfully little work -- much like our politicians -- and yet keep wining reelection to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year." pg 6.


Balram is a very unique character. Here is a guy who has had possibly one of the crappiest childhoods ever, but speaks of it in a very matter of fact way without any resentment or blame. Apparently, he believes that his crappy life is representative of the norm. For example, Balram off-handedly relates that his parents never bothered to give him a name. Now most kids would be a little pissed off about this, but not Balram. Balram explains this parental oversight as perfectly understandable, afterall his mother spent all her time lying in bed and spewing blood (truly horrifying image) and his father was too busy pulling a rickshaw to name him. Now, why dad couldn't think of some name off the top of his head during the 20 hours a day he spent running through the streets is beyond me. He wasn't too damn busy to think up the moniker, "boy." Couldn't dad have just tacked on a few more syllables and called it done? Ponyboy comes to mind. Something tells me that Balram wouldn't have been too picky.

Balram finally gets his name when a teacher, after spitting a "jet of red paan" onto the classroom floor, takes 5 seconds to give him one. First off, what ta hell is paan? Secondly, maybe there is some teacher in Texas or Alabama that is spitting chewing tobacco drool on the classroom floor, but generally people in countries I like don't do such a thing, and thirdly, why couldn't Balram choose his own name at this point--I think he earned the right.

I concluded my ride with Adiga providing another loathsome image of India (as if the red paan all over the floor wasn't gross enough). Balram cautions the Premier about swimming in India: ". . .I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy part of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids." pg 12 See?? This is exactly why I believe that India is not a desirable place. The rivers are filled with soggy human body parts...this is not good. Period.

I find myself wondering about Adiga's relationship with India. Does he hate it? I can't help thinking that even though he has yet to include anything pleasant about India or its citizens, that he has some affinity towards it. I also like that the author has an amazing ability to conjure up face-scrunchingly disgusting images without needing to bog the reader down with lengthy descriptions. And despite these disgusting visuals (or maybe because of), this book is quite full of wit and quotables. And I think I am going to enjoy it. Actually, I already am.

India...off to a bad start?

New book: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Bus #44; 6:12 a.m.
Pages read: 1 - 5

Susie (more about Susie later) gave me this book, otherwise I would have put it right back down on the Goodwill bookshelf. Why? Because it takes place in India. I do not like reading books about India. Frankly, I do not like India. I have come about this personal opinion, not b/c I have been there, but b/c I have friends who have been there and I have read books set in India. Is my inexperienced judgment a tad unfair? Maybe. A bit (okay, a lot) prejudicial? Yes. But I have a reasonably legitimate basis for this opinion.

The book (through protagonist, Balram Halwai) itself lends support: "And [India], though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs." Entrepreneurs that live in a shitty place that is morose and depressing. This admission of India's crappiness occurred on pg. 2.

Also, The Inheritance of Loss left me feeling like someone had died and visualizing India as a grey, smelly place. I recommend this book if you ever find yourself too happy and want to bring yourself down so that normal people don't want to smack the smile off your face.

So, when I grabbed The White Tiger off my pile of "to read" books, I did so with trepidation. I, personally, cannot imagine that I am about to undertake a light-hearted, funny, witty jaunt down literary lane. But Susie gave me this book (again, more about Susie later), so I will give it a try.

Despite my skepticism, I have to say there was a noteworthy tidbit on pg 1. The book begins with a letter from Balram to the Premier of China and in the address Balram refers to Beijing as the "Capital of the Freedom-loving Nation of China." The author has struck a favorable blow right of the bat with this little, subtle absurdity. Also, there is a bit (repeated several times) about Balram needing to use an English obscenity b/c there is no comparable word in his language (which I have no clue what that is, although "Indian" clearly doesn't sound right to me). What the swear word is has not been revealed and I am curious which cuss word is not replicable in "Indian." Will this mystery be solved? We'll see.

P.S. Regular bus rider (I call her woman with flame orange "I am a quirky and hip 50-year old" cropped hair who thinks bus rides are social events) was wearing ugly homemade beaded earrings. She was without her usual cadre of regular riders to chat with. I successfully avoided eye contact and she did not engage me (avoiding conversations being one of the best reasons for reading on the bus).