by Mala Pandurang
Chinnamani’s World, Mukunda Rao. Penguin Books, India, 2003.
Chinnamani is eleven years old and lives in Indira Slum, one of the five hundred slums in the growing cyber-city of Bangalore. A large number of the slum dwellers in Indira Slum are migrant laborers from Tamil Nadu and work as construction laborers at rapidly expanding middle-class-housing layouts. Chinnamani reluctantly attends a nearby corporation school. He is passionate about cricket, and worships the Tamil ‘superstar’ Ranjnikanth. His father (Tharkari Thangamani) is a multi-lingual vegetable vendor filled with remorse at his inability to break his habit of drinking His mother (Parvati) does backbreaking construction work to ensure the family does not go hungry. It is Parvati’s determination to give Chinnamani an ‘English medium’ education that keeps him at a school he detests attending.
Childhood as an age of innocence is short lived for Chinnamani and his friends Velu, Perumal and Shiva. Chinnamani finds himself short of companions when Velu is compelled to take up a job as a cleaner in a hotel and Perumal is married off to a ‘small’ girl from the village. Shiva tired of being abused by his father runs away from home. His heart cringes at thoughts of Shiva working so hard to earn money, Velu always rooting for scraps of food ‘like a hungry street dog’ and his mother ‘lifting sand, cement and bricks at the construction site’ (85). As Chinnamani watches the world of adults of the Tamil speaking slum dwellers fight a daily battle against hunger, his anger grows at life for being so unfair and unjust – ‘there was something so unnatural, so wrong with their lives’ (85). He watches boys from the layout play cricket in white pants and white shoes and broods over wide disparities between the life of those in the slum, and those who live in the layout: “ What fascinated him most about these boys were their clean, well-stitched clothes, their fine skin and their easy, happy manners. ….How wonderful it might be to feel the power of wealth and freedom, to eat meals that would fill his stomach!” ( 56)
Life in Indira Slum changes when ‘Sumathi Madam’ who works with a Non-Governmental Organization is able to convince the slum dwellers that they should organize themselves into a Slum Development Committee, and fight for a right to the land on which they live. Poverty alleviation schemes, she explains, cannot be introduced until the land issue is settled. Chinnamani notices that all the adults around him begin to behave more and more strangely as the land issue takes ‘ possession of them like a virus invading the body . They constantly discussed land, land, and land. Every other issue in their lives seemed to have taken a backseat.’( 156). While the Committee elects Isthri Selvan as their President, it is the women who led the initiative to confront apathetic government officials and put an end to the stranglehold of Rowdy Muthu ( the undisputed dada of the slum) on the keri . The inhabitants of the Indira Slum do not however know if the land on which they had built their huts belonged to the government or to a private party. In their endless trips to the Bangalore Development Authority, the Secretary of the Slum Clearance Board and the Deputy Commissioner ‘s office , they experience only official indifference, corruption and apathy to their demands to title deeds over their homes.
The novel does not have a typical ending of a ‘Rajanikath-movie’ as much as Chinnamani ( and the reader ) wishes for one. The Minister for Housing and Urban Development plays the Kannada-Tamil language card and demands that the slum dwellers are dislodged from Indira Slum , despite their having lived there for more than fifteen years and having voted in the last two elections. They are ordered to relocate within a month to an area twenty kilometers away ironically named as Swarajpura. The offer is unfair as land there is barren land. There is no ongoing construction work wherein jobs might be available, nor are there any nearby schools. The committee decides to resist the move and but a cruel coincidence, a fire devastates the slum. Chinnamani loses his father, and his home.
Rao’s novel narrated through multiple voices is a telling comment on class disparities, gender inequities and urban migration in post-independent India. The novel presents problematics of developmental activism through the voice of Swamy, who is Sumathi’s partner from the NGO. A veteran of eight years in the field of social activism, Swamy is now disillusioned with socialist- idealist ventures, and is suspicious of NGOs and related ‘funding agency sponsored politics’ ( 169). He has come to the conclusion that “there is no justice in the world, no justice in life. There never was and there never will be’ ( 173) . NGOs according to Swamy were only money making rackets which are succeeded ‘not in ameliorating the condition of the poor, but in creating a new elite class called development experts” ( 173). Swamy is also cynical of Sumathi’s involvement with the slum dwellers. He cannot comprehend her concern about the problems of the slum people – perhaps it was ‘one of those emotional lies that middle class women often indulge in’. How could Sumathi whose family live in one of the posh layouts in Bangalore understand ‘ the starvation, the humiliation, the wretched day-to-day existence of the low-caste and poor people?’ (172). Sumathi is not a follower of any particular ideology and has vague ideas about developmental activism .
To her credit, she does not lead from the front, instead motivates the slum dwellers to organize political activism movement from within the ranks.
Rao does not offer psychological and emotional depth in his individual characters. This is perhaps in keeping with his ideological intention to present a collective tragedy of dispossession and denial, through representative experiences of the novel’s multiple protagonists. Lucidly written Chinnamani’s World is a sensitive presentation of an ‘other’ India, hardly shinning in the after glow of development and progress. The novel is a reminder of a depressing reality urban middleclass Indians remain oblivious to. At the end of the novel Chinnamani and Velu speed off towards a red government bus that they sight on the highway near Swarajpura. They race with the abandon of youngsters for whom the world is still a space of free exploration. The tragedy of Chinnamani’s world however, as Rao effectively conveys through his novel, is that it will not be long before the anger that Chinnamani has begun to experience momentarily will eat into his very being.
March 6, 2007
Mala Pandurang is Head of the Department, Department of English, BMN College, Mumbai. This review first appeared in The Book Review. Vol. XXVIII No 7 July 2004: 39.