The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

A look at life in a slum
Arun Gaur

Chinnamani's World
by Mukunda Rao. Penguin Books.
Pages 274. Rs 295.

Chinnamani's WorldCHINNAMANI'S world is a world of Indira slum of Bangalore. However, it is not presented through the eye of Chinnamani, even though the title suggests that. The narrative voice shifts and identifies itself with different personae active in the slum: Chinnamani (11-year-old bright schoolboy), his mother Parvathi (daily wage-earner at construction sites), his father Thangamani (vegetable hawker), Velu (Chinnamani's friend, a Rajnikant fan), Asaithambi (the beggar-boy), Shiva (a scooter mechanic), Yellanuna (the canteen owner), Rukmini (the coquette), Isthri Selvan (Thiruvalluvar fan who irons for a living) the carpenter, Rowdy Muthu (the ruffian) and Laxman (lottery-ticket seller). Besides these we have Swami and Sumathi who work for the uplift of the slum.

Along with these persons we are presented with a series of routine slum affairs: school-life, Ayyappa-mala wearing rituals, unwed pregnancy, street quarrels involving mothers, formation of slum housing committees under the over-all supervision of Swami and Sumathi, the fake housing list, the apathetic ministry and bureaucracy, a trance-session, and a devastating fire in the slum.


The ghost of Rajnikant, the film star, despotically rules over the imagination of the kids. Shiva would slip on the fake Nike T-shirt, would toss and light the cigarette in Rajnikant-style, and Chinnamani would form the "first ever Indira Gandhi Slum Cricket Team." The kids learn capitalist calculations when Perumal, the rich carpenter's son, offers a cricket bat and buys captaincy. And what of Rukmini?: "She looks at everyone, smiles at everyone, talks to everyone. She confuses me."

It is the prospect of owning their own pucca houses that energises the adults. But it is found in the end that the relocation is also politically motivated and does not fulfill the demands of the Utopian imagination. Slum burns only to be substituted by a new colony ironically named 'Swarajpura' another Marxist gesture that would ensure the continuance of the oppressive strategies of power. Swami is caught in this slum development programme but shifts his ideological position from being a rationlist to an idealist and finally back to a disillusioned pragmatic rationalist. As the kids find Rukmini coquettish, Swami finds Sumathi a callous creature: "Why did he have to lose his heart over this insensitive, haughty, upper-class bitch? No, she had no feelings."

This is the stuff that forms the narrative that is told through different voices. There is no single central thread running through the narrative and the novel does not have a conventional ending. We find Chinnamani and Velu running towards a new-found, albeit dubious freedom in the end. But the matter is not as simple as that. The author does not seem to have the aspired authority over the contents of the novel. The personae and situations are not symbolically, psychologically, or even ideologically innovative enough to require any elaborate comments or a deep analysis.

Even these routine affairs could have been livened up but the language does not permit it. The very dullness of such proceedings is a problem in itself but the problem has compounded on account of the language used. The diction that the novelist uses is not the one favoured in slums and the matter is further aggravated when the spoken language is sought to be adapted to what is taught in classrooms. Consequently, the language struggles. Utterances like "Give me your slipper let me use it on myself," "You've quenched your thirst what about your child?" and "You'll be the captain, Perumal. Who else?" are jarring. An excessive use of expressions like "as if", "instead of" and literal translations like "Money will come, money will go" and "I'll break your leg and give it in your hand", are awkward. In fact, the portion of the novel that is devoted to Swami and does not deal directly with slum-life is more convincingly rendered and is a source of some delight.

However, despite the various pitfalls of the novel at various levels, it should be given due credit for an important question that it raises: High civilisation creates itself by marginalising its slum-like accursed self, but is not the accursed self already working in the very foundation of the so-called high culture? Neither the kids' world nor the adults' world can satisfactorily answer this question .