Favourite titles

Favourite titles
Whether it is "Redefining literary techniques and devices", "Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature", or "Translating the Bible into Anuki", these offer valuable reading for the paperless student of literature, and indeed the best sort of literary entertainment you can get out of Papua New Guinea. Check them out either on Soaba's Storyboard or The Anuki Country Press.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Meeting the white tiger

Cover photo courtesy of The White Tiger blog.
The White Tiger is an extraordinary novel about modern day India, a country which we take for granted as “the world’s centre of technology and outsourcing”. The narrator albeit protagonist takes us faithfully from his humble village of Laxmangarh through the tunnels of what we might regard as the underbelly of the biggest democratic country in the world, to the bright lights and chandeliers of Delhi and Bangalore. A reviewer in USA Today describes the novel as “one of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel from an Indian journalist living in Mumbai hit me like a kick in the head...This is an amazing and angry novel about injustice and power.”

We meet the white tiger three times. Once at a rundown, neglected village school of Laxmangarh where a visiting school inspector christens him as such a one destined to fight corruption and alleviate his nation’s poverty because he has successfully recited a sentence written in English on the blackboard. The second encounter is at a local tea shop where he is forced by his grandmother to work and earn money by breaking coal to feed the ovens, just to be jeered at by his class mates:

“What is the creature that comes along only once in a generation?” one boy asked loudly.
“The coal breaker,” another replied.
And then all of them began to laugh.

Upon our third encounter with the white tiger, which is at the National Zoo in Delhi some months later, the narrator of the novel who is also the protagonist and “the white tiger” has this to say: “Then the thing behind the bamboo bars stopped moving. It turned its face to my face. The tiger’s eyes met my eyes, like my master’s eyes have met mine so often in the mirror of the car. All at once the tiger vanished.”

Meaning, our protagonist faints. This is an astonishing novel written by the Oxford and Columbia educated author, Aravind Adiga. The novel has altogether seven chapters. All the chapters are there. Except the third chapter, which presumably covers the period of time the narrator blacked out. Which is odd for a novel to have chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7, eh? No matter.

The narrative turns out to be an open letter addressed to “His Excellency Wen Jiabao, The Premier’s Office, Beijing, Capital of the Freedom-Loving Nation of China” who is about to visit Bangalore. The Premier needs to be informed about the realities of India. “Mr Premier, Sir,” our protagonist starts graciously, “neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can only be said in English.”

And these things that can only be said in English become the faithful tone of honesty referred to earlier. The White Tiger is indeed an angry novel: that anger felt as truly belonging to the 21st century; anger felt by the poor against the rich; anger felt by the least developed and less fortunate against the industrially rich and powerful, the ruthless and merciless. And by the by, as we reach the last pages of the novel, we realize that our protagonist has a far greater plan than we might have envisaged.

Balram Halwai alias Munna, for that is our protagonist’s name and by the end of the novel he will have assumed several more names and titles, goes through life as a humble school drop-out from the little village of Laxmangarh, works in a tea shop at the bidding of his grandmother (Kusum), runs away to the city where he learns and finally acquires a driving licence, then goes on to find work as a driver for a master, Ashok, who also had originated from the little village of Laxmangarh. Balram works for Ashok and his family consisting of his American wife Pinky Madam, and his brothers Mongoose and Mukesh Sir and their father known as the Stork.

He serves his masters well for a time until one night when Pinky Madam, drunk, takes over the wheels of the powerful Honda City from him in the streets of Delhi at two or three in the morning and runs over a child. The whole family present as passengers is shocked. Balram must be sacrificed for his masters. Necessary documentation has been prepared for him to sign and this in part reads: “That there were no other occupants of the car at the time of the accident. That I was alone in the car, and alone responsible for all that happened.” A lawyer has been bribed, all looks complete.

At which point the protagonist hints that the novel must end. But not before he completes a few more lectures for the Premier. India is a Rooster Coop, Balram advises. “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way – to exist in perpetual servitude; servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.”

While millions of wanted posters with his face on them are stuck on the notice boards throughout India, our protagonist of the 21st novel retires to Bangalore a reformed man. There, to those who come to meet and know him, his reputation as a new man comes to their minds in large capital letters: “Meet Balram Halwai, the ‘White Tiger’: Servant, Philosopher, Entrepreneur, Murderer...”

And the poetry that rhymes with that, runs: “I was looking for the key for many years, but the door was always open.”

Elsewhere, within the vicinities of such geographical locations we hear echoes of same, through novels, poems, dramatic works, films, TV, videos, newspapers and radio programs and we find ourselves wondering how much of ethics and morals is visited in the dying hours of man and his endeavour to free himself from such bondage as the Rooster Coop and all the poverty, squalor and waste of human life that goes with it. The White Tiger is quite a novel and if we in PNG believe that neither the novel nor its author, Aravind Adiga, is relevant to us, then truly ol wantok we are kidding ourselves. Go to Delhi, Calcutta or Bangalore today and you will see on the walls of high rise buildings there the same betel nut spit (paang) we see on our own.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Story of a lifetime

Vonu Libitino, a 2nd year literature major at UPNG, feeling good about being the first to read Sir Thomas Ritako's autobiography. Photo by Storyboard.
Arise, Sir Thomas.

An eleven year-old boy is suddenly subjected to light jokes and mannerisms of a Titan (Manus) setting and as he turns twelve begins to take those jokes seriously. The jokes best describe him as a poor waif in the true PNG traditional meaning of the term. That further translates as nogat papa nogat mama, a term which truly implies material as much as hierarchal social poverty. Who are your parents and ancestors and where are your gardens and your land? These become impeding questions that the child grows up with on Sori Island, Manus Province.

In time, however, and as he turns twelve he sees the surrounding world differently. He cannot understand why the foreigners are bombing his beautiful islands of Sori and Baramang. He joins a group of boys his age and under direction from a 70 year-old elder they marched down to sea armed with special magical leaves, dip these into the water and then try waving the bombers away from the beautiful islands. They save their islands that way and the boy himself becomes all more curious about the given setting in which he is meant to grow up.

He thinks his biological parents, particularly his father, had been mean to dump him like that on Sori Island. He becomes a subject of both convenient jesting and ridicule among even his closest relatives but it is his cousin sisters who are more sparing, and through them he learns to question his own sense of existence.

As he does at that age we begin to see the philosophical essence of how and what it feels like growing up as a Papua New Guinean during the post-war period, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies and right up to the present. Papua New Guineans who grew up during this period have learnt something important which today we must seriously regard as the hour of our intellectual re-awakening. That period in our nation’s history is important in that sense. And we begin to see this clearly through the avenue of a certain genre in literature known as the autobiography.

This is Sir Thomas Ritako’s autobiography which runs for 258 pages and becomes a worthy addition to Papua New Guinea’s autobiographical literature that includes Sir Albert Maori Kiki, Sir Paulias Matane, Sir Michael Somare and Dame Carol Kidu, to name a few known ones. There could be several more and these would most certainly include Sir Ebia Olewale or the renown Ben Moide, depending on the talents and entrepreneurship of Papua New Guinean writers as prospective biographers.

The one of Sir Thomas Ritako’s is the work of Dr Bernad Minol of UPNG and Prof Ted Wolfers of the University of Wollongong, Australia, and it is published as Arise Sir Thomas by the University of Papua New Guinea’s Bookshop. What Minol and Wolfers did was guide Sir Thomas Ritako along and he in turn put pen on paper to let his thoughts come flowing out, forming one of the finest historical literary publications of our times. The same method, of course, was used by Professor Ulli Beier when initiating Albert Maori Kiki into the world of arts and letters, a work which would later become the monumental Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime. The moral lesson to this remark is thus absolutely clear: Papua New Guinea you have all your resources available that are within reach; you alone can write your country’s literature and history. Look around you now and see how many whose life stories you can help write and publish for our future generations.

Of course, Sir Thomas was not stranded on Sori Island, to be left there feeling sorry for himself. He did venture out from the confines of simple Titan island life and travel eventually to New Ireland where he would meet his biological parents and ask why he was seemingly abandoned to fend for himself in the company of his grandmother, Awoh, who chided him one moment but came to his rescue the next when his cousins’ jestings could hardly be contained even by the adults themselves. After that meeting with his parents Sir Thomas then resolved to do what many Papua New Guineans of his generation set their minds to do: to pursue the challenges of education to the very roots of their foundations and come up with the resolution that, yes, we all can and be.

With that determination in mind he proceeds to Utu Government School but not without his father’s wish to send him off on yet another mission, this time not to Sori Island among his own blood relatives to do the preferred traditional “growing up” exercise, but with someone else, a school teacher known as Joseph Ritako who will become a mentor as much as a parent whose name he shall bear to the end of his days. Thus, the emergence of Sir Thomas Ritako.

From Utu Sir Thomas went to Kerevat Central School and then to the famous Sogeri Central School. What proceeded thenceforth is the same series of episodes that Papua New Guineans are familiar with, but with a great difference – and that is what the name Ritako suggests. The name, which is New Ireland in origin, derives from the Manus term Dritakou – meaning “over the fence”. For we can see now that what Sir Thomas did is a step further than what Sir Albert Maori Kiki did in Ten Thousand Years in Lifetime. From Sogeri he went through several stages of heightened intellectual development, at the Fiji Central Medical School, for example,  then to Port Moresby Teachers College, then to his postings as a teacher (like his two fathers before him), back to the Administrative College where he married his childhood sweetheart, Ruby, and onwards to some very important public service appointments, including overseas postings and his final achievement as a knight within the British Commonwealth of independent nations of the world.

Arise Sir Thomas is a beautiful autobiography to read. It brings fresh insight to those ideas already represented in the earlier autobiographical and biographical writings of PNG. The book also sheds light on various historical, intellectual as much as psychological details of our country, by being itself a very simple story so very simply and humbly told.

You can get your copy of Arise Sir Thomas from UPNG Bookshop at the Waigani Campus.