Sometimes holidays fade too quickly. All too soon we get caught up in the everyday stresses of work, commuting and living in a big city. While I had an incredible time in northern New South Wales, it already seems so long ago that I was there (I wrote more about it in my post for Drown here). It’s too easy to grow cynical as the optimism of the warm, quiet break passes by. So a lot of my time recently has been spent taking my mind back to my ‘happy place’ – sitting on the veranda seen in the Drown post – drinking tea, reading and being still.
I’ve spoken before about my theory that good holiday reading takes two forms: either short story collections where the mind can wander without the pressure of holding on to character traits, plot lines and twists – Drown was a perfect example, as was Tenth of December (which I wrote about here). But the other kind of holiday reading I love is a novel that takes you to another place without bending your brain every which way. Some great examples that I’ve talked about before are Questions of Travel, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared or Americanah. And now I’m going to add The White Tiger to this list too. Perfect for long flights, curling up on the couch with a sniffle, or whilst lying on a beach or sitting on a beautiful property getting away from everything. These books each have a strong enough plot to keep you interested and a commentary on the present or past to inform, but all do so in a light hearted way. It adds to the general de-stressing and escapism but is also a strong enough read to keep you satisfied.
The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, a servant in India made good (or so we think), who tells his story by writing letters to the Premier of China. The Premier is about to visit India to see the successes of the outsourcing industry and Balram is the type of entrepreneur that the country is proud to put on show – until we learn about how he got to where he is today. As Balram shares his account of servant life he shares some familiar tales: leaving home to provide for the family brings an overwhelming loneliness; the income he earns almost exacerbates his poverty, rather than relieving it, through a reliance on his employers and a family always desperate to see more of his pay check; and the endemic class struggle enshrined between the servant and master. Although the jaunty tone of Balram’s letters set up the novel as a humorous tale, there is a constant darkness that follows through the book. There’s a sinister connection between the characters that evolves throughout the story to its climax. But these darker elements of the plot stop the book from being an overly simple read: in fact the lighter touches from Balram’s letters are a very clever device by Aravind Adiga to trick the reader into thinking that they’re reading a simplistic tale, right before getting sucked in.
Adiga’s writing about class in India is what carried me through the book the most. There are some great examples from everyday life:
“I was eager to try coffee. You see, poor people in the north of this country drink tea, and poor people in the south drink coffee. Who decided that things should be like this, I don’t know, but it’s like this. So this was the first time I was smelling coffee on a daily basis. I was dying to try it out. But before you could drink it, you had to know how to drink it. There was an etiquette, a routine, associated with it that fascinated me. It was served in a cup set into a tumbler, and then it had to be poured in certain quantities and sipped at a certain speed from the tumbler. How the pouring was to be done, how the sipping was to be done, I did not know. For a while I only watched”.
The White Tiger was easy to read from a technical point of view, but threw up enough challenges as a reader to keep me interested and to make me think about contemporary India differently. Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 2008 and he certainly brings a new voice to India that I had not been aware of in contemporary fiction previously. I’d be interested to read Adiga’s latest novel Last Man In Tower to see where his writing style heads and to read more about a country we hear very little of in a contemporary context.
While we were away I worked on refining some of my favourite one-pot dinners. With only a small dual burner to work with and no oven, the cooking facilities were not the same as home, but it provided a good challenge: to make simple, quick dinners that were healthy and warming, using only what was available. One result was the pasta dish cooked for Drown, another was this recipe for Campfire Beans. It was inspired by this recipe for Chickpea Ketchup Curry by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on River Cottage Veg Every Day, a TV series my partner and I caught up on while we were away. It’s a great example of throwing together some ingredients to make a warm and satisfying meal. These Campfire Beans are very simply: an onion sweated down with some garlic and a red capsicum, then some spices are added before two cans of diced tomatoes. This is cooked down for half an hour or so, until the tomatoes break down and become a rich stew. A can each of drained and rinsed cannellini beans and kidney beans are added and warmed through and it’s done. Not wanting to be wasteful and buy spices that would just get thrown away, I used a Mexican spice mix here, but at home I’d use two teaspoons each of cumin and paprika, with one teaspoon of ground coriander and half a teaspoon of chilli flakes. Again, in the interests of being resourceful but also of wanting to limit the amount of cooking done, here we ate the beans with corn chips and crudities, but at home we’d likely have rice or tortillas, though the vegetables do provide a nice textural contrast. Like the Zucchini and Mint Pasta recipe, it’s easily adaptable and quick to prepare, making it perfect mid week fare or an easy Sunday night supper at home or away.
Coming back Melbourne after feeling a million miles away, the peak hour train to work felt even worse than usual, people not standing to the left on the escalators even more infuriating than normal, the zen calm of the mountains washed away by the crowds of the city. So I thoroughly enjoyed this New Yorker article ‘Missed Connections For Assholes’ as a way of making me feel much better about my cynical self.