What happened was that my older brother, Siju, got a job as a lorry driver at the mine and started acting like a big shot. He stopped playing with Munna the way he used to, tossing him into the air like a sack of sand, making him sputter with laughter. When Amma asked him anything, he would give her a pitying look and not answer. He stopped speaking to his girlfriend, Manju, altogether. He taunted me about playing in the mud, as he called it, breaking chunks of iron ore with my hammer. With Appa especially he was reckless, not bothering to conceal his disdain, until he said something about failed drivers who are only good for digging and drinking, and Appa wrestled him to the ground and forced him to eat a handful of the red, iron-rich earth, shouting that this was our living now and he should bloody learn to respect it.
It’s pretty much the story you’d expect after that opening, but it’s done very well, with great characters, scenes, and symbolism; and it gives a little tap on the shoulder to the contemporary reader. It’s available online from Narrative (registration is free and painless).
We see the iron mines of India through the eyes of twelve-year-old Guna. His family had a pretty stable life until a year ago, when Appa lost his job driving a bureaucrat around due to an accident. Now they all live in a tent and work in the mines.
The dust mixed with our sweat and formed a gummy red paste, which stuck to our skin and was almost impossible to get off without soap and water, of which we had little, except for whatever dank rain gathered in stray pits and puddles. It was easy to tell who the mine workers were. We all looked like we were bleeding.
That’s what makes this story, as familiar as it is, work for me: it’s lovely writing. Yet I wonder, as I always do: when something stands up and announces itself as lovely writing, is it really lovely writing? Or is it one step removed from lovely writing, which would really be sort of invisible and just knock you over and toss you about until you couldn’t think straight, at the end of which you’d be exhausted or exhilarated and you wouldn’t think about whether or not it was good writing until much later, you’d just think of it as a great reading experience and tell everyone, “There’s this terrific story you should read…”? Though I feel a bit evangelistic about some issues it raises, and I appreciate the way it’s written, I don’t really feel evangelistic about this as a story.
My blogger buddy Paul had some concerns about the “heartstrings” effect; is it a good story because it’s good, or because it’s emotionally manipulative? I can’t think of a way to tell this story that isn’t emotionally manipulative. But I clearly see the hand of a writer making deliberate choices – smart choices – for narrative impact, as I’m reading (as opposed to on later analysis).
For instance, the introduction of the poem:
Manju said, “You should be in school.”
I didn’t know what to say. It had been two years since I sat in a classroom. I had only vague recollections of it. The cold mud floor. Sitting next to a boy called Dheeraj, who smelled of castor oil. Slates with cracked plastic frames. The maths teacher who called us human head lice when we couldn’t solve the sum on the board. All of us chanting in unison an English poem we didn’t understand. The boy stood on the burning deck. The antiseptic smell of the girls’ toilet covering another, mustier, smell. Dheeraj giggling outside. Then three, four, five whacks on the fleshy part of my palm with a wooden ruler, and trying not to show that it hurt. The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.
I’d never heard of “Casabianca (The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck)” before. Several readings are available on YouTube; apparently it’s a staple of the British classroom, thus the Indian classroom. It tells the tale of Horatio Nelson’s victory over a French ship during the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and honors a French soldier, the twelve-year-old son of one of the officers, who was seen alone on the burning deck of the French ship just before the armaments exploded. It’s considered a tale of heroism and devotion. Yes, a poem of heroism and devotion about a twelve-year-old killed in war, because that’s an honorable thing. Not a poem about shame and despair about sending our children into battle.
The appropriateness of the poem to this passage becomes clear when we learn its connection to the 2008 Olympics in China: the iron is required for the building of the Olympic stadium, and when we learn a few other things about Guna’s life:
I liked Manju. Whenever journalists or NGO workers came to tour the mines, Manju and I would drop our hammers and prance in circles, shouting, “No child-y labor here!”
Perhaps that’s why India, which has improved its child labor problem, doesn’t make Business Insider‘s list of top ten countries exploiting child labor. By the way, children in the United States are only at medium risk due to child labor practices. Medium risk. Let that hang in the air a little. About the same as Libya, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Spain, Oman. And Great Britain, where it seems they still teach heroic poems about child soldiers killed in 18th-century wars. My own state governor is streamlining the “permit process” by which 12-year-olds can go to work. Medium risk for children; maximum profit for employers accessing “child training rates.”
Back to the story (I always get distracted, don’t I. But isn’t that the point of literature anyway?). Other little touches impressed me – during an argument, the rotis almost burn, but Munna manages them; the manager’s shed (a shed, not a mansion or even a house, but a shed in a tent city) is “a sparkle on the rust-colored hillside”; Guna notes the women miners look more like monkeys than women; how Guna discovers why Manju is willing to walk to China in the rain just to escape; and the manager’s empty promise to Guna: “Work hard, and you will get whatever you want” – a promise that rings less and less true everywhere – but it’s the ending that really took it home.
We all gathered around to watch the magnificent round stadium in China fill with color and light and music and movement. We watched graceful acrobats and women with feathers and children with brightly painted faces. We watched glittering fireworks and slender athletes in shiny tracksuits and flapping flags with all the shades of the world. We watched as the stadium slowly filled with red light, and thousands of people arranged themselves into gracious, shifting shapes in the center. Thousands more gathered in the seats, their faces reflecting the same awe we felt. We watched, all of us, in silence, stunned by the beauty of what we had created.
I remember the opening ceremonies in Beijing. I remember how everyone was very aware of the repression that went on behind the scenes, of the pollution bad enough to be a risk factor for athletes, and yammered for days about the incredible show. I wish we’d read this story beforehand, instead of “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck.” But that probably wouldn’t have been good for trade, and in this world, trade trumps everything, including children working in mines or building iPhones. By the way: who made the shirt I’m wearing, or the computer I’m typing on? Is “I don’t know” an acceptable answer?