Book of a Lifetime: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

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The Independent Culture

I read Invisible Man in 1996, in a college dorm room just down the road from Harlem. Black Americans were all around me fellow students and neighbours but after three years in America, I hadn't befriended one. You meet the interesting guy who is reading Nietzsche, you have coffee, you start to bond, and all of a sudden he turns out to be Haitian or Nigerian or some kind of Englishman. This was not unique to me. The chasm between black Americans and other non-whites ran deep at the college. "You can't get to know them," a Lebanese Muslim friend told me.

There seemed to be only one way across the chasm. Every day I walked past so many black men and women in silence; but at night, my room was alive with the voices of African Americans, speaking to me through novels and poems.

Liveliest, funniest, and most demonic of all these voices was the one that introduced itself saying: "I am an invisible man." He was invisible, he said, simply because white people refused to see him. He was so angry at being invisible that once he hit a man. He hit the man again and again, and yet the man refused to see him. I'd never heard it described like this: why we get angry and sometimes do stupid, violent things to white people and to ourselves. I wanted to cheer the Invisible Man, and I wanted to tell him to shut up.

The whole time I read about his extraordinary adventures from his childhood in the South, his education in a blacks-only college, to his time among Communists and street prophets in Harlem I could never make my mind up about him. He stripped away the hypocrisy of the bigoted people he met, yet he often sounded sneering, cocky and arrogant. The author's photo at the back of the book suggested a scholarly man with an elegant moustache: I couldn't connect his face to the taunting voice of the Invisible Man. Maybe I was misreading, maybe the Invisible Man wasn't the hero, or both the hero and a warning an example of how racism could twist its victims? I couldn't make up my mind. I still can't.

I have left Harlem, but I am still surrounded, by Invisible Men. They are of my own race, their skin is the colour of my skin, and yet I cannot see them. If you come to Delhi, I will tell you: "Everyone in this city eats late." Thousands of day labourers, rickshaw pullers and beggars, will lie, by the side of road, by nine o'clock, covered in blankets and driving past pavements clogged with the sleeping poor, I will reassure you, "I've never seen a person in Delhi in bed before midnight. This is a party city." And what is invisible to me will become invisible to you too. Until the day when the Invisible Man speaks to us with his fists, which will insist: "First you must see me."



Aravind Adiga's novel 'The White Tiger' is published, by Atlantic

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