In the beginning of an essay on contemporary literary criticism, S.L. Bhyrappa dissects a Kannada short story, entitled Rotti (a dish made of rice flour) and cites numerous similar stories written in that vein. He observes that the story, like U.R. Anantha Murthy’s novel, Bharatipura is merely a filler of a pre-set pattern, a template. The template: various methods of oppressing the working class (in India the template is modified only to mean class=caste), their plight thereof, and some solutions. But those were the ’70s when the stranglehold of Communism silenced every other voice.
About thirty years later, Aravind Adiga wins the Man Booker Prize for 2008.
Beating predictions by bookies and others, debutant Indian novelist 33-year-old Aravind Adiga’s book ‘The White Tiger’ was declared the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction for 2008.
Yes yes, yes, everybody is saying the same thing: he beat the odds/favourites, belongs to the hall of fame graced earlier by Rushdie (does anybody remember he’s still an Indian?), Roy, et al. Good but that doesn’t detract the fact that Aravind Adiga is now a famous, wealthier template-filler. And no I haven’t read the White Tiger. But I persist in my audacity for reasons other than that this post isn’t a review of the White Tiger.
If the following is an accurate rendering of the novel’s plot, it seems to be drawn from the 70s–80s Bollywood movies where poverty played a big part.
Balram considers himself an entrepreneur. His definition of the term, however, may be wider than some: he mentions an “act of entrepreneurship” that put his (fortunately rather blurred) face on wanted posters all over the country. He proposes to explain his entrepreneurial education, in the school of very hard knocks.
There is no trace in Balram’s story – himself perhaps excepted – of any rising middle class. He begins in the rural “Darkness”, a world of landlord and peasant. And when he escapes to the “Light” of the cities, it is into a world of servants and masters.
The secret of India, he tells Wen, is the way that its extreme inequality is stabilised by its strong family structures: “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many.”
Advancement can be achieved only by patronage and corruption – if you make friends with the local political thugs, you might get a job as a bus conductor – or by Balram’s eventual method: stepping outside the “coop” of conventional morality.
Does this remind you of Arjun or those slew of movies in which the seething “hero” delivers blood-curdling speeches on the state of unemployment, corruption, criminalization of politics, values, etcetra? Does this also remind you of a certain–now-defunct–Other India site? We’ll explore this theme in a little detail later. Let’s finish the story on hand.
Balram begins at the very bottom, without so much as a name; his family call him only “Munna”, or “boy”.
His mother might have named him, but she was too busy dying of TB. His father was too busy pulling a rickshaw, weakening himself to be claimed by the same disease. A schoolteacher has to name him instead; later, a local official decides on his date of birth in order to facilitate the stealing of his vote.
When luck and a ruthless eye for the main chance land him a driving job in the “Light” of New Delhi with one of the landlords’ families, the moral darkness only increases.
We do meet someone who might almost be a sympathetic character – the idealistic, New York-educated landlord’s son for whom Balram works – but he proves soon enough to be weak rather than virtuous, accumulating a record of betrayal that makes Balram’s route to the top seem almost straightforward.
The White Tiger is a furious and brutally effective counterblast to smug “India is shining” rhetoric – that particular slogan is never mentioned, but the election it lost is crucial to the plot – which also directs hard, well-aimed kicks at hypocrisy and thuggery on the traditionalist Indian Left.
In a sentence, the White Tiger is award-winning India-bashing. Vide the template laid down by the illustrious likes of Pankaj Mishra. Poverty levels in India had decreased during the NDA rule? (I mentioned NDA purposely because the India Shining campaign was their slogan): take a second-class train journey and decree that it hasn’t. Middle class folks are able to afford cars? No problem: show them the millions who can’t afford the money for tickets to travel in public transport. Farmers who used to eke out a miserable living on their lands have suddenly found themselves in the league of the really rich? Point to their employees/servants who still work under the same conditions. India is still a land of darkness. Booker-prize stuff.
There is no shaking off the Third World tag no matter how hard our industry czars or other professionals try. No amount of buying out multi-billion dollar First World Companies can change that reality. The cacophony about the Crouching Tiger, and the next Asian Giant generates a decibel level equivalent to a pin dropped on the floor. It is still a
man’s world White World. Natives only need to wear that tag. Aravind Adiga leans really well on the shoulders of giants and makes them proud: from Salman Rushdie to Arundhati Roy to Kiran Desai although I suspect Arundhati Roy’s name is ill-chosen here.
The First World Award is still the most Coveted. You can safely ignore piffling questions, insignificant realities. Like what was the economic condition of them middle-class car-owners before they became car-owners? Or the fact that in India Shining 2004, India had paid off her foreign debt and sat on a mountain of surplus foreign reserves?
The “thuggery of the traditional Indian Left remains where it can afford to remain: in West Bengal and Kerala, primarily. The reviewer never mentions the real thuggery of the Indian Left. For over thirty years, this thuggery destroyed almost everything that India could take pride in. If the Left today had even fifty percent of the power it had in its heydays, Aravind Adiga’s novel would have been torn into shreds by the intellectual elite. The review would proceed along these lines: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger panders to the imperialist/capitalist West’s stereotyped perception of India as a backward country. Ample proof of this is in the fact that it has been awarded the Booker Prize, a creation of the ex-imperial Britain.
Strong disclaimer: I do not hold the Booker Prize as a merit standard. It is like the Nobel Prize, an expensive piece of political patronage, which requires prostitution of some kind. But tons of “average buyers” of good literature use it as a standard for evaluating the worth of a literary work.
I scoured the Internet a fair bit to learn about what made The White Tiger deserve a Booker Prize. Interestingly–but unsurprisingly–I ended up knowing more about Adiga himself than his novel. I belong to a rather traditional school of thought where these parameters are used to judge the worth of a literary work: the pleasure/delight it affords, the instruction it imparts, the novelty of its theme, the originality of its idea, the newness of presentation, and most importantly, its re-readbility. I can turn to the Mahabharata or Kumarasambhavam, or Hamlet or Parva or Sakshi, pick a random page and find something new in these books each time. I can read the Mahabharata perfectly as a tale of fiction without bothering about caste oppression or the condition of women. I’m not compelled to have a literary critic explain this or that “hidden” interpretation in any of these works. But I’m old-fashioned and feel naturally upset when these parameters are replaced by suspicious standards. Like the part played by money, skin colour, race, political leanings, and the optimum mix of oppression set in countries with suitable opportunities for oppression. These factors aid our understanding as to why the Booker Prize is a rainin’ on India. Like them beauty crowns a few years ago.
Indian writing in English has been around for more than five decades. But between 1997 and now, three Indian writers won the Booker. Any other nation with a comparable feat, please stand up. The shrillest among these winners is also the most unreadable. All these novels make strong or subtle political points. If Arundhati Roy was about forbidden love in Marxist Kerala and Kiran Desai was about globalization, multiculturalism (sic), inequality and the rest set across continents, Aravind Adiga deals with India, Still a Land of Darkness. This deliciously loutish lampooning of Arundhati Roy very accurately sums up what the Booker Prize is all about.
[Arundhati Roy is] a fake saint who…survives, in spite of her complete lack of talent, because her crude scolding warms the heart of old British lefties who love it when their tame Indian slaves get up on their hind legs to denounce the bloody Americans, who oppress the world so much less skillfully than they used to.
But to the aspirants and the winners alike, the prestige and pelf that accompanies the award more than compensates what it lacks in substance. You don’t even need to read them novels completely. Early on, it is evident that the West is their target audience. A lazy audience, which primarily has no clue about India, and which prefers to still harbour the caste-cow-curry stereotype. But a rather wealthy audience. That kind of balances everything. If you don’t understand it, buy it. More fundamentally, Adiga’s own understanding of India is highly suspect. Thus, any quest for literary merit in these novels ends in a deadend. But then, the quest is futile to begin with.
I often wonder why these Booker/Pulitzer-winning authors don’t write in their mother tongue. Any Indian regional language is far wealthier in vocabulary, more evolved, more idiomatic, more expressive, historically richer, and more phonetic than English. It is moreover the language the author is (probably) born into, speaks at home, is familiar with its idioms, and can wield it more powerfully. Writing English fiction about India presents numerous difficulties. The cultural difficulty is the most stark. An obscenity like Munde Magane (Son of a Widow, Kannada), or Thevadiya Paiyya (Son of a Prostitute, Tamil) don’t really mean anything to a Western reader–either as an obscenity or as a cultural hand-down (compare for effect: son of a bitch). Indian authors also feel compelled to explain some history or cultural nuance that they perceive their Western readers will have difficulty relating to: the Police inspector in Shashi Tharoor’s Riot, who launches into an endless history-lesson. Or the village oppressive-Brahmin in A Fine Balance. A truly award-winning literary rape justified by an ignorant explanation of the nature of ancient Indian society. Totally unnecessary if you wrote for an Indian audience in an Indian language. We don’t see similar explanations (of their own culture) in books written by “native” Westerners.
The other side also bolsters the fact that the world is still White. How many Western authors really covet the Kalidas Samman award? Or the Jnanapith or the Sahitya Akademi award? When was the last time we read a novel/poem/fictional work written in an Indian language by a Westerner? Well, why didn’t Aravind Adiga or his ilk or his predecessors covet these awards?
There was a time when a story used to be a story…