When an Award is not Just an Award

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…

23 comments for “When an Award is not Just an Award

  1. Sandeep
    October 24, 2008 at 8:07 PM

    Nik
    Cant promise but will find out what best i can

  2. Nik
    October 23, 2008 at 6:57 AM

    Sandeep
    Thanks for the reply. I m sure no translation can be compared to the original. But that is the best option non-kannada readers like me have.
    From the other readers here, any details of the English translation – publisher and where it is available.

  3. Sandeep
    October 22, 2008 at 2:45 PM

    Nik,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. I believe an English translation of Aavarna has been published but I’m not sure. I’ve read the original :-) Sorry, had to rub it in. :-)

  4. kaangeya
    October 20, 2008 at 11:14 PM

    I find it interesting that many of our finest writers in Indian languages (most of whom BTW write excelent English) are scholars and academics – Jayakantan, KuVemPu, SLB, Raja Rao, and even URA, while the Booker winning trash is for the most part composed of high-school composition grade essayists? Is there something different in the Indian intellectual tradition that does not easily admit the ill-read into the world of creative expression?

  5. Anwar Shaikh
    October 20, 2008 at 3:36 PM

    @Dipesh,
    I think we are discussing whether a Booker winning book has any literary value or not, and not whether it is a “India-shining” or a “India-bashing” campaign. A book can be equally low in literary merit even with an “india-shining” undercurrent.

    I agree with Sandeep and OT that very few Booker winning novels have any literary merit. I could not move beyond twenty pages whenever I wanted to read Rushdie, and very painfully completed “God of small things”, that too merely to argue with my friends that Arundhati Roy stands nowhere compared to Mahadevi Verma or Amrita Pritam.

    Milan Kundera writes in his “the art of the novel” something of the effect (I don’t remember exact words) “The only morality of a novel is to discover something new about existence. A novel that fails to do so is immoral…”. What is it that “The White Tiger” gives that we have not encountered before ?

  6. Sandeep
    October 20, 2008 at 2:01 PM

    OT,
    >>For me, the litmus test is: a good book makes you read it again and again,
    Absolutely, like I said re-readability. Which was the last “Booker” book that did this?

  7. Ot
    October 20, 2008 at 1:59 PM

    >>Do you feel anything valuable added to you after reading a book?- that is the ultimate litmus test.

    For me, the litmus test is: a good book makes you read it again and again, just as a good film makes you watch it again and again. Once you’ve read a book the first time, there’s nothing to compel your interest through a second reading — but a good book can do that.

  8. October 20, 2008 at 12:34 PM

    It was sheer delight to go through your post. And sowas reading the article on Arundhati Roy referred to by you. I wholeheartedly agree with you – she more than exposes the fake-ness of such writers, be it Rushdie or his other followers. Regarding Rushdie, I can only say that barring the first half of ‘Midnight Children’ nothing that I have read so far is worth a second glance -and even the first glance gets tired!

    Some such writers make an art of writing high sounding nothings, writing some meaninglessly winding storyline, which you just dare say so, Oh are you criticizing him or her? He/ she has won Booker/ Pulitzer..how can you talk like that!

    But like you I believe in judging a novel by its readability and ‘interesting-ness’, and there is a word in Hindi, namely, ‘Ras’– if you cannot enjoy the written word, of what use it is?

    Do you feel anything valuable added to you after reading a book?- that is the ultimate litmus test. I felt this thing after reading ‘Nadi Ke Dveep’ by ‘Ajneyay’, or ‘Kamayani’ by ‘Prasad’, and so many other books in Hindi literature.

    In English, yes some books by Faulkner, Steinback. In French Romain Rolland– in recent times ‘Self’ by Yann Martell, that is literature! And yes, ‘Disgrace’ by Coetze!

    Awards, or no awards, doesn’t matter.

  9. dipesh
    October 20, 2008 at 10:29 AM

    I cannot DISagree with your post more. I feel the rhetoric of India Shining is way more prevalent than any “India-bashing” novel around. Blogs after blogs, newspaper articles, journals, research papers have been devoted to claiming the rise of the new India. But one moment someone points a finger and says that is hollow, India shinning bloggers band together and dismiss him/her as propaganda agent, sucking up to the West etc. During my days in business school, article after article, cases after cases hammered the point that Indian economic progress is the shining armor that would alleviate the nation of all social evils. Nothing can be far from the truth. Having lived in Bombay and Calcutta for 25 years, lets just say I have seen my faire of poverty. The reality of India is not lost in the glass towers of IT parks and SEZs. While there is much reason to celebrate, there is an equal if not greater reason to take a critical look at the reality as well. And the reality remains entranched in kids begging at traffic lights, half of the population living under a dollar a day, one out of every five children dying at the age of five, most children not even getting till high school, hunger rates comparable to sub Saharan Africa. Traveling extensively through Latin America and visiting supposedly third world countries, I have never witnessed anything close to the destitution and depravation that I lived through in India.

    And if that is the case, then why does an author gets lambasted for pointing that out ? He is not “bashing India”. He is simply stating the truth.

  10. Tushar Saxena
    October 18, 2008 at 11:00 AM

    Yeah but Shashi Tharoor is more an empty suit full of cliches, a careerist, rather than a rampant india-hater like the pulitzer/booker hunters.

  11. Abdullah
    October 17, 2008 at 4:16 PM

    Great post, but the reference to Shashi Tharoor is a bit unfair — his character in Riot IS explaining India to a foreigner! And Tharoor is a huge exception to the charges of fashionable anti-Indianism — his novels, like his non-fiction, are a major affirmation of what makes India worth admiring.

  12. KR
    October 17, 2008 at 9:36 AM

    Good post, Sandeep. My opinion is these international awards are also given from business point of view. With millions of English language readers in India, it is a lucrative business for the West and Western publishers to create and give an award, and market it later in India. At the same time, I am not too sure how prestigious Jnanapith or Sahitya Akademi awards really are now, with the kind of linguistic bias and influence present among literary circles at top levels.

  13. Ot
    October 16, 2008 at 11:20 PM

    Held up for moderation yet again! Please fix this problem Sandeep.

  14. Ot
    October 16, 2008 at 11:19 PM

    >>For many of us this was entirely new territory — the dark side of India.

    Is this person talking through his other orifice or what. We thought the dark side of India was already brilliantly captured in Mobile Republic’s work, and that that was precisely the reason why the Bookers took note of it? Or is it that the dark side is too vast a canvas to be exhausted by one Booker, and therefore we should expect to see several more of the Mobile Republic types to pop out of the assembly line at the Booker factory?

  15. October 16, 2008 at 10:44 PM

    Sandeep: Great post…I would like to add this nugget from the report in Yahoo! India:

    ***
    Michael Portillo, chairman of the five-member judging panel, praised The White Tiger for tackling important social and political issues in modern-day India.

    “What set this one apart was its originality,” Portillo said. “For many of us this was entirely new territory — the dark side of India.

    “It’s a book that gains from dealing with very important social issues — the divisions between rich and poor and the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India.”

    http://in.news.yahoo.com/137/20081015/736/tnl-first-time-indian-novelist-wins-uk-s.html

    ***
    I dont think anything more needs to be said

  16. Murali
    October 16, 2008 at 8:54 PM

    This Adiga guy is a pseud.But still he has a right to express his views.The limeys have awarded the prize for india-bashing.But why this urge for self-flagellation.

    A section of the english educated ‘elite’ is alienated.They are frustrated because they are powerless.Most of these presswallahs/writers are children of the post-independence ‘elite’.They cannot grapple with the indian reality.English Literature at St.Stephens is hardly a preparation for the challenges of indian life.They have to clutch at some straw or the other to convince themselves of their ‘mission’.It is humbug masquerading as idealism.

    Many of these jokers come from the periphery of the cow belt.Sitaram Yechury,Rajdeep,Sreenivasan Jain,N Ram can never fit into the wheeler-dealer politics of Delhi.Having grown up in a macaulayite,albeit post-indian version,they are not comfortable with the Jan Sanghi types.Given their ‘sophisticated’ sophistries ,they are uncomfortable with the hindi belt RSS types.

    They are more comfortable with Congress type management to deal with indian diversity.Particularly to deal with christists,dravidian neanderthals,Akalis,kashmir separatists.

    Based at delhi,where the separatists,chauvinists put up their best face,they have no idea of the ground reality.Also it reinforces their importance,when in their heart of hearts,they have to contend with a vacuum.

    To understand their predicament,an analogy would be useful.

    Think of a ‘pauranika’(let us say a ‘brahmana’ who has no discipline,no vedic learning,who knows a few shlokas of ramayana,a few pauranic tales,clad in shirt and trousers with an overweening vanity,ambition and desire to enact dramas with an intense desire to be respected by scholars and laymen alike.

    The scholars will treat him with contempt or just ignore him.He cannot entertain the common man.But he can try to trap a few with his sophistry.The real ‘aam aadmi’ has his daily chores to attend to.A few charlatans ‘the provincial satraps’ might humour him.

    Ofcourse,the analogy cannot be stretched.The impostor chanting sri rama’s holy name might repent.But absolutely no redemption for these jokers.

    But the truth is ,’we’ still need to ‘work’ in punjab,TN,AP etc.Because we do not believe in propoganda,and we have to fight entrenched interests like akalis,PMK these jokers are getting away.

  17. October 16, 2008 at 8:08 PM

    > And no I haven’t read the White Tiger

    just to let me get this straigt, please repeat the above sentence.

    thank you kindly.

  18. Ot
    October 16, 2008 at 5:57 PM

    Sandeep, a message is pending moderation

  19. Ot
    October 16, 2008 at 5:12 PM

    Moreover, notice that Booker-winner work from Indian authors has to make grand, sweeping (and generally negative) statements about India. That is not a constraint that British or Australian authors face. They can write stories about people around them without making grandiose statements characterizing — let alone negatively — their larger societies, and still win Bookers.

    Comrade “anti-Empire” Roy would squirm about this: fact is, she won the Booker that made her famous partly because there’s latent neo-colonialism in these Booker selections, and she pandered to that colonialism.

  20. October 16, 2008 at 12:49 PM

    San,
    :)
    Besides Indian beauty pageants won ‘serially’then and now Bookers are ‘thrown’ (wonder this word is right!) @ Indians, you – perhaps – forgot to mention the celebration of Indian ‘Poverty’ by Satyajit Ray (with an ‘Oscar’@ deathbed, eventually!)

    Sainthood to a Nun who died 60 yrs back!!!!

    What now? Sainthood to ‘Maa Balidaan Leti Morti’ and booker to Priyanka for completing Grads (since CHA CHA) ?

    As always, good read.

    PI

  21. Ghostwriter
    October 16, 2008 at 9:35 AM

    I think there will be a lot of good writing in India in the years to come; except it will all be done away from the media / award glare. The new civilizational assertion that is happening will find voice in good books, but we must stop looking to the west to help us find this voice.

    The Internet offers new and unique opportunities – and in this I feel your book store / book section is an important contribution. I feel we must simply switch ourselves off to these patronage driven gimme’s – we must simply get to work organizing book clubs close to where we live; and also on-line

  22. Nik
    October 16, 2008 at 8:53 AM

    Sandeep and other Kannada readers. Is there any update on the English translation of Aavarna. Is the English translation of Parva available anywhere? It is out of stock at Indiaclub. Any information would be helpful.

  23. October 16, 2008 at 7:53 AM

    “the White Tiger is award-winning India-bashing”

    That’s exactly what it is….in fact I read a book reviewer expressing dismay that this book even made it to the short list…Expect India bashing to be taken to new level by Aravind and his fellow writers…

    With regards to the rest about not vying for Bharatiya awards most western looking Indians need affirmation from westerns and western institutions – a pat-on-the-back – to feel they have achieved something in life. Of course, it doesn’t work in reverse because westerners, or at least Americans, are confident in their culture and institutions. It doesn’t hurt that the pat-on-the-back immediately translates to fame at home. And, of course, cash usually follows…

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