The resounding ‘India Rising’ rhetoric receives an abrasive treatment in the hands of the America-educated Indian novelist Aravind Adiga. Unlike most Indian writers, in his first fictional endeavour The White Tiger, Adiga brings into question the authenticity of this much-vaunted slogan, in which his own voice as a disillusioned Indian is unmistakable. Corruption, both financial and moral, seems to Adiga an unsurpassable reality in the ‘New India’. This has made most Indians reluctant to compare what the promises were and what things actually are like. This essay tries to weigh the success as well as the limitations of The White Tiger, which could well be the starting point of a different string of Indian fiction.
The Idol Scandalized: Abnegation of the Lyrical India in Aravind Adiga’ s The White Tiger
…it (The White Tiger) portrays India in a very unconventional and unflattering way.
How would one account for the widespread reaction to Adiga’s first novel? Of course the Man Booker Prize is no small feat for a debutant novelist. But it can be said with some degree of assurance that the sensation it has created inside and outside India owes much to the fact that it portrays India in a very unconventional and unflattering way. Much of the great bulk of the established canon, some would like to call it an industry, of Anglo-Indian writing in recent years draws upon the intricacies and peculiarities of Indian culture. Adiga’s novel, too, is an attempt at unfolding it – the wonder that India is – but he accomplishes it in an utterly subversive way – by exposing the underbelly of its roaring economic go-ahead.
It will be very profitable to follow how markedly most Indians’ reaction to The White Tiger differs from that of most western critics. Michael Portillo, the chairman of the judges, considered The White Tiger as in many ways perfect. “It knocked my socks off,” said he. Portillo also hailed the novel for undertaking ‘an extraordinarily difficult task’–winning the reader’s sympathy for a hero who is little less than a thoroughly unpleasant villain, a man who is contaminated financially and sexually.1 (The Times. 15 October 2008)
Balram’s cynical, gleeful voice captures modern India: no nostalgic lyricism here, only exuberant reality.
Kate Saunders of The Times wrote “Balram’s cynical, gleeful voice captures modern India: no nostalgic lyricism here, only exuberant reality.” 2 (The Times. 01 May 2008). Deirdre Donahue of USA Today observed “ Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel from an Indian journalist living in Mumbai hit me like a kick to the head…This is an amazing and angry novel about injustice and power.” 3 (USA Today. 23 April 2008).
…(The White Tiger is ) ‘an unfunny slog’
On the other hand Anjali Kapoor, an Indian freelance editor, said, “I used to hate Naipaul for talking contemptuously about India, about how cleaners mop the floor in restaurants by crouching and moving like crabs and all that talk about Indians defecating in the open. Adiga is the same, focusing on everything that is bad and disgusting.” 4 (Indians Fear Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger says too much About Them. www.telegraph.co.uk). The folk art expert Ritu Sethi put, “ I felt the book took us three decades back. It had every stereotype going in it. The BBC used to show nothing but cows on the roads for years. We’re back to that with his book.” 5 (Indians Fear Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger Says too much About Them. www.telegraph.co.uk). Another, author and playwright Manjula Padmanabhan of Outlook India, denounced it as ‘an unfunny slog’. She agrees that much of what has been written on India’s prosperity is fake and conceited, but “Is this schoolboyish sneering the best that we can do?” 6 she asks. (Outlook India, 05 May 2008).
…Adiga’s style is his unflinching gift for irreverence.
One refreshing thing about Adiga’s style is his unflinching gift for irreverence. His excoriating treatment ruthlessly breaks the halo about the various credos Indians pride in entrepreneurship, education, religion. The following passages are illuminating:
“Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.” 7 (The White Tiger. Harper Collins. page 4).
“It’s true that all these gods seem to do awfully little work – much like our politicians –and yet keep winning reelection to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year…How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?” 7 (Ibid. pages 8-9).
“No!-Mr.Jiabao, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.” 7 (Ibid. page 15)
“Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), Sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the halfhour before falling asleep – all these ideas, half-formed and half-digested and halfcorrect, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.” 7 (Ibid. pages 10-11)
Adiga also caricatures ‘the world’s largest democracy’ by equaling villagers bantering about local elections with ‘eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra’.
…it’s (The White Tiger) not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination.
It seems hard to contend that there was any calculated didacticism behind this story. Of course it is not a morality story that he intends to tell us, neither is it a rags-to- riches telltale. Such broad categories of issues as gender, religion, ethnicity in a multicultural country like India dwell only on the fringes of the novel and there is no attempt at doctrinizing on these subjects. But it is interesting at the same time to note that Adiga does assign himself a great task in writing this story. Adiga tells Stuart Jeffries, “ At a time when India is going through great changes, and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That’s what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That’s what I’m trying to do – it’s not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination.” 8 (Interview with Stuart Jeffries. The Guardian.Thursday.16 October 2008).
…nationalism has been reduced to an opportunistic rhetoric at the hands of the rulers…
So it appears that Adiga is aware of what he is trying to do while embarking on this novel – bettering his society; but he does not try to do it the way a nationalist or even an ostensibly patriotic writer would try to do. And this is where his mission baffles our effort to read his novel as a postcolonial text. This is rather a self-deprecating mockery of what nationalist Asian Tiger rhetoric of the rulers tries to establish, because nationalism, the predominant ideology of the 17th to 20th centuries, wears thin at the advent of the 21st century. Who sings the nation state in the age of economic globalization? It would require the greatest of naives to not see the fact that nationalism has been reduced to an opportunistic rhetoric at the hands of the rulers to serve a vested interest group. One does not have to ride aboard ideological bandwagons to grasp this reality.
Yes, the middle class can afford to remain liberal…
Surprisingly, Adiga also believes that the Indian middle class is mostly liberal in its approach to anything that examines the status quo in Indian society9 (interview with Stuart Jeffries. The Guardian. Thursday. 16 October 2008). Yes, the middle class can afford to remain liberal or at least indifferent as long as the indictment is coming from one of their own class, not necessarily forging anything detrimental to their existence as a privileged class. At the personal level even some of the rich at times may and do exhibit some regard for basic humanity, which is depicted in the apparent sanctimony of Ashok, Balram’s America-educated employer, as he sometimes appears to feel the prick of conscience at the abuses inflicted upon his chauffeur-cum-domestic aid. But whenever it comes to a question of privilege, it takes no time for the master to compromise with morality. His being the master itself bestows upon him this advantage. We cannot mistake that it was Ashok who made Balram agree to shoulder the blame for his wife’s hit-and-run car accident. The incident is disturbingly reminiscent of an Indian filmstar’s driving over a pedestrian a few years back. This only leaves the impression that the rich in India can and do commit crimes with impunity; all they need to do is lubricate the proper palms.
…Adiga does not preach revolution.
One comforting thing, then, for the establishment could be the fact that going so far as exposing the moral bankruptcy of the privileged class, Adiga does not preach revolution. The freedom his protagonist manages to win for himself is far from anything cataclysmic in the social scale. Because he, too, profits from moral ambiguity and outright criminality, as one critic puts it. Balram dares clinically postulate the rules of the game in the urban jungle: “Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi, but it’s not glory that I’m after. All I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder is enough.”
We are left wondering what the twist of his personal fortune effects in the order of things: doesn’t it create yet another thug in the urban confusion of Bangalore? As it is seen in the closing pages of the novel, Balram himself learns to work the system to his personal ends. And this is where the novel seems to fall short of its ambitions. But this is also where Adiga’s contention marks a substantial departure from John Steinbeck’s classic tale The Grapes of Wrath, which Adiga cites as one of his favourite novels. This may have prompted Tony D’Souza, The Washington Post critic, to observe that “The White Tiger offers something less than it might have achieved.” 10 (The Washington Post.08 June 2008). The point is not that Adiga fails to find anything gratifying in poverty, but the fact that Balram’s escapades in the urban jungle of Bangalore leaves the lesson that poverty and oppression create only demons, and he himself is just such a demon. While Steinbeck believed that “repression works only to strengthen and knit the oppressed”, that’s why Jim Casey talks about “workin’ together”; Adiga overrules altogether the possibility of anyone coming nearer: An Indian revolution? No, sire. It won’t happen. People in this country are still waiting for the war of their freedom to come from somewhere else – from the jungles, from the mountains, from China, from Pakistan. That will never happen. Every man must make his own Benaras. The book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian. Crap it out, and read. Instead of which, they’re all sitting in front of color TVs and watching cricket and shampoo advertisements.(page 304, HarperCollins edition). For Adiga “The system is beginning to deteriorate but it remains. It will remain, but with higher levels of crime and lower levels of security… the middle class is becoming more insecure than before because it is richer now and has more to lose.” 11(Interview with Lee Thomas. Email. March 2009).
To the critical cliché as to the aptness of a writer with a background like his for writing about the Indian poor, Adiga does not say that the subaltern cannot speak, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously put, that someone from without has to ventriloquise their sufferings. He, rather, senses a growing hunger among Indians for neo-realist fiction, a craving for different stories. He says the same appetite exists in the film industry as well. He, therefore, finds it a fitting business for writers like him to speak for the disenfranchised.
But, the question persists, can Adiga’s ‘new realism’ hypothesis be taken for granted for what he has to say about India? In other words, could it be possible that Adiga just exploits the ‘poverty’ theme to gratify his own literary ambitions? It is only obvious that analogies have been drawn between Adiga’s fictional endeavour and Danny Boyle’s potboiler Hindi movie Slumdog Millionaire. With some really disgusting scenes, for example young Ismail’s obtaining Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph, the film has been condemned by many Indian critics as merely selling ‘poverty porn’. They suspect that under the mask of all its social babbles Adiga’s novel is another such catchpenny. But this accusation does not flabbergast Adiga. He says, “The way the Indian elite has reacted to Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger – with hostility – proves to me the fundamental accuracy of both works. Both are ultimately mild, middle-class critiques of the state of things in our country. If the elite cannot swallow either of this, if they react with such naked fury to works that question their right to rule India, then this can only be a sign of trouble ahead.” 11 (Interview with Lee Thomas)
Obviously, one widespread allegation against Adiga has been that his portrayal of India readily panders to the western prejudices against this rising power of Asia. It makes many Indians feel indignant as it manifestly aims at bringing to the forefront the fundamental injustices underlying the collective euphoria of the Indian middle class. This undeniably tends to gratify the ‘othering’ tendency of the Occident. But it is a self-deceiving notion, maintains Adiga. He, on the contrary, brings into question the navel-gazing preoccupations of the Indians over the so-called uniting social institutions as religion and family: “the family ties get broken or at least stretched when anonymous, un-Indian cities like Bangalore draw people from the villages. These really are the new tensions of India, but Indians don’t think about them. The middle-classes especially think of themselves still as victims of colonial rule. But there is no point any more…India and China are too powerful to be controlled by the west any more…”8 he tells Stuart Jeffries (Ibid).
Questions have been raised about Adiga’s narrative technique…
Questions have been raised about Adiga’s narrative technique as well. Adiga does not appear to have adequately exploited the premise for his narrative form – the epistolary novel, as he designs the novel in the form of seven letters, presumably unacknowledged, to the Chinese Prime Minister, who is poised to visit India in a few days. The narrative perspective also – Adiga uses the first person narrative – has drawn critical dissension. For many of the adventurous generalizations that the ‘half baked’ Balram Halwai makes, a third person omniscient narrator would be ideally fitting. The ‘half formed’ protagonist’s occasional reflections on the poetry of Rumi and Iqbal also sound a little too hard pressed.
How far Adiga’s success is that of a sociologist or a political commentator, thanks to his journalistic background, and how much of it is that of an artist does remain a question. It may not be a perfect debut product, but the overwhelming response he has drawn testifies that he has managed to touch very raw nerves; there can be no denying that fact.
- The Times. 15 October 2008.
- The Times. 01 May 2008.
- USA Today. 23 April 2008.
- Indians Fear Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger says too much about them. www.telegraph.co.uk. 18 October 2008.
- Outlook India. 05 May 2008.
- The White Tiger. Harper Collins.2008.
- Roar of anger. Interview with Stuart Jeffries. The Guardian. Thursday. 16 October 2008.
- The Washington Post.08 June 2008.
- Interview with Lee Thomas. E-mail. March 2009.
- Francisco Chronicle. 27 April 2008.
- The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck. The Viking Press. 1939.
- Can the Subaltern Speak? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988). Edit. Lary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Who Sings the Nation State? Judith Butler & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Seagull Books. Oxford 0 X 4 1 A W, UK. 2007.
- Slumdog Millionaire. Vikas Swarup. Harper Collins. Canada. 2010.
- Slumdog Millionaire (Film). Director: Danny Boyle. Distributor: Pathe Pictures (UK), Warner Bros. Pictures (US). Release Date: 12 Nov 2008 (US), 09 Jan 2009(UK).
Post a Comment