Monday, May 12, 2008

On Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

A shorter version of this piece appeared last weekend in Mint.

When compared to the journalist or the scholar, the fiction writer seems absurdly free. He or she can construct a story in any way he chooses. His characters have freedom to say whatever they like – in fact they are most persuasive when we feel them to be “free” of an authorial hand. All we demand in return is not that the story be true but that it be plausible – that it not give the appearance of being contrived.

But this requirement shows us that the fiction writer’s freedom is actually a difficult freedom. Constructing a plausible story from scratch – a story in which narration, dialogue, and plot construction work together to produce the effect of lived experience – can be harder than reporting or analysing a true story. This is the reason why, when judged by the highest standards, most novels are failures, some are honorable failures, and few are successes.

Fiction writers can misuse their freedom through simple incompetence, or by manipulative plotting, or by a failure to imaginatively realise the inner lives of their characters, or by simplified and schematic thinking that waters down the complexity of the world. Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger seems especially instructive in this regard, because it seems to me to be culpable in all the ways mentioned above.

The White Tiger takes the form of a series of letters addressed by an entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. It is a slick monologue somewhat reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but while Hamid’s protagonist Changez addresses the reader, Balram addresses Wen for no plausible reason: why not Ratan Tata or Rahul Bajaj instead?. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells Wen the story of how he was for long a denizen of “the Darkness” and how, after murdering his employer, he made good.

Some other reviews of Adiga’s novel have praised Balram’s cynical, worldweary voice as a refreshing view-from-below, an antidote to romantic thinking about “the new India”. But they ignore the extent to which The White Tiger itself participates in the perpetuation of simple binaries. “Please understand, Your Excellency,” declares Balram to Wen, “that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness”. The two most conspicuous words in the narrative are “malls” (prosperous, materialistic urban India) and “the Darkness” (benighted, suffering rural India), a realm of rapacious landlords, corrupt politicians, and fatalistic citizens reconciled to living in “the coop”.

Elections in the Darkness are always rigged. “I am India’s most faithful voter, and I have still not seen the inside of a voting booth,” declares Balram. “I’ve heard that people in the other India get to vote for themselves,” says Balram’s father. Balram’s village, Laxmangarh, has many malnourished children with eyes that shine “like the guilty conscience of the government of India”.

Now it is certainly true that India’s malnourished children are an indictment of government. But would a man like Balram – himself a murderer and a corrupt entrepreneur who knows how to work the system – conceptualise a situation in these terms? Or is this just Adiga speaking to the reader over the head of his character, trying to score some points for being a bleeding heart?

Would a man like Balram, who calls himself a "half-baked man" because he was never allowed to complete his schooling, be able to declare, as Balram does, that "Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia"? We are never quite sure what to make of Balram, because Adiga cannot convincingly inhabit the voice or perspective of a hick from the hinterland. We get not Balram, but Adiga/Balram, and we find the sometimes attractive cynicism of the character ("There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever") mixed up with the manipulative cynicism of the novelist, who is not willing to set realistic limits on the character's imagination.

Among the many problems in The White Tiger – the literary problems engendered by the peculiar way in which the book is written, not the problems of all the desperate Indian people in “the Darkness” – is that of dialogue. Now, dialogue is almost always a knotty issue for the Indian novelist writing in English, because it requires a kind of translation of speech that Indian readers, at least, would recognise is not emanating from a speaker of English.

The challenge for the Indian novelist then is to bend or tint his English in such a way that it suggests something of the character’s background, the register and the stresses of his speech, and the limits of his vocabulary in a productive way. That is to say, his challenge, if he is working broadly within the conventions of the realist novel, is the challenge posed by all dialogue, with one additional factor thrown in: the sense that this is an analogue of speech in the character’s native tongue. In this sense his attitude towards dialogue might be helpfully understood as being similar to the attitude of a skilled translator.

But there is no evidence in The White Tiger, with its long stretches of tepid and predictable exchanges between characters, that Adiga has thought seriously about this issue. As with another contemporary Indian novelist, Manil Suri, his lead characters seem peculiarly rootless because they speak in such a way as to elide significant distinctions of class and background: these writers attempt to produce realism in social and political detail without taking the trouble over realism in character.

Adiga’s dialogue has a kind of colonial hangover. Early in the novel, we see Balram at his first day at his ramshackle village school, being asked by the teacher for his name. Balram says that neither his mother nor his father ever gave him a name other than his nickname “Munna” (itself an improbable claim). “Well, it’s up to me then, isn’t it?” says the teacher, sounding suspiciously like he himself went to school in England. Because there is already a Ram in the class, the teacher names the boy “Balram”, and asks, “You know who Balram was, don’t you?” Later Balram’s nephew asks him, “Give me a glass of milk, won’t you, Uncle?” At a booze shop in Delhi, Balram gets to the counter and shouts, “Whisky! The cheapest kind! Immediate service – or someone will get hurt, I swear!” Balram’s fellow drivers shout out to him one evening, “Come join us, maharaja of Buckingham!”

Adiga knows enough about characters living in “the Light” to throw in a few f-words into their speech (“we have this fucked-up system called parliamentary democracy...”; “What a fucking joke!”). But, just like other denizens of the Light whom Balram criticises, Adiga himself is unable to engage with the Darkness, and is himself in the dark about how a character from this domain might think and speak. The anglicisms of his rustics as they rail about “the Light” might be read as complaints about no one more than the author himself, who patronises them in the same way that their employers patronise them.

Adiga’s story actually becomes distasteful in one of the book’s closing scenes. Balram now runs a taxi service in Bangalore under the alias Ashok Sharma. One of his drivers knocks down and kills a youth. Balram/Ashok has contacts with the (inevitably corrupt) police, and gets the case hushed up. As a gesture of charity, he visits the aged parents of the deceased with a compensation of twenty-five thousand rupees. The mother will not take it. But “the old man, the father, was eyeing the envelope”, reports Balram. Eventually they take the money.

This scene is reprehensible not because Balram is so despicable, but because of Adiga’s implication that anybody – even parents whose grief is fresh as a wound – can be bought in India as long as the price is right. The other India that The White Tiger purports to investigate is certainly grotesque, but Adiga, no less than Balram, feasts upon and exaggerates its grotesquerie.

And some posts about recent Indian novels which similarly suffocate their characters: Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof and Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, and on two novels which realise Adiga's crudely imagined "Darkness" much more successfully: Amitava Kumar's Home Products and Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut.

10 comments:

Anirudh said...

This is very fine review. It exemplifies what you say about James Wood - this review-essay is not just about Adiga's novel but how fiction works (or should).

MzQ said...

I though the review was a bit too sour. The exact dialogue you are referring to might be a bit Dickenesque, but I found the book to be a superb analysis of India's modern demons.

अभय तिवारी said...

spot on!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Home Products or Patna Roughtcut, so for me, Prem Chand is the one who wrote superbly about the Indians for whom getting food on the table is not a matter of course.

Pramod Singh said...

would not know about 'home products' or the sketchy 'patna roughcut' but otherwise feel happy for what you have to say. bravo.

Kristy said...

I'm a reader from Chicago doing research on this book to lead a discussion of it for a group of friends who have recently read it. I have not been to India but know of its reach in to call centers, outsourcing of processing, Tata, etc. The "bright," "growing," "we're all western and doing it modern capitalism way" that appears on CNN and other news sources I'm sure is somewhat accurate. And I'm sure that this book is also somewhat accurate and - just like Dickens - exaggerated to enforce a social point. But I appreciate learning another perspective even if it is flawed. It begins to allow me to see a more complete picture of India. I'm sure more authors will provide a greater range. I will investigate the other books you have indicated.

Sriram said...

"But would a man like Balram – himself a murderer and a corrupt entrepreneur who knows how to work the system – conceptualise a situation in these terms?"

In fact it is surprising that you expect such high moral standards from Balram halwai that he shouldn't point a finger at someone else because he himself is guilty. When has that stopped any human being?

"Would a man like Balram, who calls himself a "half-baked man" because he was never allowed to complete his schooling, be able to declare, as Balram does, that "Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia"?"

On that count you wouldn't even expect him to use a macintosh computer. But he does. So yes, I expect him to make that statement. Balram Halwai crawls and treks through the ladders to higher society. He observes and learns. And since he has become an entrepreneur, I imagine he has learned a lot. He probably goes to Wikipedia on his Mac. He also read the three poets, did you realize that?

"Now, dialogue is almost always a knotty issue for the Indian novelist writing in English, because it requires a kind of translation of speech that Indian readers, at least, would recognise is not emanating from a speaker of English."

This whole native tongue translation is a problem is boring. Nobody is going to think an Indian author is awesome to have masterfully done that because, well, everybody from RK Narayanan and Salman Rushdie have already done that and done it very well. What Adiga gets culturally wonderfully right is that Ashok Sharma starts writing a letter impulsively and goes on a meandering rant, taking license to divert laterally and elaborate on a story. You can't get any more Indian than that.

"But, just like other denizens of the Light whom Balram criticises, Adiga himself is unable to engage with the Darkness, and is himself in the dark about how a character from this domain might think and speak."

Balram Halwai finds it interesting that Pinky Madam says the f word. And that is why he talks about it. Balram Halwai is the guy who learns not to scratch his groin, and how to wear rich man clothes because he is trying to climb upwards, so he speaks and dresses like that. Why would he speak like someone he doesn't want to be?

"This scene is reprehensible not because Balram is so despicable, but because of Adiga’s implication that anybody – even parents whose grief is fresh as a wound – can be bought in India as long as the price is right."

That's how Ashok Sharma sees it. The way I see it, it is unfortunate that the parents in the "darkness" can't have the freedom to self express their disgust and might have to think rationally. Have seen enough Hindi films where in such a situation the family would throw the money on Ashok's face and say "dikhar hai mujhe tumhare in paison se", but this seems plausible if not real. The point I get from the book and what Ashok Sharma seems to believe in is that you have to make moral compromises to make it out of the "darkness". I think Aravind Adiga's take is that it is unfortunate that to make it out of there there is no way but to make moral compromises.

Robb said...

"This scene is reprehensible not because Balram is so despicable, but because of Adiga’s implication that anybody – even parents whose grief is fresh as a wound – can be bought in India as long as the price is right."

This suggests to me that reviewer has fundamentally missed the point of the novel. Poverty brings desperation. Bleak, amoral, calculating desperation. The poor are forced to continually trade-off their dignity for hope of a better future that money may buy.

The author was pointing out that India is awash with such miserable calculus and if we pretend that this not the case, the will continue to be so woefully failed.

Awfuul truths are the ones that most need some saying.

Unula said...

All the negative criticisms about the novel look a bit too harsh. I agree that the portrayal of the landlords like some Bollywood villains could have been avoided. But, as the last two comments point out, the novel is not entirely unrealistic.

Even in the parts where Balram is returning to the village, the fact that he's obsessed with his masters and his job shows his fascination towards them and how he habitually ignores his family.

The author has intelligently chosen the simple, dark, humorous, witty and discursive narrative style to paint a picture of the darker side of the nation. All the deliberate exaggerations definitely helped in doing the job well.

Sana said...

"We are never quite sure what to make of Balram, because Adiga cannot convincingly inhabit the voice or perspective of a hick from the hinterland. We get not Balram, but Adiga/Balram, and we find the sometimes attractive cynicism of the character [...] mixed up with the manipulative cynicism of the novelist, who is not willing to set realistic limits on the character's imagination."

God, are you beautiful or are you beautiful! I just finished reading this book (2 years late, I know) and all the while, I found myself angry at the way Adiga was appropriating the sub-altern. Those lines explain, to me, exactly what he did wrong as a novelist.

On a different note, I have to say (again), that your reviews teach me so much. I almost want to pick up one of those books to 'test' myself and see if I can identify how the author screwed up =)

Thank you.