Thursday, January 22, 2009

Further reflection on Aravind Adiga's Booker-winning The White Tiger

Dear Blog Readers,

Thank you for an energetic and thoughtful discussion in the comments to the initial blog post for The White Tiger!

One of our anonymous commenters (from January 14, 2009, 2:41 PM) asked, “How do you interpret modern day India and its disparities? Just curious.” While I have no ultimate be-all and end-all answer to this question, I must say this: India is a complicated, multifarious, contradictory society. For everything which is true, there is another thing that proves it to be untrue. Caste and class prejudice exist for some, not for others. Some are able to climb out of poverty; others are forever crushed by it. Some cannot imagine an Indian who is uneducated. Others dream of being able to go to school. Some see India as the greatest, largest democracy alive (in terms of sheer population numbers) while others find that Indian society beats down those who are already beaten down. When asked for my own opinion on all of this, I tend to become inarticulate, as the tension of all of these contradictions play within me and ultimately silence me. What is there to say? There is everything to say and nothing to say, at the same time.

As an immigrant from India, albeit one who arrived in this country as a child, I have always struggled when asked to explain, define, or categorize my country of origin. Is India wealthy or poor? How wealthy? How poor? Or, now, newly middle? Do people still believe in and act on caste-ist philosophies, or did that all die with Independence and is the modern era now upon us? Do people in India know how to speak English? Doesn’t everyone in India know how to speak English? These are just some of the questions that make me rub the back of my neck unhappily as I ponder whether to give the 15 second wrong-but-easy pat answer or the 45-minute ponderous, questioning lecture that would leave both me and the questioner querulous and glazed, with no satisfaction that the question had been answered at all.

I do think that The White Tiger, despite being uneven in places, gives one a glimpse into the simultaneously wonderful and terrible place that India can be for her own people. Personally I am unsure whether this book was better in literary quality than, say, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, which was a much more in-depth, rich exploration of a portion of Indian history which shaped the world. But I think that The White Tiger won the Booker because it is of the moment. It captures the essence of the current economic prosperity and struggle happening on a daily basis all over India, in homes of the rich, the poor, and the middle class.

While there are moments where Balram's character rings a false note, where his or his family's actions seem just amalgams of what the author thinks the poorer classes are thinking, there are many moments when his humanity shines through. And some would argue that it doesn't matter if Balram rings true as a real person or not, that he is a device used by Adiga to get across the sheer horror of class difference in India. And for that achievement, I agree, as do many of the commenters to the first post, that Adiga must be applauded.

I must confess though, that as a person of Indian heritage I have mixed feelings about how this book may be taken by a western audience. Of late the whole India Shining ideology coming full-force from the elite classes of India has been overpowering any other vision of India, making many middle class or privileged class Indians unwilling to admit any other reality coexisting with theirs. In my opinion this book strikes a welcome blow to that monolithic way of looking at India's present and future destiny, shaking the reader awake to the sordid reality of inequality that hasn't disappeared with the rise of the much vaunted "shining" middle class. And yet on the other hand, in purporting to reveal the underbelly of India is this book doing anything other than supporting the traditional western stereotypes of India as a dirty, poor, chaotic place?

Here is a link to a review written by Amitava Kumar, a diasporic writer of Indian origin, which corroborates this sentiment that the book plays to western stereotypes of India. In fact, in a recent conversation, another English professor friend of mine stated that even though the book intends to be controversial, it may actually be simply dovetailing with what folks already believe about India. And, perhaps, with what they feel comfortable believing in. I'd be interested in hearing from readers of this blog. What is your take on this perspective?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

When I first saw the shortlist for the Booker Prize, back in September of 2008, I was surprised to see a South Asian name there which I did not immediately recognize—Aravind Adiga—which made me curious. Just who is this guy with the Indian name, I thought to myself. As a librarian of South Asian heritage I should really know these things. So I did some research and found out that his background is in financial journalism and in working as a South Asia correspondent for TIME magazine. The White Tiger is his first novel.

At the time I thought, Oh, he's such a newbie to literary fiction. There is no way he is going to get the prize when he's up against such prolific and well-established writers as
Sebastian Barry and Amitav Ghosh. But, hmm, a new South Asian writer was now on my radar, and, so, out of sheer curiosity, I put the book on my reserve list on the Brooklyn Public Library catalog.

When I received the book and started to eagerly read, I ran into a strange roadblock. The book has an unusual structure that was (for me) difficult to get attuned to. It is written as a kind of series of oral letters (a spoken-out-loud blog, perhaps?) made by Balram Halwai, the protagonist, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. While I found this "frame tale" somewhat off-putting and artificial, there was enough of a spark in the insistent voice of the main character, charmingly vulgar and yet elusive, that kept me going. And I am glad that I did, as it quite soon grabbed me by the throat until I read it all the way through.

I should reveal that I recently traveled back to India, just this past summer, so I had fresh memories of visiting disparate places: friends' homes where servants were not treated poorly, but definitely were part of the "conveniences of modern living" as well as urban slums where whole families were living in rooms a fraction of the size of the guest room at my friends' place. If I had to put the memories into one word, that word would be "guilt." Therefore this book, written from the perspective of someone rising up from what he calls "the Darkness" to become a servant-chauffeur of an incredibly rich and thoughtless family, and to later become an entrepreneur in his own right—albeit through extremely shady means—well, you can see why this story would grip me.

So, fellow readers, I have given you my initial response to the book, but I am curious to hear about your response. Do share with us in the comments below, and our conversation will be under way. Feel free to respond to any aspect of the book that struck you, but, if you are looking for some inspiration, here are some questions I am curious about:

Much has been made of the fact that author Aravind Adiga, although coming from a privileged class himself, has written this book from the perspective of someone from the poorest class within India. Arguments have been made regarding how authentic is the voice of Balram Halwai. When you read this book, did knowing (or not knowing) Adiga's background make you perceive the writing from a different stance? How relevant is his background to your understanding of the book?

In one interview, Adiga went to some pains to state, "I hope it's clear that I am not the narrator." What are your thoughts on the reliability of the narrator? Is he someone you implicitly believe? If not, how do you sift his statements?

Class is a key issue in this book, as it exposes the dramatic difference in the lives of the rich and the "half-baked people," as Balram refers to himself and others from disadvantaged backgrounds. How are class differences presented in the book? How aware or unaware are the various characters of the economic and social forces that affect their lives? And is there an inherent contradiction in an uneducated narrator poinpointing the injustices and inequalities that affect his life?

I'm also curious to know, blog readers, what you thought of the book's "open letter to Wen Jiabao" frame tale structure or how this worked for you (or didn't).

That's it for this post then; looking forward to your responses and to an enjoyable discussion about this fascinating novel!