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?