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?


Anonymous said...

Great German philosopher Schopenhauer after discovering the wisdom of the sacred Sanskrit literature of India said, "Upanishad has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death." It is believed that the Upanishad always lay open on his table and he invariably studied it before going to bed. He called the opening up of Sanskrit literature 'the greatest gift of our century', and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become the cherished faith of the West. His prediction has come true as can be observed in the number of yogi visits and yoga studios in America. I think one of the greatest gifts India has to offer is its spiritual wisdom which no other culture has been able to develop to that degree of excellence. However some claim that yogis do excel in spiritual qualities but remain immature in psychological insight. Both are needed for wholeness. Being half-baked seems not just the predicament of the "Nouveau Riche." Its a universal predicament--East or West. Self-Interest or Self-Transcendence--which of the two strategies of life can make us truly happy.
One answer is perhaps an optimal integration of the two. What is missing in yogic tradition can be supplied by Western scholarship, and vice versa. But I am not sure if modern India will be able to retain its superb spiritual heritage in the current wake of mania to make money and seek status. The modern youth in India in more interested in computer programming and business administration than Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or paradoxes of transcendence. We shall see. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Yesha wrote: "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."

This is so well said. Monolithic way of looking is a royal road to falsehood which also explains the kind of thinking human do on this planet. Only true reasoning is freeing. Some human beings fortunately are inquisitive about cause and effect rather than politics of blame and praise. Everything is connected to everything else be it mind, brain or culture. When we look at any aspect of reality, it has to be deconstructed as it cannot exist in a vacuum. Culture and mind and behavior are intertwined. And there is no such thing as a homogeneous culture, any where in the world. And there is no mind which is a blank slate. There is genetic uniqueness which pushes and pulls individuals innately in certain informational and experiential niches. Free will is a delusion. Thinking about thinking is true freedom. But its rare. After having done an "internship" in a given language, nation, religion, class and culture, that uniqueness that every human child brings into the universe is lost in oblivion. One wonders why.

Perhaps power game is the proverbial elephant in the room. Modern education systems have failed to open our eyes to the subtle and the meta levels of reality. Humans become so engrossed in the micro-matters of their cultures and reptilian forces of their brains that they fail to see their interconnections and relationship with the macro and the meta. Be it caste system or class system, their dynamics are the same: excluding those who don’t fit the taste and criteria of the elite in power. Elite (religious, political, cultural) largely control what gets disseminated in cultures, and therefore control the politics, aesthetics and economics. I am not surprised to see how individuals in two nations can retain their animosities towards each other from one generation to another, and still believe in “free will.” The process is the same: control ideas that flow in a society through mass media, curriculum, market-place etc.

Once a culture familiarizes individuals with certain core texts and pre-texts and personalities of the tribe, individuals want more of the same. Narcissism is a universal algorithm which is run by every human brain unbeknownst. Ideas in any language get their power because they are defined relative to familiar frames, metaphors, narratives, images, and emotions—which become real unconscious long-term-memories. Ideas are empowered by the human unconscious. 98% of what we think is coming from unconscious. We are not consciously aware of all that an idea evokes in us when we become adults with a particular religious and political identity. If we hear the same language over and over, we will think more and more in terms of the frames and metaphors activated by that language. “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success,” said Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda chief of Hitler, “unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over…Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state, for every form of power politics and any dictatorship-run state has its roots in the street.”

Anonymous said...

India's fundamentalists are as fundamentalist as any other religions. When Hindu fanatics burnt the Babri Mosque, the Muslim counterparts burnt the Krisha Temple. So much for free will. So I am not sure what Schopenhauer could discover in Upanishad has not yet been discovered by a billion holy Hindus in a thousand years. Very peculiar indeed.

Anonymous said...

Schopenhauer also said that truth will always be 'paucorum hominum', and must therefore quietly and modestly wait for the few whose unusual mode of thought may find it enjoyable...Life is short but truth works far and lives long; let us speak the truth.

But before we can speak the truth, we have to first discover it, and for that we have to purify the instrument needed for percieving truth i.e. pure consciousness. Propogandized modern minds, most willingly subscribing to one national, religious, political, cultural identity or another, are rendered incapable of discovering objective truth. Fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. Tolle in New Earth desribes the deepest predicament of modernity: “The word ‘I’ embodies the greatest error and the deepest truth, depending on how it is used. In conventional usage, it is not only one of the most frequently used words in the language, but also one of the most misleading. In normal everyday usage ‘I’ embodies the primordial error, a misconception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity. This is the ego.” This is what Albert Einstein…referred to as ‘an optical illusion of consciousness.’ That illusory self then becomes the basis for all further interpretations of reality, all thought processes, interactions, and relationships. Your reality becomes a reflection of the original illusion.

Anonymous said...

I find it quite ironic that some of the greatest philosophers, saints and sages of India and read and revered more in the West now than in money-manic India. Materialism leads to prozac not peace. Egocentric life leads to fragmentation not wholeness. I hope the generation of MBAs, computer-programmers, and call-centers of India never forgets their most precious spiritual and philosophical heritage bestowed by geniuses such as Shankara, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi, Vivekananda, Satchidananda, Anandamai Ma, Meherbaba, Mira Bai, Neem Karoil Baba, Gopi Krisha, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Atmananda, Yogananda, Ramakrishna and most recently Sri Aurobindo, who was not just one of the greatest psychologists and philosophers but also a profound mystic as well. The treasures of books found in East-West Bookstore of New York City are a reminder that skin color or national identity should not determine our significant reading experiences. A globally conscious, humane citizen of the world will integrate the best of East & West for an examined and well-lived life.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone seen the new Oscar contender, Slumdog Millionaire? Since it was directed by a British, it gives a glimpse of India which Bollywood would usually refrain from showing. Democracy is the dictatorship of the masses. If the masses happen to be mostly Hindu or Muslim or Christian, don’t expect justice any sooner. Identity-based (or brain washing based) forms of violence (overt and covert) are nothing new on this planet. The 20th century horrors committed by patriotic and/or religious peoples of the world towards fellow human beings remind us how dangerous it is to give a tribal identity-label to a human child. That label takes a life of its own consciously or unconsciously. It mostly cripples a human beings sense and perception of truth forever. Science of psychology has much to offer. Stanford Prison Experiments conducted by Zimbardo, and Stanly Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments which have been replicated in other cultures show how pathological, seemingly innocent, identity labels can become. Labels become the deeper mind-set of a human child and determine his/her love/hate relations and interpretations of life and the world. Hindus are protesting against the movie because of an unflattering depiction of one of their gods, among other things. Not unlike Muslims who violently protested against the cartoons of their prophet awhile ago. Symbolic identities lead to nuclear weapons. Same dynamics, only different symbols and labels. This kind of collective mindset is achieved through years and years of propaganda which unfortunately goes by the name of education. How incapable are homo sapiens, the so called rational beings of “accommodating a competitive narrative” of the cosmic mystery which no one has a clue anyways. Maybe we should not fear the people who don’t read at all but fear those more who just read one book—be it Bible or Quran or Bhagavad Geeta. This perennial violent game of Us vs. Them, and "we are right and they are wrong" is one of the greatest pathologies of the so called normal citizens of whatever nation. Tolle in “New Earth” claims that "by far the greatest part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in service of the collective ego. One can go so far as to say that on this planet "normal equals insane." What is it that lies at the root of this insanity? Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say--ego."

Anonymous said...

Aravind's book is replete with deep insights about neurotic pursuit of progress...Maybe the call-center generation should also make some wake up calls...Lets hope India does not repeat the horors of the industrial revolution, with extremes of misery and injustice, on the one hand, and concentrations of wealth and power, on the other. The Mother Earth is already sick from mindless consumption and production going on in the West..Is the East going to repeat the experiment which often leads to unhappiness...May be Thoreau and Chuang Tzu have something to say to both, India and China, the two new superpowers-wanna-bees...'If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.'

Chuang Tzu put on cotton clothes with patches in them, and arranging his girdle and tying on his shoes, (i.e. to keep them from falling off), went to see the prince of Wei. 'How miserable you look, Sir!' Cried the prince. 'It is poverty, not misery', replied Chuang Tzu. 'A man who has TAO cannot be miserable. Ragged clothes and old boots make poverty, not misery'.

Preston Merchant said...

I am always suspicious of the notion that certain elements of the reality of India are not appropriate for Western audiences. The unpleasantness is thought either to be too embarrassing or to be simply pandering to stereotypes or outdated notions. "Slumdog Millionaire" (based on a novel) is at the center of such a debate now.

But India is too big, too old, and too complicated for any single work, even a lifetime of work, to chronicle the range of its vitality and degradation. "The White Tiger" makes no great claim on the "reality" of India just because it focuses on the poor, just as Shobha De's romances can't be disqualified because they focus on the wealthy and sexually liberated. So I find questions about the authenticity of "The White Tiger" to ring hollow.

"The White Tiger" is a fun book for the outlandishness of its narrator, who despite his Bihari background was lifted straight out of American fiction. Balram Halwai is an Indian Holden Caulfield from "The Catcher in the Rye."

I honestly don't think the book breaks any great new ground or has made a lasting contribution to Indian letters, but it doesn't seek to. Most of the negative reaction against it would not exist if it had not won the Booker. If it were just a nominally interesting first book, critics would praise Adiga's willingness to explore what he calls (and obviously lifted from Naipaul), "the darkness."

Anonymous said...

Preston wrote: "I am always suspicious of the notion that certain elements of the reality of India are not appropriate for Western audiences. The unpleasantness is thought either to be too embarrassing or to be simply pandering to stereotypes or outdated notions. "Slumdog Millionaire" (based on a novel) is at the center of such a debate now."

Even if unpleasantness is embarrasing, it is still part of truth, part of reality and should be brought to the awareness of people of the world, who are suffering from indifference in an inter-connected world. Every culture has its dark side, its shadow and if someone points it out, they have to drink hemlock or are burnt at the stake. In modern times, they are diminished, neglected, or they loose their jobs, or have to face ad hominem attacks, from nationalists or religious folks of one symbol system or another. I think Chopra said something important on Larry King when he was invited to talk about his book, "Peace is the Way."

CHOPRA: No, nobody. And in fact there is no one in the world who thinks they're not on God's side either.

KING: God's on everybody's side.

CHOPRA: God's on everybody's side. I think in many ways religion and nationalism are the two scourges of humanity.

KING: How do I use this book?

CHOPRA: Well, you use this book first by learning to become a peace maker yourself. I have seven practices listed there. For Sunday a practice of being peace, for Monday a practice of thinking peace, for Tuesday a practice of feeling peace, for Wednesday a practice of speaking peace, for Thursday a practice for acting peace, doing something peaceful, for Friday a practice for sharing peace and then for Saturday, a celebration. And I believe that if you practice these principals in your personal life, that you will see a radical transformation in your personal life.

KING: You don't think violence then is inherent.

CHOPRA: I think the human soul has two tendencies. One is the tendency for fear, separation, anger, delusion that I'm separate, and the other tendency we all have is the tendency for love, compassion, understanding, healing and getting to be with each other. The tendency for fear and anger is fueled by a sense of injustice and what a sense of injustice does, a perceived sense of injustice does is, it lets this part of yourself, which modern psychologists and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) call the shadow self, the shadow self that is dark, that is secretive, that is dangerous, that is primitive, that is steeped in mythology, that is irrational.

This shadow emerges when there's a removal of a sense of responsibility, when there is anonymity, when there are degrading, dehumanizing conditions, when there are poor examples of pure behavior, when there's permission to do harm. So you know, when we have this Abu Ghraib prison scandal, for example, the official response was, it's a few bad apples. Americans are not like that. But the fact is Larry, you and I are like that. If they put us in those dehumanizing, degrading conditions where we are full of fear and our own...

KING: Capable of anything.

CHOPRA: We're capable of anything.

Anonymous said...

Adiga has set some precedent that one can rise above the patriotic fervor while searching for truth. He seems to have read all points of view and maybe knows something about Freud's defense unconscious mechanisms not to mention the paradox observed by Stephen King, "only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly." Nationalistic folks never discover real truth about their own nation because they usually dont want to hear any opposing points of view to their vanities. There is no royal road to truth. That is why it is rarely discovered.

yesha said...

To all commenters:
Thank you much for your discussion! Please take a look at the concluding entry on _The White Tiger_ for the wrap-up and some responses to your comments:

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