(One of my first essays to be published in The Hindu. It kicked up quite a storm when it first came out)
Aravind Adiga should have seen it coming. The bitter, unrelenting criticism towards The White Tiger in his country after the Booker triumph has a familiar ring to it.
The God of Small Things met with an equally hostile reception from the Indian literary establishment when the huge advance it commanded was made public. And the murmurs about betrayal began as soon as Kiran Desai beat her formidable peers in the shortlist to grab the big one with The Inheritance of Loss, just a couple of years ago. The Booker is the biggest, the most visible, literary prize the British bestow on a writer from any of the Commonwealth countries every year. In little over a decade, three Indians have prevailed over the competition to bring home the bounty.
It qualifies as the ultimate act of subversion. This spectacular feat by writers from a previously colonised nation almost mocking the righteous patronisation the Western literary world would like to heap on writers from the sub-continent. English writers vie for the same prize and that makes the victory sweeter. But back home, as news of yet another Indian writer beating the impossible odds trickles in, the celebration, if any, is muted and tinged with suspicion. Certainly it is nothing when compared to the adulatory headlines every time the Indian Cricket Team beats Australia or England. Even allowing for the much touted cliché that cricket and not literature is the national pastime, it is baffling that these achievers are not accorded a fraction of the accolades that a Bronze Medallist from the Olympics commands. Instead, the hostility they encounter tends to force them into being “Salingeresque” recluses in their own country.
Desai lives and works in New York and is likely to be somewhat insulated from the bitter aftermath of the Booker harvest, but how many interviews of Roy have we come across in recent years, even though home for her is New Delhi? There are regular reports of the talks she delivers in her travels, but she prefers to skip destinations in her own country. Adiga, by all accounts, has decided to give the Indian media a skip after the prize. Not even his Indian publishers can access him for interviews. And who can blame him after the things they have had to say about him and his book, questioning his integrity as well as his patriotism.
The White Tiger is the most recent of the three and it may be worthwhile to explore the book as well as the anger it has generated among Indians. Not just among stuffed-shirt critics who for years have been struggling to write their first book and despairing, frustrated writers who have had to deal with the “no advance, no royalty; feel blessed you have been published,” vagaries of Indian publishing houses and who cannot but resent the outsider who gets catapulted to a different league of big advances and international celebrity-hood riding on that one “lucky” book, but also the average Indian reader who patronises English fiction. This is the class that grew up reading Sydney Sheldon and Danielle Steel, but would like to own the work of “that Indian Bloke, what’s his name, who won that jackpot of a prize”.
This reader is a part of the same class to which Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam from Adiga’s work belong. Who get all the joy in their sad affluent lives by making their semi-literate driver, Balram Halwai, spout English words to earn a few cheap laughs at his expense. Mr. Ashok’s entrepreneurial strengths are no match for the survival instincts born out of sheer deprivation his street smart driver has encountered and the “master” pays for that ignorance with his life. After murdering him, Balram Halwai takes on the name and identity of his employer/ master and becomes an entrepreneur in Bangalore.
The White Tiger is a fairy tale, albeit somewhat bloody in its orientation. The book even ends with the promise of marriage for the protagonist, thereby sealing the happily-ever-after ending. So it begs to reason why it has left so many compatriots of the author foaming at the mouth. The answer may be in the deceptively simple parabolic tale Adiga weaves in a little over 300 pages. Everything about the work is designed as a wickedly subversive tool to hold a mirror to the reader, the patron of his book.
The White Tiger traverses the familiar territory of class and caste divide, poverty and exploitation and the triumph of the human spirit that one expects in a book that unfolds from a place called “Darkness” in Bihar and draws its protagonist from an impoverished family of rickshaw pullers who were in the business of making sweetmeats before fate intervened. How this change in family fortune happened is explained succulently by Adiga:
“See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well-kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called a Halwai made sweets. The man called a cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned faeces…To sum up — in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.
And only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”
Who can argue with this obvious truth? In page after page, Adiga teases his Indian reader with facts that the reader is familiar with but dare not acknowledge. From commenting on the petty parochial regional prejudices (“I don’t believe a word. The south is full of Tamils. You know who the Tamils are? Negroes. We’re the sons of the Aryans who came to India. We made them our slaves. And now they give us lectures) to reflecting on larger existential dilemmas (“Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues near Parliament House in Delhi — but that is glory, and not what I am after. All I wanted was the chance to be a man — and for that, one murder was enough) nothing escapes the Adiga scanner. The White Tiger is not a comfort book but it was never designed to make its readers sleep in peace. And it is as literary as they get, never mind the easy readability factor. Because it is simple on surface, the complexities and the paradoxes contained in the book are more interesting to grapple with.
Nothing about Roy’s priceless gem The God of Small Things is simple. The book has seen a host of detractors since it was published to equal measure of controversy and acclaim. We see it being regularly featured as “the most overrated book I have read” in the list provided by her disgruntled peers year after year, but few are aware of the global phenomenon the book and its author is. Roy hasn’t written another novel although rumours surface in literary circles from time to time that she is ready with another “fictional” enterprise. There are many fans who would like her not to, because of the enduring dazzle the first one left in the literary firmament and the belief that the magic of her first novel would be impossible to recreate.
The White Tiger and The God of Small Things have one thing in common — the soul of the two books may very well be taken as twins but not of the monozygotic kind. It is possible to separate them like the two children Estha and Rahel in Roy’s novel, based on their form and structure, not to say their respective styles. The constant refrain that Roy decides to imbue the story of her star-crossed lovers with is “That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Adiga’s unwritten counter to that may very well be that it began in the days when the “class” laws were drawn up. The laws that lay down who and what should be owned, and how. And how much.
This surface difference apart, the two books have a lot in common. After the funeral of a child described through the eyes of another child with a delightfully inventive voice in Roy’s work — “The singing stopped for a ‘Whatisit? Whathappened?” and for a furrywhirring and a sariflapping,” Ammu, the young mother, visits a police station to plead for her lover’s release. The savagery she encounters from Inspector Thomas Mathew may just as well belong to The White Tiger:
“If I were you,” he said, “I’d go home quietly.” Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap, tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered. Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct.
Behind him a red and blue board said:
The Police Station could very well be the same one Balram Halwai may have found himself in if he had been caught after murdering his employer and no doubt Inspector Thomas Mathew would have beaten him to death just like the unfortunate Velutha, when Balram was “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.”
Roy has been widely criticised for writing a book that catered to the West. Not many people are aware that there were an equal number of violent reactions towards the book even in the U.K., egged on by the liberties Roy took with the language. Carmen Callil, who chaired the committee that decided the Booker Prize for the year preceding Roy’s win, had gone on record to say The God of Small Things was an “execrable” book. But, as the cliché goes, it is difficult to ignore the book even though you may hate it because of the power it packs and the unique and distinctive style of the narrative. Roy’s mastery lies in describing a period of life that all of us look back with nostalgia and suffusing it with tender innocence so that when it is snatched away brutally from the two child protagonists we are forced to confront the time and space when we were made to grow up. The paradox of human existence is deftly and beautifully captured in her story-telling. Her writing achieves the near impossible task of being clever and compassionate at the same time.
Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss falls squarely in the middle of the bitter pills Roy and Adiga force the unsuspecting reader to swallow. Just like the winners before and after her, Desai sets out to capture the world of the exploiter as well as the exploited. The fact that she is gentler with her readers than either Roy or Adiga makes her work no less incisive. The tonality of her work is more philosophical and her unique gift seems to lie in expanding the internal dilemmas her characters go through and linking them seamlessly to the strife and challenges nations create among themselves. Class differentiations and the distinction they impose, clouding and colouring lives, are as important to Desai as they are to Roy and Adiga. The difference lies in the outsider perspective that Desai adapts in keeping with the theme of immigration in her book. Her narrative comes across as being less emotional and more objective. And yet, curiously enough, it is never detached.
“But Profit could only be harvested in the gap between nations, working one against the other. They were damning the third world to becoming third world. They were forcing Bose and his son into an inferior position — thus far and no further — and he couldn’t take it. Not after believing he was their friend. He thought of how the English government and its civil servants had sailed away throwing their topis overboard, leaving behind those ridiculous Indians who couldn’t rid themselves they had broken their souls to learn.”
Desai succeeds in bringing the diminished immigrant to us through crisply written passages like the one quoted above. The non resident Indian is brought up to believe his destiny is to immigrate and gravitates automatically towards foreign shores. It is only when he is living as an exile he discovers the disproportionate price he has paid in the cumulative loss of his family, his identity as well as his sense of self.
A loss that The White Tiger is familiar with. He migrates within his own country, from the “Darkness” of his origins to the new, bogus “Driving Technology” Bangalore, as diverse as two nations placed on different parts of the globe, sacrificing his family and his identity at the altar of success. The same journey that the Anglophile judge and Biju, the cook’s son, undertake in The Inheritance of Loss. The pathos of their existence resonates so intimately with each other that they can be interchangeable.
If the aim of literature is to help us understand the world we live in and lead more meaningful lives then undoubtedly all the three recent Indian books that have won the coveted prize have achieved this admirable objective. There would always be critics who carp that these writers were self-serving and wrote for personal glory. But their works will outlive the pockets of distress they continue to create and endure as classics.