Thursday, December 18, 2008

The White Tiger: Why So Serious?

This is a bit of a pointless exercise seeing as Arvind Adiga has written a second book already AND won the Manaviya Pustakwala Puraskar for this one. Reading this and seeing the book touted by newspapers and mags as great serious literature however, one feels compelled to put in one's own 2 paise on it.

Let's get what's good about the book out of the way. The book has a plot that consistently holds the reader's interest (it did mine), and stays suspenseful after delivering a minor jolt in the first chapter. Adiga does a decent job of making us root for the protagonist even though he isn't an underdog by a long shot. The narration is slick, alternating between tones of insight and black humour. All in all, you will never feel bored while reading this book.

The precise problem with the book is that it's not just a story of a guy from Bihar (Balram Halwai) who made it big in Bangalore. It's great serious literature with a great serious message, and has to be assessed as such. This message, like in movies such as RDB and A Wednesday is repeated every few pages across The White Tiger, till you want to tear your hear and scream "Yessir we get it". The White Tiger is essentially a "message book". This message, which the gora press also calls theme or undertone or describes as "painted in broad strokes", trumps the story, takes centerstage from Balram and ultimately swings your Tomatometer from "Good" to "Pretentious".

Well, what's the message, you ask? Well, put simply, the message is that life for the underclasses in India sucks. To elaborate, it is that life in a village in UP-Bihar is miserable. That villages lack basic amenities such as roads, medical services and schools due to corruption. That politicians rig elections in villages. That corrupt cops enforce political diktat in Bihar. That rural landlords oppress villagers and suck their lifeblood on a daily basis. And...... wait for it.... that you can get away with running over slum-dwellers in Delhi. Wow Adiga-sirjee!! How insightful and revealing. You have exposed the seamy underbelly of India to us anpadh-gawaar-types who thought it to be a magical land of sunshine and buttercups where rivers of chocolate flowed. Wah bhai Wah!!

[To be fair though, he springs three entirely new ones on us. The first, that a poor joint family is a milestone about the neck of an entrepreneur, akin to the chicken coop. The second, that landlords "lord it" over rivers and village roads as well as the fields. And the third, that wizened old grandmothers are evil and manipulative]

You may think I am ripping on the guy due to my desh-bhakti or whatever (friend Anu felt so when I discussed this book). Well here's the thing. An accurate presentation of life in a village would include detailed description of the village itself - its various streets, the shops, the people who run 'em, the people who pas through it daily and all this in detail. All Adiga presents us is a main street, which is described as bisected through a river of sewage and ending in a temple of Hanuman, which could describe just about any village in India. Ditto for the teashop, the school and the schoolmaster and the evil opressive bloodsucking landlord-politician-policemen. He presents us a generic village, cobbled out of bits of Yashraj films and R. K. Narayan and says "See!! See!! Life is so so bad!!". The approach is the same for Balram's master, kind and indecisive master Ashok-from-US. Being "US-returned", Ashok commits a number of cardinal sins. He marries outside the religion (a Christian NRI who likes to say "What a fucking joke!!" and who leaves him upon which his father says I told you so), pays and treats his servants better than his India-stayed brother (His dad says "The ideas you pick up") and most shameful of all, hates the idea of bribing people. All this despite having grown up with his evil-oppressor brother and father. Near the end, Balram kills him thinking he should've seen it coming and reflecting on how his brother wouldn't have fallen for it. And most significantly, while the book is supposedly about Balram's rise, we don't see much of that. We only know he used a sum of stolen money (which in present time, is fairly peanuts) to start a business which was a success, one of those Eureka!!-meets-Abracadabra type successes. Half the book is about Balram's generically miserable upbringing. Another one-third then brings up the prospect of stealing cash. He does it. Voila!! Balram is now a millionaire. So there, says Arvind-by Golly-Adiga. See, see!! India is so so bad no!! Poor man from village is fucked over always. Only way to get ahead is to murder rich mans from city. See see!!!

And lest you still think I'm unfairly getting at him for his message check his Wikibio here, where you'll see he's not been near a village in a long time, and his justification in writing the book, which is:

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society (Indian). That's what I'm trying to do -- it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination"

He compares himself to Balzac and Dickens, who critiqued society in their times. Well, Balzac I don't know and critiquing society I don't know, but Dickens I do know, and Mr. Adiga, you're no Dickens by an interstellar shot. Dickens actually gave every one of his characters a unique background and personality. He made even his bad guys more than just generic constructs. And the reason he could do this was because he experienced first-hand the darker sides of life. That experience came out in his stories, whether the lead viewed them or experienced them, and that experience made his stories real, as opposed to yours.

Verdict: This book was touted as great revelatory serious literature, for which it won the Booker. It is for goraas who don't know shit about India and like to fit filth-and-poverty where they put snakecharmer- and elephant. For anyone who's been in India however, this is essentially an exploitation piece, with exploitation being what's exploited. Readable, but far from great.