Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A take on Aravind Adiga's White Tiger

This is the story of a boy from the village, who becomes a driver, is sickened by India's rich class, murders his master, and yet then ‘graduates’ to become one of the "India Shining", an entrepreneur.  That’s it in a nutshell, and it won the Man Booker Prize 2008.

Actually, it's not that good a book, being a little glib and very speedy (I read it in a day), but it is NOT just a pot-boiler; and for someone like me it was both evocative and provocative.

It addresses the question: why do India's servant classes accept the contempt and the oppression and even the hatred they daily receive from their employers? 


I've often been astounded with the nastiness in the ways that otherwise quite reasonable people (familiar acquaintances of mine in fact) treat their servants. It's quite eye-popping to observe a cultivated man suddenly act in a peremptory and outrageously angry with another human being - whom they obviously regard as little better than an insect (check out servants' living areas if you don't believe me - family pets are better treated). It's doubly shocking to think that these servants are paid a pittance. But, in fact, the most shocking thing is that happens everywhere in this - a democracy.
Now, I hear the objections from the India patriots: what about, they will say, the shocking record of America, where true equality came belatedly to black people - and less than fifty years ago?  What about the horrors of Victorian London, only some one hundred & fifty years ago?
You (dear reader!) are right to object, of course... in a general sense.  But I am talking about those Indian rich who profess total urbane sophistication but who yet seem to have TWO contrary belief systems in their heads, one expressing full egalitarianism and support for meritocracies, the other an extreme and almost totalitarian disregard for the masses.

(This weird mind-split can be very corrupting, and affects even visitors to India.  I went round to an American's house in central Colaba, and there I found him talking in the most cruel and dismissive way about his maid, who as far as I could work out had been nothing but hard-working and loyal.  He found my doubts and problems about the problems of employing such poor people laughable.  Yet I have absolutely no doubt that, once he returns to America, he will return to being utterly classless and adopt a respectful attitude to all his fellow citizens).

Karma. Whatever.

In one of the 'Introduction To India'-type books that I bought on entering Mumbai, the writer put this attitude down to the legacy of caste and karma. 
The theory in the book was that the rich believe (in their hearts, if not their minds) that they have been chosen by the Universe to be what they are - i.e. rich, and, having been chosen, are therefore provably better than the rest. The corollary is also true: that the poor are poor because the Universe gives them very little value. Poor and rich, so the Introduction claimed, then take on the valuation they appear to have divinely received.
I honestly cannot believe this.  Yet... and the reason this book makes the claim I suppose ... there isn't a better theory around!  It is quite a puzzle.

Sadly, while I felt Aravind Adiga got close to understanding both the driver's world and the rich man's world (quite a feat when you think what light years they are apart), and to explaining the main puzzle of 'why don't India's servants rebel?', it didn't help me with my own question - "why do the rich behave so badly?"
Now, I guess inherent beliefs about caste and karma do come into play with older people - but what about the new rich, those who have travelled extensively, those who are aware that people like me shudder at the blatantly inegalitarian relations they exhibit with their servants?

Strangely enough Adiga does play on one aspect of the rich, and makes it a metaphor for their outlook - their sleek, fat glossiness. (The rich in Britain and America are also well-rounded of course, but the nature of the extra pounds almost seems different somehow.  The corpulence of the rich Anglo-Saxons seems an aberration, a failure to deal with prosperity properly, whereas the Indian rich wear fat as a badge of office. I've been continually surprised at how Indian aunties see the obesity of the new family toddler with pride (!) and not dismay.)  This glossy fat is another way that the ostentatious rich mark themselves firmly off from the poor.


I seem to have wandered off the subject of reviewing White Tiger. Hmm.  Back to the book.

The 'White Tiger' introduces us to a character who begins to realise and be sickened by the enormity of this social divide. The main character, Balram, takes matters into his own hands - despite the huge power of the system which seeks to confine him. (Interestingly, his main weapon is not his own courage or his righteous anger, but his ability to abandon his sense of family responsibility. In India, this is almost unthinkable, and makes him, like the amoral Richard III of Shakespeare, ‘himself alone’).

Actually though, I can’t think of much good about it as ‘literature’. Yes, the narrative sweeps one along (like so many best-sellers), and I can think of many plane-journeys on which I would have longed for this work. But – aren’t the characters just a little too wooden, and the scenes too predictable?

But… why doesn’t one just throw this book in the remainder pile with so many others?
Because: something nags at me.
The world Adiga talks of is, yes, the real world. It’s one I recognise and know from experience – I can fill in the gaps he leaves in his descriptions – it is the world of the dusty Mumbai street-corner, the stink of the drivers’ room, the shabby call-centre, the darkly-lit taxi office, and even the kitsch classical-style (sooooo ridiculous!), gated houses of the really rich Rich.
And into this real world comes a tiny whiff of gunshot, from Balram. He would never describe himself as a revolutionary, but his view is almost unique – because he decides to ignore The Universe. That’s pretty radical for India; and that is why this book nags at one.

Link:  Review of White Tiger on ‘Middle Stage’


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