Friday, September 26, 2008

Why I Didn't Like "The White Tiger"

After reading Jabberwock's positive review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger some time ago, I was all set to pick it up. Jabberwock, after all, is the quintessential cosmopolitan Delhi-ite, so how can you go wrong?

Adiga also beat out both Salman Rushdie and the amazing Michelle de Kretser to make it to the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Again, that should bode well, irrespective of whether Adiga actually wins the prize. (I have heard that he is currently considered one of the favorites.)

But I haven't been able to shake the sense that The White Tiger, despite its topicality and its readability, is somehow fundamentally fake. I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it's quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India's poor primarily for a non-poor, non-Indian readers. It's a ubiquitous complaint -- almost a critical cliché -- but still true. Let me give you a passage that I think illustrates my problem with Adiga's novel quite directly. It's from near the beginning of the novel, as Adiga is introducing his narrator and protagonist to us:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

It seems like a pretty clever way to set up a rather unconventional protagonist -- and indeed, Adiga's protagonist, "Balram Halwai," is often quite funny in his various "half-baked" soliloquies on various politically incorrect topics.

But there's just one problem: it doesn't make any sense. No one who was "half-formed" in the way described in the passage above would be capable of actually realizing it and articulating it in this way. Such a person couldn't be at once defined by his ad hoc grasp of the world and self-conscious about it. This should be a third-person narrator's comment, not a first-person confession.

I made this objection at a recent meeting of my monthly-ish book club (yes, even my book club has a blog; I should note that the primary author is my friend Kate, not myself). In response people pointed out that I may be missing the point, since for the most part Adiga isn't really interested in posing his protagonist as a psychologically realistic person. If anything, he is a caricature constructed to make a socio-political point about India's "dark side" -- the masses of poor and uneducated who are effectively colonized by the English-speaking elites, traveling around India's big cities behind dark-tinted windows, invulnerable in their air-conditioned "eggs." India's elites, Adiga wants to show, can misbehave with impunity (some of the plot events reminded me of Salman Khan's vehicular manslaughter case, and the Jessica Lall murder case a couple of years ago). In short, though Adiga's protagonist is a servant, this is really a novel about the misbehavior and fragile authority of the ruling class, not about "subalterns" (i.e., poor/working people).

This might be a reasonable way to read Adiga's novel, except that as the novel progresses, Adiga grows more and more committed to the character, and Balram becomes less of a darkly comic caricature and more of a realistic anti-hero. The White Tiger seems rather non-ironic by the end, and the various cynical one-liners about the hollowness of Indian democracy don't have the bite they should.


IA said...

This seems* like a What would Wood do? moment. I am curious about older critics' take on authorial hand.
Care to recommend a few books Professor?

*Not trying to imply anything. It's just that he is currently the loudest voice on the subject.

lilalia said...

How would you suggest creating a strong interesting anti-hero that is remarkable enough to carry a whole narration without risking being fake? There might be a flaw in the argument, but does that mean the character is not plausible? Certainly, there are flaws in the argument of nearly all human character, let alone fictional characters.

Mampi said...

Yes, Half baked, and yet selling like hot cakes??
Criterion changes? Or just coming from India helps them sell?

Sharanya said...

"(no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you)"

Found that interesting. And as someone who had many breaks in her education, I think it's true.

Pinku said...


have read the book.. liked it in parts and also hesitate to say that i love it.

Analysed my own feelings and realised two things a) that the book is away from the two themes most of our modern writing stems from...1) the Indian trying to make his/her space in the modern world. 2) something to do with history/myth interwoven with some modern stuff.

b) Adiga is talking about a strata of society that we think of us as drivers, maids, milkman, delivery short 'them' not 'us' never'us'.

the character is difficult to believe in completetly but then I dont think thats what the author wanted us to do. He just wanted us to have a glimpse at the 'other India'. and I think he succeeds and the unease we feel on reading...proves it.

(sorry for the long comment)

sundeep kumar said...

The book was fun to read. I expect more such books from Adiga.

Inexplicably said...

Adiga's OK but what's marvelous is the paint that comes off your brush ! Love to read you. Delurking.

don said...

The White Tiger has a booker now. But I agree with you totally. After reading the book for about 50 pages, finding it rather rollicking, I screeched to a halt and asked myself: Why am I reading this? This book was not written for me. It is for the others. I soon returned it to the library.
There is another reason. I was brought up at the same place, Bihar, and I have the city glitter too. and I could guess, like a 70s Hindi movie, what the next scene would be. Adiga cannot outwit the real Balram Halwai or those who know such people. He is still the Oxford, Time magazine type. I wonder if we translated the book into Hindi and sold it for Rs 20 to Rs 3000 per month earners in UP and Bihar, would they approve of it? Where is the compassion? Does Adiga know the human condition as clearly as the human in question himself?

sarah said...

I just finished reading this and found it to be a fun read overall. The 'Rooster Coop' metaphor struck a chord with me-- I mean, he's using it to level a critique of Indian politics, but there's enough there that rings true for anybody who's ever been trapped in a working class job doing emotional labor for people richer than you.

sanjay said...

Adiga was basically highlighting the broken public education system in India. The book does paint a pretty accurate picture.

Reading the book was a bittersweet experience. The book was insightful in that it gave a pretty accurate understanding on why certain things were the way they are in India but it was also painful to acknowledge the many failings of Indian democracy and the lost potential of many people who live on the periphery in Indian society.

Nikhat said...

Actually, I felt exactly the same "fundamentally fake". Something about the book seemed essentially contrived.

Thank you for this excellent blogging. I'm an Indian literature enthusiast and it's so good to read someone knowledgeable on this subject in the blogosphere.