In Which I Congratulate Adiga and Try to Avoid a Blog-Spat

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post, giving my reaction to Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger. Since then, as many readers probably know, Aravind Adiga won the prestigious Booker Prize for the novel, making him one of only a handful of first novelists to have done so, and also (at 33 years old) one of the youngest writers ever to do so.

While I stand by my assessment of Adiga's novel, I'm not going to bitch and moan about the Booker's selection process or the composition of the committee. Rather, my first response is to congratulate Adiga for the honor, and wish him luck on his next book. (Cheers!)

I was ready to leave it at that, but Manish at Ultrabrown challenged negative reviews of the novel like mine with a post yesterday. For Manish, the complaints against the novel boil down to a question of different ways of failing to achieve authenticity:

I’m going to tease apart two separate kinds of complaints about authenticity. One kind is whether the author successfully executes what he’s attempting, whether you’re pulled jarringly out of the narrative. The other is whether the very endeavor of a highly-educated proxy tackling the voice of the underclass is plausible. (link)

I'm quite sure my complaint falls under #1 -- Adiga fails to do what he is apparently trying to do -- though I'd phrase it a slightly differently: in my view, Adiga never seriously attempts to convince us that his protagonist is a realistic figure, and therefore he never really tries to be "authentic" at all.

On Manish's category #2, the question of whether writers can ever plausibly write in the voices of people not like themselves, I think it's pretty clear that South Asian writers do this all the time -- one thinks, first and foremost for me, of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. The point of view of working class Bombayites (from the Chamaar caste) in Mistry's novel becomes convincing, even though Mistry is not himself from that background. The audience/readership dynamic is also not really very different: English-speaking readers, in India and especially abroad, are inevitably going to be much better off than the people whose lives they're reading about. The one difference might be that many Indian readers I've heard from have felt that the The White Tiger seemed to be intended for non-Indian readers, while I've never heard the same complaint about A Fine Balance (it's not clear to me where this reaction comes from, so I won't say more about it).

All Indian writers who write socially-engaged fiction in English and publish in western markets are potentially susceptible to the same attack on their authenticity, so in my view it's pointless to even discuss it; it's a structural problem. Rather, it's much more interesting to talk about the way their stories work internally. Mistry succeeds because he puts in the time and effort to imagine what his characters' lives would be like in rich detail, and what their voices might realistically sound like given the limitations of their experience. It takes space to do it -- in my view, this kind of realism can't be done with a few catchy aphorisms or a reductive concept of the divide between rich and poor (Adiga's "light" and "dark"). Which isn't to say that a socially-engaged novel has to be 3000 pages long to be ultimately compelling; rather, good novelists pick out the most telling details and leave out everything that isn't strictly necessary.

Let me give an example of a book that I think does some of this better than The White Tiger does, based on an idea given to me by my wife. Samian, who was raised in Bombay, also didn't like the style of Adiga's novel very much, though she did feel that the plot picked up and became quite exciting towards the end. In a conversation with our local book club last month, she contrasted Adiga's novel to Amitava Kumar's under-read Home Products, a novel that actually covers some of the same ground as Adiga (the journey from Bihar to the big city; the gap between rich and poor; the gap between local poverty and violence and Bollywood glamor), though it does so in a very different way.

Here is a passage from near the beginning of Home Products, which we could contrast to the passage I quoted last time from Adiga's novel:

Her name was Mala Srivastava and she was from a small town near Patna. She had been in the local papers even earlier because she used to recite poems at public meetings. Her poems mocked the manhood of Indian leaders; she called upon Indian youth to cross the border and slaughter people in Pakistan; she wanted the national anthem inscribed on the body of Benazir Bhutto. Mala was only twenty-one when she died. People said that she was pretty. Those who'd seen her performing said she was arrogant and wanted everything from life. A couple of the press reports after her death mentioned that during a visit to Bombay, she had been arrested briefly for having stolen gold jewellery from her host's apartment.

When Mala had still been in high school her father was killed in a road accident and the family had fallen on bad times. But at the time of her death she had been living for a year and a half in a large house in Buddha Colony. The story went that Mala did not need to pay rent on that house in Patna. Her neighbours said that white cars with red lights would deliver sweets and gifts at her door whenever the festivals rolled around. Politicians and officials were regular visitors to her house at different times of the day and night. (Amitava Kumar, Home Products)

You only get a few telling bits and pieces about Mala Srivastava from these paragraphs (there is more to come that I'm not quoting), not a total encapsulation. What you do get, however, is in my view quite provocative and intriguing. Now compare back to the same paragraph from Adiga:

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. (Adiga, The White Tiger)

This is in fact a perfect encapsulation, so perfect that it doesn't really need personalized details. We have Balram Halwai in a nutshell, which frees Adiga to jump right into his very propulsive plot (and I concede that the novel is highly readable and entertaining; it is also worth noting that this is by no means an easy thing to do).

These two characters from the two novels have certain things in common (I'll spare you the details), but are drawn very differently. Where with Amitava Kumar's prose you get the definite sense that the narrator cares about Mala Srivastava in her individuality, to me Adiga's style suggests he's more interested in the generalizations about India his Balram Halwai allows him to make, than in Balram himself.

I don't want to push on this too hard, and I definitely don't want to get into a tedious "blog-spat" with my friends at Ultrabrown. Though I study and teach literature for a living, one thing I've realized over the years is that taste really is subjective, and one reader's minor glitch is another reader's fatal flaw. It's not a science, and that's something to embrace, not hide from with smarty-pants jargon: I love the fact that I can go out to dinner with a group of Indian software engineers, doctors, and so on, and have great conversations about the books they're reading. (I also love the to-and-fro with readers in blog-land, needless to say.)

A final note. Ironically, though I've now devoted two posts to debunking Adiga (but also congratulating him on his success. Congratulations again!), I could easily see myself teaching The White Tiger in introductory courses on Indian literature to undergraduates. It is likely to appeal to my students, while also giving me good reasons to talk about the social issues and cultural phenomena Adiga invokes in his book. (I've had good success teaching other books I haven't loved, including Mohsin Hamid's two novels; both Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist actually worked better than personal favorites of mine, such as The Satanic Verses and A Fina Balance).