Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright

“Friends, Indians, countrymen – lend me your reading habits
I’ve come to bury Adiga, not to praise him”

Recently Aravind Adiga made us proud by winning the prestigious Booker Prize 2008. With predecessors like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, V.S Naipaul – Adiga is definitely in the big league now. He even managed to get a call from hot shot literary agent David Godwin (whose claim to fame was flying down to India and landing up at Arundhati Roy’s door for “The God of Small Things” when both were nobodys) and is presently looking into the nitty gritties of getting the right deal for his book in other foreign markets.

Now somebody said ‘nothing succeeds like success”. As a natural consequence, three days after Adiga flashed his winning smile in the newspapers, I went to Oxford bookstore and picked up my copy of “The White Tiger” for not less than the price of a medium sized pizza and some garlic bread with extra cheese. What was even surprising was that I finished it within two days – a true miracle by my standards.

Usually the prize winning books that I buy remain unread for years. I buy them because they have won prizes. They remain unread because I get used to them being better appreciated only in bookcases. On the rare occasions, when I find myself reading one of them I am usually late and some other contemporary writer ends up winning the same prize the next year and I need to buy one more volume to satisfy my literary hunger.

I guess one of the reasons I started out and even finished “The White Tiger” was because it was a true page turner. I worship page turner writers – because it is difficult and a tricky task to keep people hooked to your book. Give me a Sidney Sheldon novel any day and watch how I recede to the corner of my room deeply engrossed in it. When I bought Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” and tried to spend a lazy afternoon in the company of Sai – it turned to be the right medication for my insomniac tendencies. Similarly, when I tried reading ‘ A House for Mr. Biswas’ during a three day train journey, the bookmark never moved from page 116 till the end of my journey. Rushdie makes me dizzy at times, but I guess that has always been his desired impact. Trap your reader in a maze of words so that he can never get out it. Not even when the book’s finished.

Usually when people like me end up paying a price equivalent to that of a decent Dominoes lunch for a novel by an Indian English author - they expect a certain sense of complexity in it. It matches our mental construct if the novel turns out to be richly embroidered with vocabulary, makes the chief protagonist travel half the world in search of something elusive and has the term ‘diaspora’ printed all over it. Yes, that’s a novel that people like me would spend some money for and probably leave unread and immaculate as ever in their bookcases. For page turners there are always haunts like the railway station or the second hand bookshop or the flight terminal. Needless to say Coetzee’s ‘Slow Man’, Peter Carey’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ and Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ suffered the same fate in my hands.

The first thing that struck me as I was reading ‘The White Tiger’ was how could Adiga have won the Booker Prize? The novel is not a picaresque by nature, but the protagonist Balram Halwai does travel from Laxmangarh to Delhi and then to Bangalore and has his series of adventures in the process. Eventually, I realised that I was not the only one to get surprised. The Guardian correspondent Sam Jordison too had been quite baffled when Adiga walked away with £ 50,000 instead of Linda Grant.

However, there are a few things which pointed towards Adiga being a possible winner. Even though Indian by birth and looks, he had travelled, studied and worked in Australia from a pretty young age. I guess staying out of the country is a necessity if you want to win international prizes (even though Arundhati Roy largely proved me wrong), because it gives you the first world perspective that international prize judges may just appreciate and understand. You need to travel, go through the experience of being a non-entity in a foreign land and then hanker for the roots that you had happily snipped off at one point of time. And once you have hankered well, you may just end up writing a book from a largely autobiographical perspective about a non-entity in India travelling as a non-entity to the US and crying his/her heart out for remaining a non-entity for ever. Add with it a few Indian terms – ‘mesho’, ‘mashi’, ‘pishima’, ‘dadu’, ‘macher jhol’ and you have the winning formula of the occident taking notice of you and appreciating your literary inclinations. Rushdie differed from the formula, Arundhati Roy differed and strangely so did Adiga.

When I started reading “The White Tiger” it sounded as hypocritical and populist as I expected it to be. The novel begins with a letter to the Chinese Consul by a driver-turned- murderer-turned-entrepreneur and the continues till the end of it. Epistolary? Not really, it was just one letter continuing throughout 60 0r 100 thousand words he had written. So, yes, it was not meant to be different. Driver-turned- murderer was not something new. Rushdie had already explored that territory in ‘Shalimar the Clown’. Driver turned storyteller was not new neither – such instances are steeped in Indian mythology. Think of Lord Krishna for instance, who heard and saw it all and yet was content with driving the chariot of his buddy Arjun. But a India steeped in darkness… yes, that was a territory that remained uncharted, at least to the prize judges. I guess that is where Adiga scored over others – he presented an India without a ‘choice’, a country that lived up to all the darkness that are reflected in the human development reports and tarnished the images created by software giants and BPOs. India was not just Bangalore with call center executives and software engineers trying to chart out a better life catering to the US populace – India was a lot more.

For readers who have still not had the opportunity to forego their lunch at Pizza Hut and invest in Adiga – the story is about a young boy in a village called Laxmangarh (in a state that so aptly connotes Bihar and is called the ‘darkness) called Balram Halwai. Born in a family of plenty and ruled by a matriarch, Balram witnesses his father dying of Tuberculosis at a village hospital where patients keep on waiting for the doctor to arrive. Just like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. But in the darkness, doctors do not come to Government hospitals – if you are not satisfied with Adiga’s chronicle, you could refer to the Human Development Report 2007 and that too would vouchsafe for the truth. Watching his father die in silence – Balram promises not to be taken by the darkness and move into light. Somewhat like the way Scarlett ‘O’ Hara said “I shall never go hungry again” in “Gone with the Wind”. But the journey from darkness to light is not a spiritual one – in India it takes skill, money and connections to go into the light. Someone like Balram, who idolises the local bus conductor for his khaki uniform and his command over the passengers, may just need to sacrifice a lot more than his present dwelling for the journey into light. That is when the story picks up – Balram Halwai, sweet maker by birth, coaxes his family for some money to learn driving and then joins the family of Laxmangarh’s rich and famous to drive their car. As his driving job takes him from Laxmangarh to Delhi, Balram shrewdly takes in everything that life has to offer. The prostitute with her hair dyed blonde, the diseased driver who tells him about all the secret nooks in the city of Delhi, the malls where the drivers are not allowed to enter, the room with roaches where he stays behind the shield of the mosquito net to maintain his identity and the drunk chote sarkar, his employer, who in spite of the goodness of heart remains the spineless pawn in the hands of his powerful family. To my mind as a reader, the entire story acts like a camera. Imagine the act of focusing on something, and as you slowly adjust your lens the particular object in your frame comes into focus – and then you snap. The novel works like that – as Balram grows up the novel slowly comes into focus and clearly divides India into two halves. For the rich man the easy way out is to bribe the Great Socialist and legitimise his business – but when the rich man’s wife runs over a street child in a drunken spree, it is the poor driver who is asked to take the blame. So, when Balram (who essentially is the anti-hero) decides to go into light – the road to enlightenment is through the murder of rather-decent and kind employer. Running as a fugitive, changing locations everyday with a bounty of seven lakhs in stolen money, Balram also realises that the common man is difficult to catch. Because every common man looks so much like the other – that they become indistinguishable in their commonness.

The novel, as the beginning suggests, is not just about moving from darkness to light. It is also about a common man without college education moving onto entrepreneurship. However, this is the only point that gets diluted towards the end. Adiga, even though quite an entrepreneur to have come up with an winning formula for his book, did not have entreneurship quotient to bring his book to a credible ending. The story fizzles once Balram reaches out and becomes an entrepreneur almost without putting in any effort. He puts the onus of such an easy way out to the city of Bangalore, a city that gives you the choice. However, as we all know, by all means the last part couldn’t have been that easy – not in Bangalore or for that matter anywhere in the world.

“The White Tiger” is an interesting book – more interesting because it has won the Booker. A novel so linear, simplistic, without frills and dealing with such commonplace things that you could almost feel cheated if you bought it for… well… the price of a lunch. After all, we are so used to books being complex and reflecting something other than what the regional news channels show us that we almost refuse to believe in the mundane. As I said earlier, driver-turned-murderer was a subject that Rushdie had dealt with earlier in “Shalimar the Clown”. But the story was different and so was the history of the driver who hailed from Kashmir and came with a deep-sated revenge harboured in his breast. We do not expect the driver to just ‘steal’ for money and that’s where Adiga catches us on the wrong foot. Leave aside revenge motives – the biggest reason a person can kill is to desperately want a better life.

“The White Tiger” is an interesting read - and we do hope some more such stuff from Arvind Adiga. After all somebody was seeing beyond diaspora and call centers when it came to Indian English writing.

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1 comment:

RaisingT said...

I agree with you on the simplicity of subject and language. It was a refreshing change from the usual Indian authors who thrive on complex word spinning..