The book which won last year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize is free of literary gimmicks and style that I find so off-putting. Those would also be out of place, given that the story is narrated in first person by the protagonist, Balaram Halwai. The writing takes backseat to the narrative and never rings false, words that might seem strange when mouthed by a half-literate (half-baked as he calls himself) but street smart man. Three years ago, the award was won by another Indian, Kiran Desai for her book “The Inheritance of Loss”. The writing was quite beautiful, but the narration and the characters left me so cold, I didn’t care what happened to them by the end of the first chapter. Earlier this year, I tried reading Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, another Booker Prize winner and the winner of “Booker of Bookers” (the best novel of the past 25 years). I was so put off by his writing style that I again gave up in about fifty pages or so. His writing style frequently comes in the way of his narration, a style that seems more a style than of any substantive value. Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things”, another Booker Prize winner suffered from the same disease.
The book is not without metaphors and styles. The whole novel is in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier, who’s imminent visit to India, triggers the protagonist to write the letter, to reveal the true nature of entrepreneurs and India, a story that he says the Premier will not by told by any of his Indian hosts. The battle between India and China for West’s admiration (and money) is well known. Indians constantly talk about China and compare themselves against it. Adiga names the area from where the protagonist hails, Darkness, which is really what the villages of Northern India are. A key politician is called “The Great Socialist”. Many characters are only known by their animal names, names such as Mongoose, Buffalo and Stork. To the rather long list of stories that are used to describe Indians, he adds his own, the Rooster Coop.
The narrative itself does not reveal anything new, at least to Indians or those who know India beyond the headlines and glamour. When I narrated the story to Shanthala, she remarked that reality is far more multi-faceted than these single-faceted narratives. I found Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” a far superior work that traverses a similar landscape as The White Tiger, but is set during the time of Emergency, that single blotch on India’s democratic period. I cried several times as I read that book. In comparison, the saddest scene in the book left me only feeling sorry for the state of affairs of the poor. Maybe that is only rightful since the narrator does not want your kerchief (he’s busy trying to take the shirt off your back). The narrator says that post-Independence, the only law that ruled the land was that of the jungle, eat or be eaten. If this book is about a prey turned predator, Mistry’s book was those who could not (or did not) turn predators. I found Mistry’s work a finer etching than this one is (it is also a much fatter etching, clocking nearly double the number of pages).
I found the coincidence of this book winning the Booker Prize and “Slumdog Millionaire” shining at the Oscars interesting (apparently, I’m not the only one). Both reveal the dark underbelly of India. I read a description of India that said “India is like a snake, it’s head is in the 21st century and it’s tail in the 19th”. Both works are about the tail end of life of India. Many in India dismissed Slumdog as “poverty porn”. Shanthala and I went with a friend to watch the movie, on a whim, not knowing what it was about. Our friend walked out a third of the way through the movie. “Bullshit”, he said, “This is what they choose to show about India. All this stuff doesn’t happen anymore”. I found the scenes and what befalls many of the children in the movie so harrowing, I sat down and cried (sissy!).
Recently, NYT published a story about how, even today, the malnutrition of children in India is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. For example, compared to China’s 7% (there is that comparison with China again), 42.5% of children under 5 years are underweight in India. Childhood anemia in India is three times higher than in China. Other far poorer nations have progressed much farther in reaching UN’s Millenium Development Goals. I can understand their anger, though I don’t agree. I find in their anger the anger of an insecure individual, trying to show that he’s made it too, that any pointing out of his flaws by the other success stories is only an attempt by them to downplay his success and a sign of their insecurity.
A part of their anger probably comes from feeling that the West has shown this side of the country for so long, that it’s stale. “Don’t you have anything new to say ?”, they say, “Move on. There are other stories to tell in this country now, stories that should make you feel less condescending”.
How strange! The West constructs an idea called “nation state” and we, those who singe at the slightest criticism from the West, swear allegiance to it and feel that our self-worth is tied up with it. “Power”, Dorothy Rowe wrote in Beyond Fear, “is always about who does the defining and who accepts the definitions”. We have accepted a particular definition of success and choose to measure ourselves against it instead of accepting definitions that seem far more life-giving or more aligned with the goals that many of the same people profess.