09 November 2008
The White Tiger—Aravind Adiga
This year's Man Booker Prize-winner is Indian-born debutant novelist Aravind Adiga. The simplest summary of The White Tiger will tell you that it's the story of entrepreneur (and murderer!) Balram Halwai; a tale that reveals the conflicts underlying contemporary Indian society as it strives towards 21st Century technological and economic superiority. But of course that's the nutshell version.
Adiga has produced a panorama of modern India in the foreground of which narrator and protagonist Halwai "rises" from a lower caste to become a successful businessman. I qualify the term "rises" because it is a conflicted and controversial notion in a multifaceted nation still mostly understood in the West according to aged stereotypes. This isn't the crunchy India of spiritual enlightenment and millenia-old cultural tradition. Those attributes are present, of course, but any discussion of India today is incomplete without recognition of South Asian political realities and the tension between social classes; the entrenched and rigid markers of status that have been slowly breaking down over the past half-century. Adiga brilliantly displays the conflict—particularly salient among the lower classes—between adhering to family and tradition (the social world found here in "The Darkness") and attempting to create a life as a successful individual in a technologically advanced democratic society.
The India that the narrator inhabits is disgustingly corrupt, bigoted and backward-looking; characteristics highlighted ever more by the growing influence of American-style malls, pristine Bollywood shlock and the remnants of English colonialism. For Indians like Balram Halwai who attempt to supercede their anonymous (his parents actually don't bother to name him, simply calling him "boy") upbringings in "middle" India, there is almost no trickle-down of wealth from the upper strata of society. Halwai really only achieves success because he is an adept observer and learns how to undermine his bosses and understand the proper etiquette of corruption.
What makes the tale of the White Tiger ever more salient to a Western reader is not so much how Adiga portrays the many facets of Indian society for the uninitiated, but how he is able, as a child of both East and West (he spent some youthful years in Australia and attended university in England and the US), to critique modern democratic technological society as a whole. Adiga has not focused his criticism solely upon his native, growing India; the more abstract targets are supposedly "democratic" societies that tout their cultural breadth, scientific prowess and economic advancement as proof of their superiority. The past eight years of the American experience have demonstrated the fallacy of such beliefs. Adiga has situated his novel in a "new" India, but the themes he presents are as salient in modern America (and probably the UK, France, etc. as well) with our extensive poverty, crumbling infrastructure and corrupt—however hidden—politics.
After the electoral events of this past week, this novel only becomes more curiously topical. While detailed explanation of what I mean would be far too long for me to present here, the short of it revolves around the idea that the future is "browner", "darker" than most would have believed before November 4, 2008. Obama's Presidency-elect is a marker of future directions that Mr. Halwai hints at in his letters to the Chinese Premier that frame the novel's narrative. The era of White/Christian/Western (read as conservative, traditional Aryan Hindu in the novel) hegemony is coming to a close, though its effects will continue to be felt for some time and the actual changes that will occur in the world are impossible to predict. Halwai's "liberation" in the novel is one manner of portraying how these changes may occur, but as the author has stated, it is still fiction. Social upheavals have their newsworthy markers, though the tangible effects are more often arise through slow, painful, ambiguously moralized rendings. I'm not positive if this is what Mr. Adiga intended with this brilliant work, but it's the sea in which Balram Halwai's eventual prosperity left me floating.
addendum: In light of what I wrote above, this article in today's NYTimes Week In Review presents an interesting snapshot of Mumbai. While The White Tiger takes place in Delhi, Bangalore and several small villages, the details here give a good bit of context for Adiga's story.