Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The White Tiger

I might be one of the few Brits with some terciary education under their belts who have never really felt the lure of India...the reality or the reverie.

So I prepared myself to be largely unscandalised by (if not wholly unengaged with) Aravind Adiga's 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, touted as an exploration of the sub-continent's distended underbelly.

Yet India buffs everywhere had clearly been unsettled. Kevin Rushby, for instance, capped his Guardian review with the following pronouncement:

"My hunch is this is fundamentally an outsider's view and a superficial one. There are so many alternative Indias, uncontacted and unheard. Adiga is an interesting talent. I hope he will immerse himself deeper in that country, then go on to greater things."

Actually, my money would be on Rushby's being the outsider's view. And I think it's important to note from the start that the novel the reviewer so abjectly patronises there, is very much a stylised portrait of the country, and in particular of the social divisions occasioned by its rapid economic development.

Our narrator is Balram Halwai, a self-confessed 'social entrepreneur' and 'original listener' who, over the course of a week, is writing a letter a day to the Chinese premier, due shortly to arrive in India on a state visit. At the end of the first letter Balram admits slitting the throat of his erstwhile employer Mr Ashok.

Balram relates how he became a driver for Ashok, the American-educated son of a more old school local landlord and bully. Eventually he follows his employer and his wife ('Pinky Madam') to the bright lights of the capital, where the fundamental divide between the old and the new India, the light and 'the Darkness', is at its most conspicuous. A predominantly sardonic commentator, Balram's description of this two-tier society is abruptly heartfelt:

"Dim streetlights were glowing down onto the pavement on either side of the traffic; and in that orange-hued half-light, I could see multitudes of small, thin, grimy people squatting, waiting for a bus to take them somewhere, or with nowhere to go and about to unfurl a mattress and sleep right there. These poor bastards had come from the Darkness to Delhi to find some light — but they were still in the darkness. Hundreds of them, there seemed to be, on either side of the traffic, and their life was entirely unaffected by the jam. Were they even aware there was a jam? We were like two separate cities — inside and outside the dark egg. I knew I was in the right city. But my father, if he were alive, would be sitting on the pavement, cooking some rice gruel for dinner, and getting ready to lie down and sleep under a streetlamp, and I couldn't help thinking of that and recognising his features in some beggar out there. So I was in some way out of the car too, even while I was driving it."

Shiny new malls and the western values attached to them may have come to India but, Balram insists, they have made few inroads against the indigenous system of pyschological enslavement.

"Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police. That is because we have the coop...a handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent — as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way — to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse...do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love — or do we love them behind a facade of loathing? We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in."

And the political system of the world's most populous democracy is shown to be corrupt to the core. Voters discuss the elections "like eunuchs discussing the Karma Sutra".

Balram's own corruption comes slowly. He openly rebels against the mores of his village long before he's prepared to transgress against the Rooster Coop. But once he's cut the outside wire, the process inevitably begins to feed on itself:

"The more I stole from him, the more I realised how much he had stolen from me."

Meanwhile Mr Ashok loses first his wife then his ethical compass. "When a master's life is in chaos, so is the servant's," Balram notes sagely. If Balram is a "country mouse" unadapted to the Delhi existence, Mr Ashok is at sea outside the first world metropolis where he was formed. And so driver and master suffer a parallel process of moral decay which brings them ever closer to the moment of intimate violence. In the end Balram justifies the murder on the grounds of pre-emptive revenge for the ugly consequences he knows it will have for his family.

At the time of writing Balram himself has escaped these consequences, establishing himself in the 'world's centre of technology and outsourcing', Bangalore. He jests with Wen Jiabao that it is only a matter of time before their fast-growing nations surpass America economically, whilst outlining some of the stuff that the Chinese could still take time to learn from the Indians:

"The future of the world lies with the yellow man now that our erstwhile master, the white skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse

"...and our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, DOES have entrepreneurs."

I still couldn't say that this modern capitalist dystopia came as a big literary surprise to me. The (over-)privilged of India have always struck me as the least redeemable, its under-privileged the least redeemed. But I wasn't that far into the novel before I stopped fretting about whether it was any more deserving of the Booker than say Vikas Swarup's Q&A. (aka Slumdog...). Having established the beguiling and sympathetic voice of his homicidal driver, Adiga uses the last two or three letters to really lay down the serious literary credentials of his story.

Whilst I accept the reality of 'the Darkness' in a fast-globalising world, I wouldn't say it's the thing which most interests me about the particular developing country I find myself in.You could I suppose speak of the barranco separating traditional and metropolitan Guatemala, but for me at least the points of intersection are at the heart of my fictional interest in this nation. Instead of treating their servants like sub-human slaves, well-off Guatemalans are far more likely to leave them to lead an almost middle-class life by proxy during their extended absences from their alternative hogares.

Anyway, it remains for me to add that there's a lot of acid humour in The White Tiger...such as the passages suggesting that the drivers' favourite rag has been crafted as a kind of social prophylactic:

"Of course, a billion servants are secretly fantasising about strangling their bosses — and that's why the government of India publishes this magazine and sells it on the streets for just four and a half rupees so that even the poor can buy it. You see, the murderer in the magazine is so mentally disturbed and sexually deranged that no one reader would want to be like him and in the end he always gets caught by some honest, hardworking police officer (ha!), or goes mad and hangs himself by a bedsheet after writing a sentimental letter to his wife or primary school teacher, or is chased, beaten, buggered, and garroted by the brother of the woman he has done in. So if your driver is busy flicking through the pages of 'Murder Weekly', relax. No danger to you. Quite the contrary."

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