Monday, June 22, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Another Booker prize winner, but… not quite where it should have been. Now maybe this is because Adiga has (in my mind) big shoes to fill. Big indeed. And he strives mightily at his task. We’ve got the obligatory framework story (open letter to Wu Jintao), an unreliable narrator (criminally negligent, you might even say), a lot of (bitter) thought about the role of colonialist countries in the formation of the crappy plight of the poor in the developing world. There’s also at least a little clever wordplay. Somehow though, the whole just falls a little short. I’m promised an Indian Palahniuk and I get a petty schemer instead.

Adiga tells us of a “truer” India. It’s a place of filth, lies, deceit, prostitution, degradation of every sort, in which a teeming amoral populace strives to put their boots on the head of the person beneath them. His Ganges teems with sewage and the corpses of the dead. The streets of Mumbai and Bangalore are filled with dead children gnawed on by rats. Our narrator – well, he’s an enterprising lad to be sure – don’t trust him for a minute.

It’s not this darkness that bothers me. Indeed no, I understand very well that Adiga is playing his part in the creation of the mural of English writing Indian fiction. First we had the fictionalized, idealized imposition of an external narrative of the subcontinent. This was the Raj Quartet era of fiction about India – emeralds, elephants, the exotic beauty of the tiger and the kama sutra. (Rudyard Kipling wrote in this tradition even earlier, I suppose.) Later, we get Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, (we’ll even be generous and include) Jhumpa Lahiri, and the like. They told us something closer to the truth, maybe. It was still gilded and fantastic, but at least it was an authentic worldview, albeit from those from the upper classes of Mumbai who managed to get western educated. Theirs was a multitude of voices, hyper educated and as attuned to the nuance of language as only a polyglot can be.

And then comes Adiga like a graffiti artist coming along to scratch in grubby coal atop the highbrow oil paintings of old masters. “No, no,” he writes. “Fuck you guys. This isn’t my India that you write about. It’s as big a pack of lies as the narratives of the imperialist swine. Your education and erudition might make you sound smart, but it’s made you forget what it’s really like out here in the darkness. Let me tell you a truer story, about filth and poverty and corruption lies and murder. ‘Cause that’s India. At least it is to me.”

And that’s the story you get from the White Tiger. It’s interesting, especially taken in the context I’ve just described. It’s even an excellent novel, perhaps. But a Booker Prize? Well… For that, I need to be shocked, dazzled, enlightened, or at least two of the three.

However, I’d read Adiga again, if only because his voice is (to me) fresh.

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