It is after more than a decade that the prestigious Booker has come to an India-born author for a debut novel. (The Inheritance of Loss for which Kiran Desai won the Man Booker in 2005 was her second, not her debut novel). Last time, it was Arundhati Roy (1997), and this time round, it’s Aravind Adiga.
Apart from the fortuitous first letter of alphabet they both share, there is very little one is likely to find worthy of comparison between these two Booker sensations.
Arundhati Roy’s was undoubtedly a ‘rites-of-passage’ novel, whereas Adiga’s work is not even remotely connected with his personal life and/or milieu. Arundhati turned to journalism only after her resounding success as a novelist, whereas Adiga has ventured into novel-writing after many years as a working journalist with Time. Somewhere, all of this is reflected in the way he has gone about crafting his novel, The White Tiger, with a razor-thin prescience and almost clinical objectivity.
Arundhati found inspiration in her Syrian Christian background and the childhood days spent in the backwaters of Kerala, whereas Adiga descends into the dark alleys of Patna and Delhi, to create a story of India, at once, disturbing and fascinating. No wonder, Michael Portillo, the head of the Booker jury, went so far as to say that Adiga’s novel had literally ‘pulled his socks off.’
While many people, including the other aspirants, are busy adjusting their socks and shoes, Adiga is well on his way to become the latest literary icon. Newspapers are vying with each other to fill their columns with articles on and interviews with him; while the reviewers are getting edgier in their bid to canonize him.
Perhaps, he is zealously being hounded by the banks, too, both Indian and American (ever since they heard him say that he was looking for one) to lure him into opening an account with his prize money of 50,000 pounds.
Of course, the gaze of his publishers, like that of the eternal ‘sensex- watchers,’ is constantly riveted on to the soaring sales figures, both in India and abroad. After all, these are some of the ‘professional hazards’ of becoming famous overnight and Adiga, too, must be getting used to his share under the sun.
In the midst of all this whirling confusion, it’s important to look beyond the glare of publicity and ask some serious questions. We must ask ourselves, for instance, what kind of future does this Booker augur, not only for the author (a purely speculative enterprise!) but for Indian fiction in general, and/or Indian English fiction in particular?
We must also ask ourselves: Is Adiga charting a new territory or breaking fresh ground in this novel, something that has never been explored before? Or is he simply returning to the well-trodden, over-beaten path that so many of his predecessors, both in Indian English and regional languages, have traversed already?
Beyond that, one may also go into the question of what kind of impact overvaluation of Man Booker (media suddenly goes into an overdrive each time this award is announced, hailing it as a ‘global event’) is likely to have upon the growth potential of Indian fiction, both in English and regional languages?
It is being argued by a good number of reviewers/media critics of The White Tiger that its main strength is that it puts the question of ‘class’ back on our ‘literary plate.’ While some would have us believe that this is where the novelty or originality of Adiga’s novel lies, others are willing to push the point further by claiming that the question of ‘class’ has surfaced in our literary imagination, perhaps, the first time ever.
Someone is busy comparing the novel to ‘the rooster coop,’ about which Adiga’s protagonist says, “(it’s) the greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history.” Doesn’t this analogy sound somewhat like Rushdie’s “chutnification of history”? And so, doesn’t it then remind us of his notorious comment on ‘poverty of Indian fiction,’ too? A media-watcher has actually said that “The book gives expression to the underclass anger, which the privileged ignore.”
Undoubtedly, such preposterous claims may not actually stand the scrutiny of history. In presence of history and its multiple burdens, such claims begin to fall apart sooner than we expect them to. For as long as one can remember, Indian English fiction has prospered, thanks to the exclusive patronage of the middle-classes, and enjoyed an equally exclusive affiliation with the bourgeois ideology, too. This was partially so, owing to the fact that novel has everywhere been regarded as a genre, closely tied to the apron-strings of the bourgeoisie.
Rarely do we come across such avant-garde novelists as Mulk Raj Anand, who in Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936) and The Village (1939) portray the downtrodden and rural poor with both compassion and sympathy. Most of these novels are dictated by an egregious impulse to overturn the bourgeois ideology, so that fictional space for the lower classes or the marginalized groups could effectively be mapped out.
In a way, it was the residual effect of the Marxist ideology and its strong hold over Indian literary imagination that had initially propelled it towards the question of ‘class’ and/or ‘ideology’.
As far as Indian fiction in regional languages is concerned, this process started somewhere in early 1930s. That’s when ‘the progressive movement’ got off to a resounding start, slowly seeping through different regions of India, luring scores of writers into its fold. Much before this question could leap into Indian English fiction, Munshi Prem Chand, Phaneshwar Nath Renu. (the pioneer of Anchalik Upanayas in Hindi) and several others had already projected it through their fiction. One is reminded of Prem Chand’s Kafan and several similar stories that deal with the plight or sufferings of the landless peasants in a predominantly feudal Indian society.
This was the phase of ‘critical realism,’ and the portrayals of the peasants, workers and/or the poorer sections of society were largely matters of personal conviction, ideological preference, and cultural necessity (this being the high-mark of ‘nationalism’). In the context of Punjabi fiction, however, the phase of progressive writing started around 1950s, with the novels of Sant Singh Sekhon, Narinder Pal Singh and Amrita Pritam.
It’s another matter that the real concern with the twin questions of ‘class’ and ‘ideology’ didn’t enter the lexicon of Punjabi fiction until Gurdial Singh. It was in his person that Punjabi fiction acquired a true representative, a forceful, genuine advocate of the subaltern and the oppressed. Marhi Da Deeva (The Last Flicker), published way back in 1964, was hailed as a landmark novel precisely because it sought to push the socially and economically challenged common man to the centre-stage of fiction. By doing so, he not only energized Punjabi fiction but also paved the way for re-examining the history of Punjabi society and culture from below.
Those times were different, and so were the impulses behind such fiction. Such a fiction was mainly the outcome of a society in the throes of change and transition, poised delicately between the pulls and counter-pulls of tradition and modernity. The overarching context of socialism, within such stories often flourished, has now long ceased to exist, both as a seductive idea and impinging reality.
It was the growing awareness of human dignity, freedom and personal worth coupled with a political consciousness generated by Nehruvian socialism that ultimately brought Dalit writing to the fore in 1960s. And it was in Dalit writing that ‘class’ and ‘caste’ entered into an entirely new sociological equation, perhaps, the first time ever. Though Dalit writing is known to have flourished in other Indian languages, too, yet it was Marathi language and culture that became its nodal epicentre.
Unlike other novelists, such as Anand or Munshi Prem Chand, who chose to focus on the problems of the marginalized, despite being middle-class themselves, it’s the inwardness and exclusiveness of Dalit writing that makes it truly pungent, even distinctively authentic.
Such writing was an attempt to reclaim Dalits’ true voice and idiom, a form of articulation that enabled them to represent themselves, rather than being represented by the ‘other,’ as had happened earlier. No wonder, it was in this form of writing that the ‘subaltern’ truly began to rip apart the facetious, bourgeois logic of Gayatri Spivak’s rhetorical question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
In this respect, one may think of the significant contributions of Baburao Bagul, Daya Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal in Marathi, Om Parkash Balmiki in Hindi and Prem Gorki in Punjabi. All of these are vibrant, strong and assertive voices, which have not only challenged the limits of societal and political conventions, but also the literary and cultural norms.
Moreover, they have created new literary landscapes, even aesthetics that lie beyond the ken of our middle-class sensibility, much in the manner Balzac, Maupassant and Charles Baudelaire had done in the middle of 19th century. That’s how Dalit writers have managed to re-inscribe the rules of what it means to be human in an unequal, unjust, exploitative and repressive world.
Significantly, most of these voices have emerged in the regional languages, not in English. One may ponder over this question, however, why Indian English fiction chooses to construct its sociology differently from the other Indian languages?
Why has it not always dealt with the issues and problems that perennially engage writers in the regional languages? Could it have something to do with its inherent dominant ideology per se; or its peripheral engagement with Indian social reality, or its nagging anxiety to target an audience out there in the West?
It is against this backdrop that Adiga’s novel must necessarily be seen or read. For he certainly constructs the sociology of his novel very differently from the way it is being done by most of his contemporaries, especially in the Indian languages. But the question is, could there be a hidden agenda or a definite politics behind it?
Of course, it is for the readers to ponder some of these questions, as they pore over the pages of The White Tiger. But while doing so, they must remember that we, in Indian English fiction, are yet to witness the kind of literary movement supporting the ‘working class ideology’ that England saw in the Post-War period.
Even at the risk of sounding presumptuous, let me say that with all its hype and hoopla, I don’t expect Adiga’s novel to trigger off one such movement at this stage, now. If we do understand the history of Indian English fiction, we’d know that it hardly ever had a perceptible, identifiable movement, only passing trends that come and go.
We have writers, who either plough their lonely furrows or just keep up with the Joneses, doing what is trendy or t(r)opical. Perhaps, we aren’t really as fortunate as some other cultures that have had the benefit of such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukas, Raymond Williams or Frederic Jameson. Critics of such stature alone could have lent credibility to our literary causes, turning them into self-sustaining, literary movements.
In 1960s, if Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and several others were around to theorize on the working-class culture; John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Alan Bennett, too, were there to inscribe this culture in their works. In our context, apart from Dalit writing, which definitely did evolve into a full-scale literary movement, with its own historical and political logistics, our literary concerns with the ‘working class ideology’ have remained, at best, only perfunctory, and, at worst, fitfully sporadic. .
Now, this is where Adiga’s story gains its literary and historical edge. He has chosen to focus his attention upon the Marxist notions of ‘class’ and ‘ideology’ in an era of hard-core globalization. This is where the ‘politics of globalization’ or that of the insidious market forces essentially takes over. To some of us, the magical sales-figures may appear far more seductive than the actual content of the novel. Besides, let us not delude ourselves into thinking that Adiga’s novel sets out to critique the invasive forces of globalization. Quite simply, he is legitimizing their pervasive sweep, power and influence.
Does it not speak for the vicious-hold of these forces over a common man’s imagination that even a small-time driver Makhan Lal, born and brought up in Bihar (the underbelly of India), develops a strong yearning to participate, even capture this mirage of success and glory they prop up?
That he happens to nurture this dream in the times of ‘global meltdown’ is only one of the several ironies this novel is tempered with. Variations apart, Makhan Lal’s story throws us back to the dark days of the ‘Great Depression,’ reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby.
However, the final answer to all the queries is provided by the symbolism of the title itself. It nudges us into believing that regardless of how we choose to look at Indian reality, as an area of darkness (with its definite resonance of Naipaul’s anti-India bias) or as a continent of light (not ‘Circe’ as Nirad Babu saw it), everyone, including Makhan Lal, simply wants to ride this ‘white tiger’ called ‘globalization.’
And the only rules for riding this tiger are that there aren’t any rules. This tiger is ‘white’ (with all its racial and hegemonic undertones) precisely because it won’t allow us any longer to retain our distinct cultural identity, stripes and all.
In context of the recent ‘global meltdown’ (which coincided with the publication of the novel, but certainly pre-dates its conception) this ‘whiteness’ acquires a totally new signification. This ‘tiger’ has been as ruthlessly bleached as the American economy, thanks to its unreliable financial institutions and wayward ‘sub-prime borrowers.’
Our altered economic realities lend to Adiga’s novel a sense of urgency, even poignant topicality and immediacy. The extent to which Makhan Lal shows a typical picaro’s lack of concern for ethical norms in his search for personal success, this novel almost ends up valorizing the dubious ethics of capitalism that sustains itself on the predatory principle of ‘foul is fair and fair is foul’
And why ever not, when it offers such an alluring, albeit deceptive, promise of upward social, economic mobility?
For all the disclaimers of Adiga, this novel fails to become “a potent instrument of social dissent and protest,” and remains out-and-out status-quoist. One really wonders what is it that Adiga is actually protesting against when his complicity with the ‘politics of globalization’ is near total.
For Adiga, globalization is not so much of an exclusionary choice as the only choice available to most of us, even those residing on the periphery or in the backwaters of India.
Only if one were to read this novel along with the recently released Global Human Index (which paints a hopelessly grim picture of rural India, where 47% of all Indian children suffer from severe malnutrition, and three fourths of our population still survives on an income of Rs.25 a day, if you please!) would the complete picture of contemporary India emerge before our eyes!
And needless to say, such a realization makes this novel, truly an over-hyped, ‘celebration’ as well as ‘lamentation’ of our times. Of course, the paradoxes never cease to surprise us.
Whoever said that India is a land of gloomy, not groovy, paradoxes, perhaps knew it better than most of us!
(Note: Edited version of this commissioned article was published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES , October 26, 2008)
The writer is Professor of English at Panjab University, Chandigarh and can be contacted at email@example.com