All hail the newest member of the Indian Literati, or rather, the newest member of the Indian Diaspora-literati. Yes, Mr. Aravind Adiga has joined the ranks of the select Indians who have managed to claim the highly coveted Booker prize. His novel The White Tiger was the surprise winner of 2008 – despite the stiff competition it faced from other contenders such as Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant. Author Aravind Adiga also holds the distinction of being the second youngest individual in Indian history to have won the prize. However, unlike the nation-wide euphoria that followed the success of the previous Indian winners, this time around, the mood has been rather solemn.
The novel is a no-holds-barred, honest account of the staggering economic inequality prevalent in India. And such an accurate portrayal of reality makes us Indians rather uncomfortable. The novel chronicles the tale of a poor servant, Balram, who gives in to the idea of murdering his master to escape the trappings of his lowly class and to pave his way to towards material wealth and success. With the opening up of Indian markets in the previous decade and the gradual growth of the wealthy middle class, the chasm that divides the rich from the poor has grown considerably. In a country like India, there is a high degree of proximity between the two classes given the Indian institution of keeping servants (this proximity is absent in the West). Constant exposure to the excesses of the wealthy would undoubtedly cause a great degree is dissatisfaction among the ‘have-nots’. Due to the limited options available to those in the lower income group, the desire for success would have to be appetized in certain unsavory ways, for example, crime. Upon studying the character of the novel in the current Indian economic context, the frustration that the lower classes face on a day to day basis becomes evident.
A classic example of this is Balram’s attitude towards the mall (malls are considered to be the epitome of the capitalist ‘shining’ India). The rich can access the mall as and when they please. Servants like Balram can access it on a purely physical level, but their intellectual notions of their own ‘inferiority’ prevent them from taking that bold step. Adiga provides a seemingly poignant account of Balram’s first foray into the arcade (while dressed like his master rather than the family servant).
Another point to note is Adiga’s treatment of the wealthy class. Balram’s master’s wife is nonplussed when her car runs over a little girl. The characters of Stork and Mongoose take cruelty to a new level. It is hard to comprehend such dark characters devoid of any shades of grey, but I am certain that the characters can find equally cruel counterparts in reality. After all, stories of torture being meted out to servants are splashed across newspapers day after day.
The foreign reader has claimed that the novel is explosive and a revelation of sorts. No doubt, they are gratified at having being exposed to the dark side of the ‘future superpower’. Indians, on the other hand, have been rendered embarrassed and uncomfortable by the book. This is due to the fact that the book openly discussed every aspect of ‘India – Shining’ that we were ashamed of. We are embarrassed at having our dirty secrets spilled. Gasp! What will the goras think of us now?
Certain critics have made the claim that Adiga was in no position to comment on the Indian social reality. Especially considering the fact that he has grown up in Australia and he now resides and works in Europe. Someone who is disconnected from a country has no business to comment on it. For shame! Our own insecurities have clouded our minds to such a degree that we are hesitant about celebrating the success of a fellow Indian.
But thinking about it objectively, aren’t we acting a little (dare I say it) silly? The fact that India suffers from the said economic problems is evident to all tourists and citizens. Instead of questioning the how and the why and the ‘how dare he’, it would be a lot more beneficial to accept the fact that our country (like each and every nation in the world) isn’t without its weaknesses. Rather than denying their existence and bad-mouthing those with the courage to speak up about them, it would be better if we allowed such novels to sensitize our minds and spur us into making changes. A wise man is never embarrassed by his flaws; he has the good sense to accept them and work to eradicate them. Though Adiga’s novel is a fictional account, I do believe that it carries a very strong message. It exposes us to our own ugly underbelly that we have been trying to ignore for over a decade, it creates awareness about the plight of the poor.
It is time we opened our eyes, gave Adiga a break, and sensitized ourselves to what he says in his novel.
[Image Source: http://graphics.boston.com/resize/bonzai-fba/AP_Photo/2008/10/14/1224034388_2736/539w.jpg]