Wednesday, November 5, 2008

THE WHITE TIGER

We come from different parts of India. The Rajput speaks of her ancestral home. About one hundred and fifty praja still come and pay their respects to her father and brother daily. I ask her if some of them offer massages too. She looks at me quizzically and says reproachfully, “Kya K”. For those who are still wondering, this means no. And no she has not been kept in the dark because she is a woman. She is a hard drinking, straight talking hedge fund manager who suffers to see high school graduates cleaning toilets in her home town because 'who else will take over their mother's job?'



We all agree that the book is an amazingly fast read. That a lot of it rings true. That it offers us zero insights. And maybe tells us to watch our backs. We knew that too.



The Punjaban from Calcutta- She is quiet as the discussion gets underway, then saunters to the powder room and back. Her eyes are red and swollen, her face is rubbed raw. What happened? She shakes her head; we coax her to speak. She is choked up and her voice wobbles. She makes a false start and then speaks more clearly, "It is the lives of these people- the poverty- I cannot handle it.." "But you grew up in India," someone interjects. "Yes and it bothered me..and then I went off to America and it has become worse for me and when I come back- these people have terrible lives, drinking the water they have shat into.." She is momentarily horrified by what she has said and then gathers strength -from the realisation perhaps that she speaks the truth. "So what have you done about it," she is asked. "When I am asked I give," she says. "My mum objects, she says all of them will line up outside your door, and I say I will give them too. Until I can I will."



The urban cow belter- They had a driver in Mumbai. He was the same age as her husband and his life had followed a similar course to theirs. They expected babies at the same time, the driver had a boy while they had twin girls. No doubt the driver congratulated himself and commiserated with the blameless master who was still being punished. Nobody contradicts her conjecture- of course people think like that. (No doubt this is news to the world). Anyway the driver had a seizure one day, was rushed to the hospital and died. It was a bad time. They were hounded by the driver's family, neighbours, local goondas and a minor politician. They managed to locate the wife and pay her one years' wages. But they emphasised that they did not want to be contacted again. We are phobic about protracted involvement, and rightly so. Take your eyes off the ball and it will be you who is asking for one year's keep from the extended family. But she says she regrets the incident and the nastiness that came with it, "The whole responsibility thing did not allow us to mourn him. He was a good employee and a part of our lives. But the anxiety and the ultimate relief in resolving a bad situation overshadowed all the grief that we might have felt."



The East UPite- As close to "darkness" as you can be she says. For her this happens all the time. She tells us of a servant who stole money and then fed phenyl to the Nepali servant in order to paste the blame on to him. Hmmm the Nepali-cow belter feud in The White Tiger is not made up then.



I contribute my own driver story. Very irrelevant but I am bitten by the talking bug. And I wish to take a few minutes off to mourn him. Rajesh was an unscrupulous, lying, lazy thieving and unpunctual person. He had an affair with my maid- something that brought his wife in a flaming fury to my house but that is a different story. Rajesh was a god behind the steering wheel. . He could negotiate the streets of Mumbai like nobody ever could or will ever be able to. When I see other drivers I think of him and think of that talent that is no more. Rajesh committed suicide two years back. I will always wonder why. They tell me it was in a fit of passion- he was arguing with his wife and then he jumped into the sea from the Gateway of India. There was never a driver like him.



We speak of other crimes committed by servants. We agree that Ashok's character is impossible. And Pinky Madam playing badminton with her driver is laughable. In your dreams Balram. Or she was a whacko- either a slut or a foreigner who did not know any better.



"We know this", we say. "But you have been inured to it", objects the Calcuttan Punjabi. The Rajputani disagrees. The UP-ite concedes that the book 're-sensitises' us.



I have to leave. I call in and make one point. The structure of the story - the letters to Wen Jiabao format. Why did he do that? Was the novel born when Adiga was mulling a China vs. India business article? Is this a device to deflect possible criticism that the book has been written for a predominantly western- white- audience? Or is this a way of underlying the freedom of thought and expression that is enjoyed in India, despite its brutalised society?





That is the discussion. Our take is as follows

Primarily that it is incredibly contemporary in its style. This is one reason it is such a fast read- one can imagibe a drawing room conversation veer this way. Secondly the book does not contain anything new. Most Indians are quite mystified by the Booker buzz about the 'fresh 'angle from which Adiga has written. It came as a surprise to us that the book came as a surprise to some of the (more influential from the awards perspective..) readership. In terms of a greater understanding of the great Indian under class, I would still rate Mistry's A Fine Balance better. The difference is that Adiga avenges that neutered sub-class portrayed so well but so darkly by Mistry. If you think of White Tiger as a parallel version of the tell all art-house movies people carped about- the movies were better researched. And by the sheer power of the medium more hard hitting. Damul, Aakrosh, Ardha Satya, Godhuli, Paar, Sadgati, Thanneer Thanneer, Ankur, Manthan- oh the list is endless- all informed me about an India I did not know. WT does not. But not to take away from the sheer entertainment value of reading a well written, very modern and relevant story in a very very comprehensible idiom.

3 comments:

sonya said...

K , loved your relating the different perspectives
Th book made me angry.Yes, it sold, just like the slum tourism walks sell. And of course the West lapped ip up, as the TRUE stoy behind India shining. To my mind it was an excellent peice of political writing.Adiga , who has been a journalist for Time, clearly knows what sells in the Western markets.
But to call it literature ?
and to award it a Booker ?

small talk said...

K, the different perspectives thingie on your blog post was pretty cool. I personally liked the book. I did not think it was slum tourism. If people think the kind of anger that Balram Halwai carries with him does not exist, they are living in a fool's paradise.
Nothing new? I am not sure I agree with you. I have not read a single book portraying that simmering rage inside Halwai. And you know what? I believe that is an essential part of India today - I am careful that I do not let my shopping bills lie around my house for my maid to see (i am embarrassed and yes, afraid, to let her see that I pay more for a Bodyshop cleanser than I pay her for 45 hours of work a month). Mistry? Again, I don't agree. Mistry depicts a really small part of India's reality (the poor Parsi one) - he describes it really well, but it is a small part. Adiga's reality is far larger.
Did it deserve a Booker? I cannot put it in the same class as some other Booker winners - Rushdie, Roy, etc. But then I don't rate Booker prize winners as all equally good.(I disliked Kiran Desai intensely!) But White Tiger was topical and interesting and someone needed to describe what he did.

K said...

Dear Small Talk- I agree with most of what you say. Except I do not think it portrayed Halwai's rage. It stated its existence- something you are evidently aware of already. If it is new for anyone it is for the Western readership.
I thought A Fine Balance takes you through more rural and slum India than White Tiger.
Sonya, P(?) I just finished If you are afraid of Heights and I really liked it. More structured and clever than Blue Bedspread; definitely more mellow. Review will follow in some time...