Under my byline

No paper tiger

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 16 October 2008

This year’s Man Booker Prize winner

Eventually we will learn, as we always do, what went on behind closed doors between the judges who chose this year’s Man Booker Prize winner. The chair of the committee, Tory politician Michael Portillo, said that this time there was no “blood on the floor”, which means that none of the judges was terribly unhappy with the choice: Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger.

It should be interesting to learn what the judges thought. Portillo said in his statement, “My criteria were, ‘Does this book knock my socks off?’ And it did.” He added that Adiga’s book “shocked and entertained in equal measure.” But there must be more to the choice than mere frisson. Surely it reflects the current climate of global uncertainty, the generalised sense of gloom and paralysis caused by the upturning of expectations from finance to world affairs. Optimism is out, magnified consequences are in.

So Adiga’s book is a story for the times. It has an unusual protagonist for a book by an Indian: a servant. Balram Halwai, born in the typical poverty-stricken north-Indian village of Laxmangarh, is the son of a rickshaw-puller who dies of TB in the local government hospital. Young Balram is pulled out of school to support the family; but he soon decides to escape this eternal captivity, in which all his ancestors have acquiesced. He is taken on as a driver by the son of the tyrannical local landlord, and moves straight from the village to brash Gurgaon.

In Gurgaon Balram sees, for the first time, how the prosperous upper classes live. There he joins the vast underclass of servants, gaining thereby a window onto the moral universe of the well-off, including exploitative masters and corrupt politicians, and is also faced with all sorts of temptations, including his master’s wife. He succumbs, ultimately murdering his master and escaping with Rs 7 lakh — with which he starts a new life in booming Bangalore as the owner of a taxi agency.

It is at this point that Adiga takes up the story. Listening to the radio one day in 2005, Balram learns that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to visit Bangalore, the newsreader says, to understand Bangalore’s entrepreneurs better. Knowing how the rich really work, and how little of reality the premier will be allowed to see, Balram offers himself as a guide. After all, he reasons, he’s a successful and self-made entrepreneur.

The novel proceeds through seven “letters” to the premier, which in fact Balram never sends, but in which he gradually reveals the story of his life and, as he sees it, the truth that he has learnt about India and the way it functions. (It is also a witty book, with a harsh humour that grows out of the protagonist’s experience.) “Apparently, sir,” Balram muses, “you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.” In the face of the dominant narrative of India as an emerging giant, a regional superpower, a technological titan — which is as familiar here as in the West — Balram’s real India is a much more brutal and equivocal place, one which many members of the Indian upper classes fear, and encounter every day in the person of the many servants who make their lives comfortable.

This “dark” India is a place that Adiga discovered as a local correspondent for Time magazine, in trips through rural and small-town north India. Much that he saw never made it into his reportage, and here he has found an outlet for it. In many interviews after his novel was launched, Adiga, who has lived a good portion of his life in wealthier countries and is only 33, says that when he came to Delhi he was amazed at the gaping chasm between the lives of the rich and the poor, and particularly at how complaisant the poor were in their fate — a fact that he says explains the relatively low crime rate in Indian cities, so much lower than in other parts of the world where the rich and poor live in similar proximity. Adiga now lives in Mumbai, perhaps the most civic-minded of Indian cities.

It’s not the first time someone has looked at India and worried about our precarious social compromise, and about the horrors in store for us when and if that compromise finally fails. So the moral of Adiga’s story, if there is one, may be in this line of Balram Halwai’s: “I am tomorrow,” he says. Wonder what the Booker judges thought of that.


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