Sunday, December 21, 2008

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

We've all known for a few years now that the Man Booker prize is no longer what it used to be - in fact, it's a given that the book actually winning the award will be less deserving than the other four shortlisted works of fiction put together. That's certainly been the case with the ones I've read - the last Booker winner I picked up, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, was a predictable and too-long ramble, made readable - memorable, even - only by the sheer beauty of Hollinghurst's prose, and the subtlety with which he evoked the atmosphere of 1980s Britain. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that redeems this year's winner, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

Allegedly 'blazingly savage and brilliant', and a work that exposes 'India's rotting heart' (much to the chagrin of jingoistic Indians, who spent the better part of newsprint condemning Adiga for having pandered to 'Western' conceptions of a backward and corrupt India while not uttering a word about the literary merit - or otherwise - of the book), the book tells the story of Balram Halwai, a man from one of the innumerable poverty-stricken villages dotting India's rural landscape, this one in the heart of UP, who lands a job as chauffer to one of the local landlords' sons, and with him arrives in New Delhi where he learns of the darkness that lies beneath the sophisticated, glamourous cityscape, as well as that which lies within his own heart. Balram's story - and his life - appears to be a allegory for an India that is furiously developing and growing at the expense of the greater number of its citizens, and those Indians who, seduced by the consumerism that this 'development' brings in its wake, give in to the soulless hedonism
that money can buy. In itself a great concept, in the hands of an experienced - and good - writer, this could have been the masterpiece it's masquerading as. In Adiga's, on the other hand, it turns into a shallow, confused, unbelievable ramble along paths that Adiga has certainly never trodden.

There's no denying that the 'seamy underbelly' of India that Adiga wishes to expose does exist. What is in dispute, however, is his knowledge of it. His description of Balram's village, Laxmangarh, for instance - the river, the sewage, the tea shop with its huddle of young men, the main road down which the bus arrives, passengers greeted by emaciated rickshaw-pullers, the Hanuman temple, the pigs, the buffaloes - is that of a generic Indian village, a description culled from books and films focusing on the same sights. How many Laxmangarhs, one would like to know, has Adiga visited, or even lived in? How many Balram Halwais has he interacted with? Adiga's Delhi, too, is the Delhi experienced by an NRI, who flies in for short visits, and hangs out at the places most frequented by those of his ilk - the Gurgaon malls, Connaught Place, and - no, that's it. Just how limited his knowledge of Delhi's geography and even the lifestyles favoured by rich yuppies, among whom Balram's master, Ashok, and
Pinky, Ashok's wife, feature, is revealed when one considers two instances: in The White Tiger, all Ashok and Pinky do on their days out is spend an inordinate amount of time at the mall; and on Pinky's birthday, they decide to go all the way from Gurgaon to a TGIF outlet located in CP. Anyone who's spent even a year in the city knows that CP's dead by 11 PM, and that TGIF, Vasant Vihar, is way more happening than a lot of Delhi pubs. And which politician, pray, lives on Ashok Road, that beautiful avenue given over to headquarters of political parties and a few colonial bungalows that serve as residences of high-profile judges?

Adiga's corrupt politicians are larger-than-life, his evil landlords straight out of a 1970s Bollywood movie. One is only too aware of the fate that befalls the bulk of the country's poor - but Adiga's descriptions are strangely devoid of emotion, or empathy. While devoting large sections to rigged elections in rural areas, he misses out one crucial reality in rural India of present times - the panchayati raj. One could be forgiven for suspecting that Adiga's knowledge of India is gleaned from Bollywood, news footage of elections held about 10 years ago, preferably somewhere in Bihar, a few months spent in Delhi, and a few conversations held with bored chauffers and south Delhi residents. No wonder, then, that the book fails to connect with anything remotely real, including the imagination of discerning readers. I mean - where in India could you begin a brand new life, complete with a new identity and a whole new business enterprise on a mere sum of seven lakh rupees, a sum that Balram ends up selling his soul for? And going by Adiga's own reckoning, wouldn't the rich and the powerful have spent every resource they owned to make sure that he paid for that most heinous crime of all - dared to think for himself, stand up to, and hurt a member of, the upper class?

The disconnect reveals itself in Adiga's style of writing - as a first-person narrative, the book veers widly between two extremes - exaggerated 'Indian English' (
'See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window ...'), and youthful, urban American colloquialisms ('Don't waste your money on those books. They're so yesterday.), strangely out of place on the lips of a supposedly semi-literate man. Until you remember that Adiga has spent a large chunk of his life abroad - clearly, this is an author who cannot quite distance his character's voice from his own. The language is banal, the syntax barely there, and punctuations virtually absent - or is a semi-literate chauffer, though well-versed in yuppie lingo, not supposed to know his commas from his semi-colons? Editorial slips-up rule - why, for instance, does Balram encounter his fellow-chauffer 'Vitiligo Lips' everywhere he goes, even when Ashok demands to be driven to TGIF on a sudden whim late at night? Perhaps Vitiligo Lips' master is stalking Ashok? Perhaps Adiga - and certainly his editor - should have paid a wee bit more attention to the details?

Adiga's complete ignorance of north Indian cultural norms comes through in his treatment of north-eastern women - defined as 'slant-eyed Nepalis', they apear to be the stuff that most north Indian men's fantasies are made of. And why is that so? Because of their eyes, of course - their beautiful eyes that drive men wild. Again, one doesn't need to have lived in Delhi for a decade to know that most 'slant eyed women' - derogatorily called 'Chinks' or Chinkies' - hail from the north-east of India, in Delhi either for higher education, or for jobs; and one knows all too well why these women are viewed with either suspicion or naked lust - no, it's not their eyes, but the commen stereotype of them as 'cheap, loose, fast and easy', all because the matriarchal societies and culture from which a lot of them come ensures that they're comfortable with their bodies and with men, dress in 'Western' clothes, and do not consider themselves inferior to men, least of all those from north India. For Adiga to to lump them all under the category 'Nepali' and romanticise the sexual aggression they encounter on a daily basis is offensive, and his ignorance of cultural codes, especially coming from a writer who claims to know every bit of India, down to its murkiest depths, laughable.

As a first novel, and left to itself, the book would have gone relatively unnoticed, a mediocre effort on the part of a first-time novelist. But awarding it the Booker, and hailing it as one of the greatest things Indian writing in English had to offer in recent years, was ridiculous (on a recent visit to Crossword, one of the young boys at the counter asked us if we'd read the book - 'I read about 150 pages, and it was nothing special! Why would this win such a big award?' he asked in bewilderment. Our feelings exactly.). Adiga's second novel was given a quiter launch - the first chapter, printed in the Sunday Brunch a month and a half ago, read better than The White Tiger. But was it tempting enough for me to pick up yet another Aravind Adiga and spend four more hours of my life reading through it? I don't think so.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mumbai – the aftermath

Three days ago, K and I went to pick up my aunts, who were arriving at Kolkata on an evening flight for a visit, at the airport. Having reached early for a flight that was to eventually land late, we ensconced ourselves on the battered seats outside with cups of that peculiarly plasticky coffee that one usually finds at kiosks at airports and railway stations to warm ourselves up on a (finally!) chilly evening. While sipping at the coffee, talking, and watching people, I became aware of a niggling feeling, which eventually grew strong enough to encroach on the conscious, thinking part of my brain – a feeling that can only be described as jittery. Or nervousness, perhaps. A couple of minutes' reflection led me to the surprising conclusion that I was nervous at being in an exposed, public space, surrounded by innumerable strangers, any of whom could, at any given moment, transform himself/herself into either an exploding device or – that loaded word – a terrorist. The fact that security – or what passed for it – was virtually absent at the airport didn’t help.

I soon made K get up and we made our way inside the terminal, to the arrival lounge – I had this irrational feeling that I would feel ‘safer’ inside. Stupid idea, really, because one is more trapped indoors in the event of an attack than one is in the great big outdoors; and strange, considering that agoraphobia isn’t something I’ve ever encountered. Once inside, though, sanity returned – to an extent – and my feeling of astonishment. I’ve been in Delhi when blasts took place, most notably at Sarojini Nagar, where I was often to be found – and I was never nervous on any of the subsequent occasions that I shopped there. Nor have I ever been jittery or fearful in any well-lit public place with lots of people before – before the Mumbai attacks, I guess. What surprised me was that I should be feeling this way – I mean, I was far removed from the Mumbai attacks, both in terms of geographical distance, and the fact that no one I knew was directly affected by them – so why should I, a reasonably rational, intelligent person living in an entirely different city altogether, suddenly look at perfectly harmless (in a manner of speaking) strangers askance, while nervous thoughts like – ‘Does that young man have weapons in that huge rucksack?’ ‘Why did that man refuse to move one seat away and allow those women to sit together? Is there any reason why he needs that seat?’ – flitted though my head? Is this merely another manifestation of the mass hysteria, mostly orchestrated by certain sections of the media, which continues relentlessly, and to which I have unwittingly been exposed; or is this because in a world where terrorist attacks have become commonplace, security of our own being, taken so blithely for granted, have become yet another casualty? Is fear now to be part of us?

I am against witch hunts, draconian laws made in the name of national security, and the targeting of certain members of society just because they have been born into a particular religion. I can explain my fears, deal with them. But what will happen when very many others, believing in the constantly hammered message that ‘we are not safe’, demand ‘action’ (as very many already have) to quell those fears?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Mumbai - some reflections

Mumbai, and the recent terrorist attack it had to withstand - yet again; as I asked a friend whose safety I was anxiously querying, 'how many times I have asked you this same question in the last two years'? - has taken over my thoughts, and much of my conversation, as it must have with every Indian over the last few days. The attack is over - for now - and now we wait for the repercussions, for the inevitable promises on the part of the government in words that mean as little as the actions accompanying them. I doubt that we'll ever know all that transpired, and why - and just how many unfortunate people lost their lives because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

A couple of thoughts are uppermost in my mind - the first concerns the media coverage. We tuned in to NDTV and, predictably, found the news channel concerned with sensationalising the issue - as if it wasn't sensational enough already. Hysterical anchors screamed into their microphones, telling us there's been an attack, here's where it happened, look you can see it right behind me, oh, there's smoke billowing, oh god, I can hear gunshots, and look, here are the NSG commandos; the execrable Barkha Dutt moaned on about how there was a distraught man looking for his sister, how she had received word that there was some foreign woman inside the Taj with her baby, 'with no idea how to get milk for the baby' (as it turned out, there was a baby, but with his father, and miraculously untouched by it all); in the studio, indignant newscasters asked us when it would end, how much more of this are we supposed to take; but in the melee, what was missing was what we had tuned in for - news. Calm reporting of facts, that could tell us what was going on, what we could expect, when we could expect it. We had to turn to the BBC for that.

The BBC gave me the facts I wanted; correspondents in Islamabad told us what was going on at that end and whether it boded well for future India-Pakistan relations; there was incisive analysis and all the while, viewers were kept abreast of events as they unfolded. They interviewed survivors too, but allowed them to tell their stories without butting in with questions about blood and dead bodies, and while NDTV was busy covering every funeral around and exhorting us to invade the privacy of the grieving families and stare at the dead men's wives and children, here's what the BBC did - followed the of a young Muslim man who had been killed, and who was being taken to his village to be buried. There were no intrusive questions, just the picture of yet another grieving family. The only difference - was not someone from the armed forces (and I couldn't be prouder of Karkare's family for refusing Modi's compensation, or Unnikrishnan's father for standing up to the Kerala CM), or someone with Bollywood connections, but an unknown person, and a Muslim. The message couldn't have been clearer. Terrorists, as everyone keeps saying, have no religion. This tragedy has affected people from all religions, from all rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy.

'The media made things worse,' one of friends told me while we were talking about the tragedy. When will the news channels learn that we need facts, not emotionalism or fear-mongering in times of crisis? People watching the news need to know what's going on, and why, and not be told how to feel - not being emotional cretins, we can feel devastated, stunned, worried, and unhappy on our own without being asked to do so by a bunch of so-called journalists yelling into the cameras. And the last thing that people who actually had friends and relatives in the thick of it needed was to be told that there was 'blood everywhere and bodies strewn all over' time and time again.

Here's something that did make me stop and think, though - a ticker on the NDTV channel ran a stream of what seemed like opinions, presumably sent in by viewers. One of them said, 'So far the blasts that have taken place have affected ordinary people. Now that the rich and powerful have been affected, maybe the government will make some stronger policies.' This is a truth that we know all too well - but at times like this, when we're called upon to come together as a nation, it has a greater impact - that we really are a nation where we cannot expect protection, or justice, unless we come from the upper echelons of society. Looking at the NDTV catchline, 'Enough is enough', I couldn't help thinking - have we had enough because this is one attack too many, or is this blast the last straw because it has invaded the sanctum sanctorum, the lives of the rich, the famous, and the powerful? My heart goes out to the people who have lost loved ones, to lives that were snuffed out becaues of motives that I certainly cannot comprehend, and I cannot begin to imagine the terror of those stuck inside the Taj and the Oberoi for three days - and I felt as deeply for those killed in Assam, in Bangalore, in Delhi. But why has there never been a process of identification such as the one that has been taking place with the Times of India journalist ('this one has hit hardest because she was one of us') with victims of the previous blasts? Perhaps because they, for the most part, came from the lower socio-economic rungs and therefore were most emphatically not 'one of us'. Every Indian life is precious - it's sad, then, that the government gets hauled up and the people responsible unceremoniously removed when it's the lives of certain 'important' Indians that have come into the line of fire.

And I do hope there will no retaliatory action taken against Muslim members of Indian society. The last thing we need is more violence, more innocent lives lost, more families shattered.

Postscript - And here's a quote from half-in-half-out-of-the-closet filmmaker Karan Johar, published in today's newspapers: 'We now feel unsafe in our cars with tinted windows and our buildings with multiple watchmen. We now feel what a section of the city's lower-middle class felt on July 11, 2006, when their security was threatened (in the commuter train blasts)'. Clearly, there are two kinds of Othering going on here - one Other is obviously the terrorists, who invariably subscribe to a distorted vision of Islam, and the other Other, much closer home happens to be the 'middle classes' regular, ordinary, unwashed masses, whose insecurity and vulnerability the upper classes have so far exploited in films, novels and art, but have never in the wildest dreams contemplated identifying with. Which, I can't help thinking, has hit them hardest - having the us/them divide breached, or having to contend with terrorist attacks right in their own seemingly secure, luxury backyards?