India’s “White Tiger”

Many Indians, it appears, find it very difficult to accept that their country is still part of the third world

Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[This article originally appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Kathmandu Post today. See it here as it appeared on the paper.]

In an interview with last week’s Tehelka magazine, leading Indian sociologist Andre Beteille mentioned the hotel that came under terrorist attack earlier this month and said: “The Taj Mahal Hotel is, of course, a symbol, but whose?”

Of the elites of India.

N. Kunju, provided further explanation in a letter to Outlook magazine last week: “All this disproportionately loud noise on the Bombay terror attack is because the affected come chiefly from the elite. The victims were people who could afford Rs. 10,000 for room rent and a few thousand on dinner. If this were a terrorist attack in which more people were killed at a religious place like Varanasi or Ajmer, the whole incident would have been written off in a couple of columns.”

These two comments in two different magazines hint at a serious debate and division in Indian society that Aravind Adiga (pic) has highlighted in his novel The White Tiger. Satisfactory economic growth and relative success in the information technology industry has increased the buying capacity of many city dwellers. A section of mainstream media and politics have termed that improvement as the rise of India. But India isn’t completely shining as some have been claiming in the past several years. The rays of its partial shine haven’t reached the poor around the country. Millions of villagers and many others from cities themselves haven’t been covered by that ‘rise’. Those people still live in ‘darkness’, a word widely used by Adiga in his book.

The White Tiger, which received the prestigious Man Booker Prize a few weeks ago, is the story of a son of the Darkness. The book chronicles the struggle of Balram Halwai, a driver who takes a journey from Darkness to the Light. Born in the heartland of poverty, our neighboring Indian state of Bihar (or Darkness), he finds a job of driving a rich man’s car. He kills the owner and goes to the southern city of Bangalore (or Light), the center of Indian affluence. Halwai who escapes from the torturous environment of feudal landlords to start his own business takes out some time one night to begin a letter to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Those letters, written in the span of seven nights, make up the book. Adiga tells story from the perspective of the main character — the servant/driver — and that makes the book, a volume of pain and misery, very interesting to read.

The White Tiger is a rare animal. After being impressed by the talent of Halwai in a surprise test in the classroom of an improvised school in Darkness, a teacher gives him the name White Tiger. It’s an irony that even though the white tiger, the animal, is rare, people like Halwai who live in indescribable poverty are in the millions in India.

The first intention of any prize is to recognize the talent and appreciate the contribution of the recipient. But prizes like the Booker, in addition to that, also help propel the sales of the book by bringing them into the limelight. I first heard about the book when the news of the announcement of this year’s booker winner emerged. The book became the topic of discussion among us for several days. Based on the reviews and interviews of the author that we read on the web, my friends and I spent several hours in chiya-guff in the canteen. News reports had suggested the writer once worked with Time Magazine so we tried to recall stories with that byline. Someone said that Adiga had interned in the Post in the early 90s. Journalists are particularly interested in the books written by one of them. You never know when you might write a book of your own. Several Nepali journalists have written both fiction and non-fiction in recent years and at least one book has received the highest literary prize of Nepal.

I had to come to New Delhi to do journalism in India soon after the Booker announcement. The book, naturally, became the number one in my list of books that I wanted to buy. How can I live in India, I thought, without reading the story of India written by a journalist? I bought the book within few days of my arrival in a congested book shop in Connaught Place that apparently is the centre of affluence in New Delhi.

It took me some time to finish the first chapter but that is not because the story wasn’t interesting. Other things were in priority as I was trying to adjust myself to the new place. When I started reading aiming to finish the book, the pages started to turn automatically. The best thing about stories by journalists is that you get the feel of reporting in them. I felt I was not reading a novel but a Time Magazine cover story by Adiga.

To look for the reflection of reality in a work of fiction is a paradox. But a reader can’t resist comparing real life with what is in the work of fiction. On the other hand, writers of fiction also do research of all sorts to bring their fiction as near to reality as they possibly can. I felt that Adiga has wonderfully portrayed the Indian reality. But not all were impressed. Indian writer Amitava Kumar who was born and raised in Bihar has thrashed the book in reviews in Boston Review and The Hindu saying that the story is unauthentic, some descriptions in the book are far from reality and the representation of ordinary Bihari people is ‘offensive’. Surely not all can agree on the way a book is written or on the issues that are raised in it.

Indians are hungry for progress and they often take more pride than necessary in what they have achieved so far. Whenever someone tells them “Your country is in the third world” they instantly jump into defensive mode. A month ago the Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden indirectly blamed poor ground conditions and excessive delays during the matches “that happen in third world countries” for his team’s 2-0 defeat in the series. Rajiv Shukla, an official with the Indian Cricket Board said: “A player of his stature should not have made the comment. If slow-over rate is your habit, why blame India for that and call India third world?”
It’s a reality that India is a third world country. Just because a sportsman from Australia, a first world country, doesn’t call it so won’t make India part of the first world. But many Indians, it appears, find it very difficult to accept that fact. Aravind Adiga, who was born in Madras and has subsequently lived in India, Australia, the US, the UK (and currently in Mumbai) has accepted, in The White Tiger, this without any difficulties.

(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of the Post.)