Thursday, October 16, 2008

Last thoughts on The White Tiger, and an old Q&A

With Aravind Adiga just having won the Booker, I thought I’d pull out a short email interview I did with him around the time his book launched. Scroll down to read it.

As I indicated in this post, I enjoyed the book. Won’t get into the debate about whether or not it deserved one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, partly because such debates inevitably lead to some very tunnel-visioned and elitist definitions of Good Literature/High Literature, and that sort of thing bores me. Also, I can’t bring myself to take competitive prizes seriously as arbiters of anything. Given that the judging procedures are necessarily based on a combination of many whimsical factors (including, of course, politics, perceived topicality and the vastly differing tastes and perspectives of different jury members), you really can’t analyse them beyond a point.

Looking at The White Tiger on its own terms, independently of the Booker baggage, the novel’s achievement in my view was that it used accessible, fast-paced fiction to reflect on the many Indias and the many types of aspirations and frustrations they represent. I also thought it was more ironical and self-aware than it’s been given credit for. Anyway, here’s the Q&A with Adiga:

Did you consciously set out to write about an aspect of India that has been glossed over in the press (with the India Rising narratives, etc)? How did you fix on a character like Balram as your narrator?

Lots of people ask me this, and some assume this is so obvious they don't even ask me, but the answer is no. There was no conscious attempt to write a counter-narrative to India Shining. I can't imagine any good novel would come of such a polemical enterprise.

I returned to India in 2003 after many years abroad, and rediscovered India – or rather discovered India, since I had grown up in the south, in a prosperous part of a prosperous state (the coastal belt of Karnataka), and was now seeing Delhi and the Gangetic north for the first time. The fact about India that struck me most forcefully was this – that despite there being such an appalling (and growing) gulf between the rich and the poor, and the fact that the poor came into regular, close, and sometimes intimate contact with the rich, there was so little crime in India. Think of South Africa, or south America, or even the poorer parts of an American city – there is such a link between economic deprivation and social unrest. But why not in India?

Middle-class Indians think there is a lot of crime, but I would argue that this is not really true. If a housemaid steals a thousand rupees, it makes the papers. Visitors from South Africa are always amazed by the low levels of crime here. What keeps millions of poor Indians working in servile positions, and routinely exposed to temptation, so honest? How stable is such a system? Are there signs that it is creaking? And what would be the nature of a man, a servant, who would defy the system? These are the questions with which The White Tiger began and which are, I feel, at its heart. The exploration of these issues leads into the question of where the servants in Delhi come from – from the villages, from Bihar and UP – and how they live, how they are raised, and how they think.

Why the unusual framework of having Balram address letters to the Chinese Premier?

First, there is a real, historical hook to the narrative structure. Wen Jiabao did visit India in 2005 and I was listening to radio late at night when the news came on that he was going to visit Bangalore. It was said that he wanted to see and understand Bangalore's entrepreneurs.

Secondly, Indians, more than other people I know, understand themselves in comparison to other nations. The "other" used to be the west until recently. Now it is China, which is depicted as a kind of more efficient, evil, and successful version of India. It’s natural that Balram, who is very influenced by things around him – he calls himself a "sponge" – would have come to form certain ideas about China as well. He has a somewhat exaggerated conception of his importance – he loves listening to the radio talk about Castro or the American president – and it flatters his sense of importance to talk to the big man of China.

I should point out that these are not letters that he is writing – he is talking out aloud, as he lies down in his room and stares at the chandelier. He is just talking aloud.

There's a perception that narratives about the "other India" aren't fashionable these days. Do you think that perception is inaccurate?

I can't really comment on this – I live in a corner of Mumbai, and have no sense of the publishing world in general.

It’s a dark book, especially in the compromises Balram has to make in order to cross over to the "privileged" side. Is this a commentary on the direction in which the country is moving?

Actually, some reviewers feel that Balram's drive and energy suggest great things for India's future. New York magazine said something like, if Balram is India's future, then India is going to kick America's ass.

Look it's like this: in England, The White Tiger is seen by many as a pessimistic book on India's future, and in the United States it's seen as a very optimistic book on India's future. It depends on whether you believe that individuals succeed because of the existing political structures of the country or in spite of them – and the American view is probably the latter. I'm asking merely that people here be open to the idea that many abroad see this book as a hugely optimistic book on the future of the country.

P.S. NDTV asked me for quotes about the Booker win yesterday – specifically about the significance of a first-time writer’s novel “beating” the veteran Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Here’s my rambling, circular email response:
Personally I don't take competitive prizes like the Booker seriously – analysing their decisions is basically a fun exercise, nothing more. About the two books: I enjoyed them both a lot, on different levels, but I would find it hard to compare or “rank” them. The Ghosh is very much the work of an experienced, scholarly writer who combines fiction with indepth historical research, whereas the Adiga is a much lighter, faster-paced read with some of the inevitable awkwardness you’d expect from a first-time writer but also with insights into the class divide in modern India.

Topicality/fashionability probably has something to do with the Booker committee’s decision: India is very much in the news these days for all sorts of reasons, and The White Tiger provides a worm's-eye perspective of Indian society that runs counter to the "India Shining" narrative. A modern-India novel of this sort would probably be seen as more “relevant” than a historical (Sea of Poppies) set in the 19th century.

The other thing is that The White Tiger (which has a driver murdering his rich employer) acquired a higher profile when, shortly after its publication, the real-life Arushi Talwar murder case became a major talking point around the country. A couple of foreign publications did feature stories about discontentment among the Indian lower-class and mentioned The White Tiger in this context. That would certainly have aided the topicality perception and made the book seem prescient in some way.


  1. It's an ardous task to compare books, however 'sea of poppies' was a better book if you go by the linguistic treat it offered. Ghosh is an absorbing writer , erudite and witty at the same time. I have read the 'white tiger' and believe it was good work especially when coming from a first time writer.

    Still the booker is driven by a lot of personal choices rather than what is casually mentioned as literary merit. I do agree that some of the choices in the past are baffling and that includes Kiran Desai. I am not a voracious reader but do try to pick a good book once in a while and I am sure that 'The inheritance of loss' can in no way be the best work of fiction in the whole commonwealth for the year 2005. It is not a disparaging remark , I am just trying to emphasise this putting on a pedestal kind of browbeating.

    Although I must admit I was delighted when 'Midnight's Children' was awarded the booker of booker's or some such award as the best book in the past 25 years of the award. It remains one of my personal favourites, and the point is the jury too can have some personal favourites which results in one writer's work getting precedence over some other's equally good one.

  2. ...I am sure that 'The inheritance of loss' can in no way be the best work of fiction in the whole commonwealth for the year 2005

    Shwet: but that's part of the point. It's rather silly to suggest that any book can, in some overreaching, "objective" sense, be "the best work of fiction in the whole commonwealth for the year". In my view, if you replace "The Inheritance of Loss" in your above comment with the title of any other book (even one that was universally admired by critics and loved by readers - which would be an almost impossible ask anyway!), the comment would be just as valid. I don't see why any award should be given so much importance that you expect it to be the final word in literary taste or judgement.

  3. Yeah! that's quite right. An award given for literary achievement like awarding the Nobel prize for literature is more sensible , when a writer's contribution on the whole is measured.Instead of some sweeping award like the 'best work of this year' types. However this is also subject to a lot of dispute.

    On a more hilarious note the booker has created some unwanted celebrities in India like Ms Arundhati Roy who seems it prudent to support every godforesaken agitation under the sun. The God of every small agitation in India.

  4. Nice post. Agree with you that it is neither possible nor desirable to make the judging procedure objective.

    However, one thing I've noticed is that most literary discussions on books focus mainly on content and dwell little on prose style. It is hard to conceive a prose stylist in the mould of a Wodehouse winning a Booker as judges are unlikely to honour frivolous subject matter.

    The world of Cinema is a lot different in this regard where great storytellers like Hitchcock and Ford are ranked right alongside the Bergmans and the Fellinis whose work is ostensibly more profound.

  5. 1.Someone criticizing the choice without even reading.What gives?
    2.Where are the "roars of anger"? I haven't seen any anger reported in the online Indian media.

  6. shrikanth: generally speaking, I think the way it works in both cinema and literature is that the casual reader/viewer tends to be more interested in (or more aware of) content rather than form: you'll frequently find that readers or viewers operating at that level of engagement will judge a work entirely on the basis of how interesting (or "different") the story is. (Such a viewer will, for instance, find a flatly shot but engrossing TV film just as "good" as a more cinematic, more adeptly made feature.)

    Whereas a more engaged or involved viewer will be at least equally interested in matters of form and style. And I imagine that most people who work in the medium or have a strong professional interest in it will give form priority over content. (Like Ebert says, it's not the "what", it's the "how".)

    I have a few more thoughts about your comment but have to rush now - more later.

  7. It is hard to appreciate the fact that 'simple can be profound'.

    I am happy that the Booker Judges have had the courage & vision to encourage something different.........different from 'high brow' & 'often pretentious literature'.

    Aravind Adiga has broken a norm with his first book & it was brilliant.

  8. Hey,

    Apologies for going off topic here for a second....

    I've been a frequent visitor and reader here. I've recently started blogging (, and one of my posts required linking to one of your older posts - the one on Yuganta by Irawati Karve. While I have linked back to your blogpost, just thought I would let you know here as well - am not sure about the appropriate protocol in these situations. Thanks,

  9. Jai: Got your point. Yet, I feel literature and cinema are quite different in this regard.
    Critics in cinema are willing to regard a book as great purely on the basis of its form with little regard to content. Which is why a movie like 'My Man Godfrey' is included in Ebert's Great Movies collection while 'Judgment at Nuremberg' is not.

    However, literary critics are less inclined to do so. Take for instance the citations of the literature Nobel. They focus entirely on the "what" and ignore the "how". Which makes me wonder if Shakespeare would've got a Nobel had he lived in this century.

  10. shrikanth: Some points:

    - As I recall, My Man Godfrey was very much a narrative-driven (rather than style-driven) film, so there really isn't a form-vs-content issue when comparing it with Judgement at Nuremberg. What I think you're talking about here is the tendency of many critics to condescend towards comedy as a genre, or to not think very highly of films that are light in tone (compared to heavy-duty dramas). That's a separate issue altogether, though of course a valid one. (In this context, I agree that Wodehouse would never win a Booker, just as great comic performances rarely win the Oscar.)

    Even so, you only mention Ebert in your comment. He's one of the most open-minded among major critics and you can't hold him up as a representative for the tribe. There are still, and have always been, critics who will dismiss a film because it doesn't say something "meaningful" (and say it in the most overt way).

    - I didn't quite understand your placing of "Hitchcock and Ford" vs "Bergman and Fellini" in the earlier comment. I assume you're setting up a "form" vs "content" (or "how" vs "what") dichotomy and placing Hitch/Ford in the former category and Bergman/Fellini in the latter? But Fellini (at least from the late 1950s onward) was one of the most flamboyant directors in film history. And Bergman certainly had a great style of his own, though this is sometimes overlooked because of the the obviously "profound" subject matter of his films.

    Likewise, Ford's style was practically invisible (and in fact some of his critics have contended that his high reputation derives from his textbook-like chronicling of American history). And though many people who are only casually acquainted with Hitchcock's work think he was all about the stylish setpieces and thrilling climactic sequences, he was really one of the most subtle movie artists ever.

    I do get a sense of what you're trying to say, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole great directors like the four you've mentioned. Form and content overlap and interact in very complex ways over their body of work.

  11. Thnx for the reply.
    Guess the form vs content dichotomy I set up is rather simplistic. Basically, I was drawing up the distinction between overtly serious, "meaningful" works of art on one hand and light, ostensibly frivolous books/movies on the other.

    And yes, the analogy using directors was very crude :)

  12. Shrikanth: not crude, but it probably makes more sense to compare a specific film with another rather than directors who have had long careers and done many different sorts of things over those careers.

    Incidentally, the dichotomy you set up reminded me of something very similar that I had done years ago on an online forum (don't remember details clearly but I think it also involved Hitchcock-vs-Bergman and a couple of other names) - on that occasion, I was the recipient of a long comment informing me that I was being reductive in my definition of what comprises "style". Guess I've learnt a bit!

  13. I don't understand the term high brow often pretentious literature , mentioned in one of the comments. It is not necessary that excellent prose writers are more often than not pretentious. If this would have been the case then Magic realism would never have come into place.

    Salman Rushdie's midnight's children could seem pretentious to some , however the book was deeply profound in its theme. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was in no way pretentious.

    The 'Myth of Sisyphus' remains in my view the pinnacle of absurdist philosophy yet it could seem difficult to some so called simple literature lovers. V.S. Naipaul for all his eccentricities is an excellent writer of prose. Linguistic flourish needs to be appreciated and one can't downgrade it by lauding simple yet good literature.

    'The White Tiger' is a good book and is thematically relevant , that is in my view its prime reason for winning.

  14. Just finished reading The White Tiger. Cannot understand the choice of the panel for the Booker, but would hold my comments as I have only read The Sea of Poppies from the six shortlisted works. However, Amitav Ghosh's novel is on a different level altogether. Comparing two books is never easy but the scholarship and command of Ghosh is never in doubt. Adiga writes like a film-script writer narrating a story to a possible producer. What the book lacks is an element of feeling for the characters, and none of them really comes alive. It feels like a manufactured product, packaged and presented in glossy paper for the mindless consumers of the present age and times. Adiga is lucky that he got the nod from the jury, and can now look forward to a life of ease and comfort under the lights of his chandeliers.

  15. I am not surprised by your gesture of staying away from the discussion, sorry, debate, as you mentioned, of whether the book deserved the award. I see it as nothing more than a small ploy on your behalf to publish your article and justify your hackneyed stance that you had in fact interviewed the man when the book was launched. hahaha I am surprised "intelligent" people like you exist in contemporary India, Mr. Jabberwock.
    This safe kind of writing style, read diplomatic, is omnipresent today. Your dialectics are as old as Ashoka Pillar; there is nothing new or post-structuralist about it considering you are considered (or are made out to be) one of the flag bearers of today's media analysis.

  16. Welcome back, Kirit! I've missed your comments - to paraphrase one of your own favourite lines, "I smile at them, for reasons more than one!" :)

  17. :) You did not paraphrase Jai.
    Although, it is nice to be involved in a good fight. Mind discussing the book sometime?

  18. I wonder what you'd make of this - - review of The White Tiger?

    Nice work on the blog by the way - your movie reviews have been a great help!

  19. truly a masterpiece by aravind adiga. i am looking forward to him. a bright talent to watch, this book is not for so called love story or fantasy loving people. this is a serious book on the struggle of a village boy. a picture of true india. a different writing style, new approach and great narration making it the best novel of past decade. no wonder it's a booker. thank god i read it.