The Acid Tongue
The Unexceptional Tiger
Selected By Cyril Wong
Yet another Indian author has won the Booker prize: Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger. But please do not think me racist; my life-partner of eight years (in the gay world, that translates to roughly eighty) is Indian, so I guess it gives me some distant right to generalise: Indian novelists bore me to death. They spend too much time dawdling on the scenery, inserting countless metaphorical connections in an attempt to make prose sound like poetry, and making references to as many established, cultural or mythic narratives as possible. One of the few times I agreed enthusiastically with the mafia-esque critic, Harold Bloom, on anything, was when he said in a Paris Review interview that Salman Rushdie, an undoubtedly famous Indian author, is "boring".
As if in an attempt to counter such perceptions of Indian literature, the Booker prize is given to an Indian novelist for a book that is surprisingly shorn of such indulgent literary trappings. But it does not mean that the novel is great either. Akash Kapur in The New York Times (Oct 15, 2008) starts off his review of the book by first stating what the novel is about and, to a significant degree, succeeds in doing:
Balram Halwai, the narrator of Aravind Adiga's first novel, "The White Tiger," is a modern Indian hero. In a country inebriated by its newfound economic prowess, he is a successful entrepreneur, a self-made man who has risen on the back of India's much-vaunted technology industry…As a parable of the new India, then, Balram's tale has a distinctly macabre twist. He is not (or not only) an entrepreneur but a roguish criminal with a remarkable capacity for self-justification. Likewise, the background against which he operates is not just a resurgent economy and nation but a landscape of corruption, inequality and poverty.
Kapur also praises the book for being "bare, unsentimental", as the author is centrally concerned with stripping away "the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point." But the real criticism begins when Kapur writes:
… Adiga, a former correspondent for Time magazine who lives in Mumbai, is less successful as a novelist. His detailed descriptions of various vile aspects of Indian life are relentless — and ultimately a little monotonous. Every moment, it seems, is bleak, pervaded by "the Darkness." Every scene, every phrase, is a blunt instrument, wielded to remind Adiga's readers of his country's cruelty.
The characters can also seem superficial. Balram's landlord boss and his wife are caricatures of the insensitive upper classes, cruel to and remote from their employees. Although Balram himself is somewhat more interesting, his credulousness and naïveté often ring false. When he goes to buy alcohol for his employer, he finds himself "dazzled by the sight of so much English liquor"… The problem with such scenes isn't simply that they're overdone. In their surfeit of emblematic detail, they reduce the characters to symbols. There is an absence of human complexity in "The White Tiger," not just in its characters but, more problematically, in its depiction of a nation that is in reality caught somewhere between Adiga's vision and the shinier version he so clearly—and fittingly—derides. Lacking this more balanced perspective, the novel feels simplistic: an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.
Definitely not a novel I will be picking up at bookstores anytime soon. If America can have a black president, then can the Booker be given to a brilliant work of literature for once in the future? I am hopeful.
QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009