The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)

The White Tiger grew on me. I started out vociferously disliking it, for all the reasons I had pre-determined I would dislike it. Indeed, I dislike the premise of this book, and its success, more than the book itself. I don’t want this to just turn into another argument about why a Booker-prize winning book shouldn’t have been given that award because they tend to be tedious (though, seriously, if Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy couldn’t win it then The White Tiger shouldn’t have even been longlisted!). So I shall start by stating my (admittedly, largely extra-literary) problems with it, before discussing it’s good points because it is, ultimately, an enjoyable novel. Would I have given it the Booker? Absolutely not. Now that that is out of the way, I will move on.

When I did my PhD research in India in early 2010, when this book was still being talked about in the literary circles I was interacting with, a lot of people expressed that it was not a well-loved book in India. One author told me her son had vociferously rejected it, without having read it, saying “Why would I want to read about servants murdering their employers?! Why would I want to be afraid every time I get in the car!?” She believed this was a common sentiment, but didn’t approve of it herself, recognising that the huge gap between rich and poor in India is something that the middle classes should be facing up to. The White Tiger provides one way, if one should so happen be able to leave one’s house on a daily basis with one’s eyes metaphorically shut.

But I am not a middle class Indian, I am a middle class “westerner” (whatever that is). And I find it distasteful at best, and disgusting, at worst, that periodically our society (again, whatever that is) finds some “third world” emblem to hold up as the epitome of what is wrong with some other part of the world that is not us. Sometimes this is accompanied by some mild anguished chest beating about how we could do more to help them, and then it is quickly forgotten. (Anyone seen anything about Kony 2012 in the last couple of weeks?) Poverty, inequality and exploitation exist everywhere, all the time, and I find it nauseating that such an emblem is required to get people to remember that. Sometimes those emblems, and the attendant “recognition” that they bring to the first world consumers, act in place of any real action (which, fundamentally, would be a complete overhaul of our neo-liberal capitalist society, but that’s another article again…)

And I had presumed that The White Tiger was just another one. Which it is, a bit. But, like Slumdog Millionaire (another such emblem) it’s also quite enjoyable. The premise is already known. The “white tiger”, Balram, is an ignorant village lad from “the darkness” who lands a job as a driver in Delhi. He’s quite a nice young man, exploited by his boss but always willing to do his best, until things go too far. He pre-meditates the murder of his boss, escapes, and sets up a successful business in Bangalore. I haven’t just given anything away, as all this is known from the beginning, and it is the humour of Balram’s exegesis that is the real strength of The White Tiger. Including one of my favourite types of humour, that directed towards silly western tourists in India (oh yes, I have been one, but not this kind, I like to tell myself!):

“every day thousands of foreigners fly into my country for enlightenment. They go to the Himalayas, or to Benaras, or to Bodh Gaya. They get into weird poses of yoga, smoke hashish, shag a sadhu or two, and think they’re getting enlightened. Ha! If it is enlightenment you have come to India for, you people, forget the Ganga–forget the ashrams–go straight to the Natioanl Zoo in the heart of New Delhi.” (p. 275)

But the humour always gives way to something else, the darkness:

“Delhi is the capital of not one but two countries–two Indias. The Light and the Darkness both flow in to Delhi. Gurgaon, where Mr Ashok lived, is the bright, modern end of the city, and this place, Old Delhi, is the other end. Full of things that the modern world forgot all about–rickshaws, old stone buildings, and Muslims.” (p. 251)

So, after all this, do I recommend The White Tiger? Yes, I do, to Indians and non-Indians. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that by reading this book and gaining enlightenment, anything will change.

Birthright, Vaasanthi (2004)

(Translated from Tamil by Vasantha Surya)

It was refreshing to read an overtly, unashamedly, unapologetically feminist novel by Indian feminist publisher Zubaan. Though Shashi Deshpande has a point when she says that she would prefer her novels be read as novels and not as feminist tracts (“why must I, each time I write a novel, present pictures of rebellion? Because I am a feminist? For God’s sake, I’m a novelist, I write novels, not feminist tracts” [Writing from the Margin and Other Essays, p. 159]), and though I see the value of feminist publishers like Zubaan trying to reach out to readers ambivalent about feminism by publishing a broad range of women’s writing, I still applaud this overtly feminist novel. The issues it raises are urgent, and if the only writers prepared to tackle them are feminist writers, publishers and readers should look beyond 2012 squeamishness about aligning with such a political stance and focus on what’s really important.

Birthright is ostensibly about sex-selective abortion in India, and of course, “sex-selective abortion” is itself a necessarily euphemistic term meaning the abortion of female foetuses (“female foeticide” is too problematic a term, though commonly used, as the implications of “foeticide” ally it with various religious right-wing groups, whether Indian, American, or whomever). The narrator of Birthright is Mano, a twenty-something year old doctor living in a small town in Tamil Nadu. A large part of her job involves scanning pregnant women, and aborting female foetuses, after the women don’t like what they discover. Mano is not ashamed of this fact, seeing it as an essential social service that will save the women from abuse from their husbands and in-laws, and save unborn females the pain of being a girl, and a woman, in a family and society that despises them. Whatever distaste Mano feels at this part of her job is translated into contempt for her patients:

“The delivery case was quite simple, no complications. No need to howl like that just for labour pains. Something else was making her howl. This was the second–the first was a girl. What was this one going to be? That was what the screaming was about. Meenatchi said the husband and the mother-in-law were waiting outside. When she screamed Ayyo! Amma! what she was really doing was trying to see if the wellsprings of compassion would open up for her. […]
‘A boy!’ announced Meenatchi.
The woman who’d just given birth to it stared in disbelief, then clutched at my hand and kissed it as though she’d gone crazy. ‘Thayee! You’re a goddess, Thayee!’ she gasped and began to sob.
Wearily I detached myself from the rejoicing taking place around me and went to wash my hands. The very sight of that frenzy and those happy tears was humiliating. The husband and mother-in-law were passing around lumps of sugar. I wanted to tear them to pieces that very instant.” (p. 7)

The same rejoicing husband had threatened to throw the wife out if she gave birth to another girl.

The other major theme of Birthright is female property inheritance in India. Mano is an only daughter, something that puts her in a precarious position within her family. Before the death of her mother, her father had threatened to remarry in the hopes of bearing a son. After her mother’s death, rumours circulate that her father will adopt a son and heir. Mano sees remaining unmarried as her only hope of inheriting her father’s house and business–if she were to marry, tradition would dictate that she go and live in her husband’s home, relinquishing any small right she had to her inheritance.

Neither of these issues is resolved satisfactorily in Birthright. This would not be a problem if they were deliberately left unresolved–how can a novelist hope to resolve them!? But the ending is rather bizarre and too-tidy. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and memorable book, and one that gives feminist novels a good name.

A Situation in New Delhi, Nayantara Sahgal (1977)

Originally published in 1977, Nayantara Sahgal’s A Situation in New Delhi was re-printed by Penguin India in 2008, something that should give you an idea of the importance of Sahgal to the corpus of twentieth-century Indian writing in English. And she really was writing at a time when Indian writing in English was more of a curiosity, an anomaly, an anachronism than it is today.

A Situation in New Delhi revolves around the lives of three main characters: Devi, her son Rishad, and Michael Calvert. But the real protagonist, already dead by the time the novel opens, is Shivraj, Devi’s brother, Rishad’s uncle and a close friend of Michael’s. Though someone more knowledgeable about Indian politics may be able to correct me, I think Shivraj was modelled on Nehru. An idealistic leader who has ruled India for several years, his death leaves a gaping hole in both Indian politics, and the lives of the individual characters. The order and hope that he represents rapidly diminishes.

I have read some of Sahgal’s other books, and I must admit that I have trouble telling them apart, when the dust has settled and I look back on them. They are different, of course, with different characters and settings (this one in New Delhi, another in Chandigarh…), but they mostly revolve around the intimacies and personalities of politics in the couple of decades after Indian independence. This is not so much of a criticism, or an obstacle, as it may sound. Her books are gripping (on the verge of being called thrillers, but not quite), with unexpected denouments.

What I particularly liked about A Situation in New Delhi was Sahgal’s ability to recreate the atmosphere (or what I imagine must have been the atmosphere) amongst the upper-class, political elite in India in the 1970s. This book was written around the time of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, after the hope of the immediate post-independence years had been shattered. Sahgal is, in fact, a member of the greater Nehru family, but is well known as one of her cousin Indira’s strongest critics.

A passage that particularly resonated with me, especially after debates we’ve had this week at work about some “western” scholars’ continued denial of coevalness in studies of India, follows. It also demonstrates Sahgal’s quiet, pondering, sometimes feverish style:

“this is a staggeringly old country. It makes my head spin to think how old it is. Older than the rocks. Old and settled and structured when Britons were painting their bodies blue. Already old when their epics and ancient books before the epics were written. That way of life and thinking still exists, and not only in the village. It’s there in the factory and the bazaar. It’s there if you scratch the surface of anyone who calls himself a modern Indian. It’s a colossal storehouse, some of it evil and repellent, and some of it as fine as the world has produced and very relevant to modern times, bombs and all.” (page 122)

Though I’m not sure that Sahgal has published any novels for a while, I cannot help but wonder what a novel on the Indian political scene of the early twenty-first century would look like. I’m sure she could sketch a lot of insightful parodies.