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Laughter in the Darkness

By (November 1, 2008) No Comment

The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, 2008

Those were the good days, it turns out, when the Western world looked down upon American literature. Think about Virginia Woolf’s verdict on a pair of story collections by Theodore Dreiser in a 1919 review:

Their [Dreiser’s characters’] animal spirits are superb. Nor are they entirely animal. The abundance of life in their veins overflows into all kinds of fine and friendly relations with their fellows. Mr Dreiser describes them with such enthusiasm that his work has a character of its own—an American character. He is not himself by any means a great writer, but he may be the stuff from which, in another hundred years or so, great writers will be born.

Granted, Woolf may be second only to Voltaire in the art of the lefthanded compliment (though the fortunate generation of Americans born after 2019 may feel rather bucked up); still, hers was the prevailing European snobbery. The British were the direct descendants of Shakespeare and Austen, the French of Montaigne and Racine, the Russians of Pushkin and Gogol. And the Americans…of Uncle Remus?

It was useless to gainsay this perception by argument alone, no matter how much a Frank Norris might shout about the superiority of the vulgar tongue, or a more reasoned advocate might point to the regal triumvirate of Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman, each still relatively obscure at the time. To the cultured, American either produced unseasoned caricatures of 19th-century European epics, or books that were rough, instinctual, “animal”—books governed by the adolescent impulses of rage and rebellion against a status quo, and endowed with no more care and organization than you could expect from an adolescent in a snit.

Once that framework of thinking was applied—that an American novel was either a tinny knockoff of a European classic or else a wild and petulant rejection of the reigning legacy—the only way to shake its foundations was to write a masterpiece; and then, when that masterpiece was served its faint praise and genially dismissed, to write another masterpiece. Whether these masterpieces were in fact written may be a matter for debate, but there’s no ignoring the intensely, sometimes obsessively, questing nature of the novelists of the era. Figures like Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, and even, latterly, Norman Mailer seemed to write with a fervor (and sometimes resultant prolixity) devoted to closing the centuries-wide gap in literary supremacy in a single generation. Maybe Theodore Dreiser wasn’t a great writer, but there’s no question that he’s immensely more important and interesting than the esteemed frontlist Europeans to which Woolf and other critics gave far more of their attention, writers such as George Moore, W.E. Norris, and Joseph Hergesheimer.

It may well be, then, that a regular dose of condescension is a needful thing for a writer. But young auteurs in this country today are never going to have to find out. The “American character” is now supreme. Whether the coup was principally literary, political, military, or having something to do with the Big Mac need not concern us here. However it happened, the descent from Moby-Dick and Huck Finn is mapped with deep pride. And Europeans don’t talk so big about Shakespeare or Montaigne any longer, do they? Instead, they write like Americans.

It’s one of the less savory parts of the American character to complain about the downsides of privilege, but here goes: I am often unable to shake the feeling while reading book reviews that today’s literary lions are going to be tomorrow’s Joseph Hergesheimers. And this enervating suspicion that regard is rewarded based on pedigree instead of passion is what, I think, sends many readers to sample the strange imports from foreign novelists. Could it be possible that new, more passionate voices are being sounded in countries without rich novelistic heritages, and could it be that the headwinds of American patronization are prompting non-American writers to work harder?

In recent years it has appeared that the emerging literature most likely to inspire the perplexed admiration and lefthanded praise from American critics is coming from the Indian subcontinent. There are books suggesting that the region is not only producing a series of excellent writers, but that an independent, aspirational culture of novel writing is being established, one aware of literary traditions and conventions but primarily fixated upon forging a style best suited to illuminating its own people and homegrown issues.

I no doubt drag my own snobbishness into the assessment when I suggest that there are two kinds of books that come from writers of the region, and the first steers us back in the direction of kitschy reproductions. Some books take as their subject the challenge of conforming to the Western world as an Indian, Pakistani, or Bengali—these are books written almost exclusively for a Western audience; similarly, other books, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke, or Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, simply translate the clichés, the lead-footed symbolism, and the shaggy-dog narratives of a writer’s workshop student to foreign settings.

But other writers, including Vikram Chandra, Mohammed Hanif, and Daniyal Mueenuddin appear to be searching, in their very different ways, for subjects and modes of expression that will lengthen the roots of a new character of writing, the character of the subcontinent. So it was encouraging to see this year’s Man-Booker Prize awarded to another such novel, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

The White Tiger is a lean, pared-down book, but it’s bracing and sticks in the memory; its fierce singlemindedness is its best asset. There is only one voice here, that of Balram Halwai, who tells the story of his quick climb from the slums of the Indian interior to a chandelier-filled office (there’s even a chandelier in the bathroom) in Bangalore. Balram’s rise has the remorseless simplicity of a morality play, albeit one turned perversely on its head: he is born into a low caste of sweets makers and tea shop proprietors, and he is expected to wed young and wipe tables for the rest of his life. Instead, he pays to learn to drive and manages to ingratiate himself into a position as chauffeur and all-purpose servant for the brother of a local landowner. Not long afterwards, he murders his master and steals a bag of money meant to be delivered as a bribe to government officials. He flees with the money and begins his own taxi business and buys a bunch of chandeliers—and that’s where we find him, telling us his cautionary tale.

The tone in which he tells it is the novel’s crowning achievement: Balram’s cynicism coats every scene of this book like scalding wax, but his is an angry, animated disillusion, mocking, disgusted, and self-lacerating. Western readers will unquestionably detect in the ruthlessly goading, sardonic narration a number of slashes at some of the sacred cows of conventional Indian novels. Amitav Ghosh has just written a historical novel called Sea of Poppies which has in its first chapter a scene that will be soothingly—indeed, anesthetically—familiar to readers of Indian fiction:

The poppies ended at a sandbank that sloped gently down to the Ganga; warmed by the sun, the sand was hot enough to sting the soles of their bare feet. The burden of motherly decorum slipped suddenly off Deeti’s bowed shoulders and she began to run after her daughter, who had skipped on ahead. A pace or two from the water’s edge, they shouted an invocation to the river—Jai Ganga Mayya ki…—and gulped down a draught of air, before throwing themselves in.

Here, in contrast, is Adiga’s invocation of Mother Ganga in The White Tiger:

Now, you have heard the Ganga called the river of emancipation, and hundreds of American tourists come each year to take photographs of naked sadhus at Hardwar or Benaras, and our prime minister will no doubt describe it that way to you, and urge you to take a dip in it.

No!—…I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.

Aravind Adiga

But puncturing clichés is only side sport in The White Tiger; Adiga’s burning obsession is with the profound, amoral materialism at the heart of Indian society. Balram, a self-described “half-baked Indian” because of his pitiful formal education, has lived as a cipher, a groveling servant, and a business manager, and his voice is one of derisive laughter in the darkness at any pretension of justice or civility. In his experience—which includes watching his father die of untreated consumption, kissing his master’s feet, sleeping amidst swarms of roaches, and later, paying his way out of murder—wealth is the fulcrum upon which every interaction is set:

I won’t be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years.

Again and again, Adiga embellishes upon this unsparing social diagnosis, which in the naïve but bitterly streetwise voice of Balram has a disturbing and subversive potency:

See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man named Halwai made sweets. The man called a cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned feces. Landlords were kind to their serfs. Women covered their heads with a veil and turned their eyes to the ground when talking to strange men.

And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947—the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law. Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn’t matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up. My father’s father must have been a real Halwai, a sweet-maker, but when he inherited the shop, a member of some caste must have stolen it from him with the help of the police. My father had not the belly to fight back. That’s why he had fallen all the way to the mud, to the level of a rickshaw-puller. That’s why I was cheated of my destiny to be fat, and creamy-skinned, and smiling.

To sum up—in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.

The artlessness of the metaphor here is easily surpassed by the fiery disdain that fuels it. Although the prose of The White Tiger is not so dynamic in expressing the spiky, fitful attitude of its narrator (more on the prose shortly), there is a powerfully stripped-down worldview on display—life as dictated by class warfare—that evokes the unforgettable early novels of Dreiser and Dos Passos. Balram is caught in the teeth of a world governed by the purest, most savage form of capitalism. The way that he slips out from the gears and begins to manipulate them himself is brutally straightforward, and speaks to the elemental nature of servitude.

“Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many,” Balram says in an acid inversion of Churchill:

A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hand and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

“The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy,” he says, and a servant’s recognition of that fact is the key to his freedom, although to exploit it means that you must live as a fugitive and that your family will likely be killed in retribution. Balram’s master is so unwary that he thinks nothing of trusting hundreds of thousands of rupees to him. (In a forceful irony, Balram’s master’s flaw is that, having been educated in America, he is too lily-livered to survive in India, not nearly abusive enough to his servants and therefore susceptible to being destroyed.) Balram merely decides one day to take the money.

Again I probably sink to condescension to adjudge that a novel like The White Tiger, which is so narrowly fixated upon damning the economic order that it verges upon becoming a kind of Boschian parable, would not now be written in the United States. And there are signs that Adiga would like to draw a distance from Western expectations. The skin-whitener creams popular among the business classes are mocked, as is the Indian uppercrust’s lubricious obsession with blond hair. More importantly, Adiga is loath to utilize the lexicon found in so much fiction from or about the subcontinent—words like sari, pani, wallah, and puja appear virtually not at all. (Compare that with a randomly pulled line from Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which is so heavily indebted to such language that it contains a 42-page glossary: “She rose early and went through the motions of her daily routine, laying out a freshly washed dhoti and kameez for Hukam Singh, her husband, and preparing the rotis and achar he would eat at midday.”) Adiga instead favors the more modern, more cynical idiom of outsourcing. Everything can be expressed in business terms, even the murder, which Balram calls an “act of entrepreneurship.”

It’s only in the style of the prose that Adiga has not yet shed the Western luxury of complacency. There’s little evidence, in fact, that he’s striven for any distinct style at all. Balram’s background requires a certain reductionism, but this is never turned into an aesthetic advantage; in fact, Adiga often adulterates the voice by working in words like “oleaginous” and “particulated,” none of which a self-described “half-baked Indian” like Balram should be able to handily use. On a sentence level, the writing here is rather unexceptionally fluent with a jarring number of concessions to descriptive elegance:

Now, our schoolteacher was a big paan-and-spit man—and his expectorate made a sort of low, red wallpaper on three walls around us. When he went to sleep, which he usually did by noon, we stole paan from his pockets; distributed it amongst ourselves and chewed on it; and then, imitating his spitting style—hands on hips, back arched slightly—took turns spitting at the three dirty walls.

There is a bemused, overly smooth and easygoing pattern to the rendering of Balram’s mind; too often, Adiga seems content to settle on the pithy way of saying something rather than the individual way. You keep wanting the style to accord with the spite and ferocity of the tone, be it fractious, fractured, minimalist, something. But it’s not yet an aspect of the craft in which Adiga has tried to strike out on his own.

Nevertheless, The White Tiger is an impressive, defiant first novel. Its anger is so heartfelt that it has its own integrity and its cynicism is so complete that it becomes almost principled. At the end of the book, Balram has embraced the laws of the jungle, but without the sentimental hypocrisy of his former masters. He will commit his crimes and pay his bribes and perhaps murder again if he needs to, but he will also look after his employees and treat them with respect, though never trust or friendship. Because, of course, even the Bangalore businessman is the humble servant of a mighty lord:

See, men and women in Bangalore live like the animals in a forest do. Sleep in the day and then work all night, until two, three, four o’clock, depending, because their masters are on the other side of the world, in America.

There is a perfect mixture of sarcasm and awareness in Balram’s attitude to America. Adiga, too, I sense from this excellent debut, is fully conscious of the influence American literature must have on his writing, but is also determined to create fiction that stems directly from his background and is unique to himself.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.