Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Booker, eh?

Chetan Bhagat must wonder why any of his novels – Five Point Someone and the other two, whatever their name was - haven’t won the Booker yet. For if a heavily clichéd take on modern Indian civilization by a first-time amateurish writer can bag the prize, surely Mr. Bhagat deserves it too. His efforts if not purely authentic, were at least not cynical or judgemental in any way. At least, they made for good time pass.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger leaves you with no such hope. The plot itself is one that’s bound to make you roll your eyes. The protagonist, a sweet-seller-turned-driver, son of a rickshaw puller, recounts the story of his rise to entrepreneurial success to none less than the Chinese Premier, letting him see and making him familiar with the face of the ‘true’ India in the process. Sounds quite exciting, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s the bait.

What follows is one cliché piled upon another. Almost every page in this book contains some witty remark by the author; you haven’t yet got over the last fantastic conclusive comment when you encounter the next. Very early in the novel, the narrator, Balram (the protagonist himself) divides India into two parts – Light and Darkness. According to him (and this theory takes some gulping down), all the places in the country which lie on the banks of the Ganges (called the ‘black river’ by him) fall in the Darkness. All other places fall in the Light. The Darkness, as its name unmistakably suggests, is an area of utter desolation, where rich and oppressive landlords rule over the poor working class, where no one is ever pleased with his life and hopes to, someday, move to the big cities of Delhi or Bombay i.e. the Light. This ambitious demarcation is not just mentioned cursorily; it is repeated throughout the novel; for example, a fellow member of the working class from Bihar is described as ‘belonging to the Darkness’.

Firstly, what the author fails to realize is that the area he has called the ‘Darkness’, which includes states like U.P., Bihar and Bengal have produced some of the greatest minds of the country. For decades before and after independence, this area has often been the centre of Indian thought. To call it by this preposterous title is nothing but a travesty. Secondly, they might not be in the fittest condition at present, but not all is dark there really. Yes, many people in most of these parts do aspire to move to the bigger cities in search for a better life, but that is only because of the pressures of globalization, the advantages of which haven’t yet reached them in its entirety. Nevertheless, like everywhere else, most of the people do manage to live a content life, and not everyone is as close to destitution and total dissatisfaction as Adiga paints them to be. In his world, every man in these parts is a bitter man, frustrated yet subdued by an overbearing social system, where nothing happens except daughter-in-laws being killed for dowry or husbands being milked for money, treated worse than animals by their wives.

Everything reminds you of some early 90’s melodramatic extravaganza. The villains are the politicians and the landlords, conspiring to keep the poor beneath their feet, adept at murder, rape, bribe-taking and all other possible crimes. When the rich appear, they do like over-savvy maniacs, who are obsessed with wearing designer clothes, going to the malls every second day, who love sending SMSs to their friends in the U.S.A. Generalization upon generalization, so much that it makes you wonder whether all the talk about India’s multi-faceted personality, its diversity, its dynamics is but a myth, whether in reality everything here can be painted in the twin shades of black and white.

But unlike the films, the poor are not really good people either – deeply wounded by being treated like animals, they themselves have become animal-like – excessively bitter, revengeful and ready to play along. They curse the rich behind their backs, leave no chance of pinching money from them, even conspire to murder them. In Adiga’s world, everyone is a negative character, with no scope for human dignity, pity or kindness. You have it in writing here. India is a living hell and all its inhabitants are monsters.

Every great novel, however morose or melancholic, treats its characters and the world around with compassion. Be it Rushdie’s Bombay, Naipaul’s Trinidad or Bellow’s Chicago, even the worst of men in these great cities are portrayed as human beings capable of thought and feeling. And even when the world around is in tatters, there is always the glimmer of hope, the anticipation that things can be set right, that life, however ghastly it may seem at the moment, is better than death. This is where Adiga fails completely. In this novel, which is in the form of a letter, the protagonist finds nothing remotely good about the country to say to the Chinese Premier, nothing that could point towards a possible solution, of a way out of the mess he has taken so much pain to elaborate on.

Adiga gets the Booker. And perhaps it is not that surprising that he did. For to the ignorant foreigner eager to know about India, this book can be very easily assimilated. It doesn’t even attempt to get into the complexities of the new India, the whys and hows, and the foreigner, who has never seen the ‘Light’ or the ‘Darkness’ with his own eyes will take the author’s word for it. A friend told me that Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is believed to be selling more copies in India than this more recent award-winning novel. And that too is not surprising. For the Indians of the ‘true’ India know better.