Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

Did Arvind Adiga deserve the Booker for ‘The White Tiger’? I’m not quite sure.

I haven’t read ‘The Sea of Poppies’ which was the book that was expected to win the Booker, but considering ‘The White Tiger’ independent of other books, I think it might have been over-estimated.

It is an interesting book no doubt. The letter format, short-chapters & style of writing all keep the reader engaged. I have this bad habit of dropping a book midway if it fails to hold my attention. I was racing through ‘The White Tiger’, but maybe in terms of story it isn’t as superlative as it’s supposed to be. As in, I’m sure there were other books written by other authors in 2008 that deserved the Booker more.

Anyway, everyone already knows the story of ‘The White Tiger’ so I will not go into it.

Adiga highlights the differences between the Darkness & the Light very well – metaphors for the cities & villages of India respectively. The differences in their attitude, mindsets, lifestyles, cultures, and most importantly the grip that the caste system still has over those living in the Darkness in India…how it still dictates what people can & cannot do…how it curbs their ambitions & achievements…how it keeps them bound to the fate they were born into & prevents them from reaching out to a life they want to build for themselves.

Adiga offers some brilliant insights on China & India, the two behemoths of the 21st century, and why he thinks India can never equal China in terms of development. For instance, he says that China is far ahead of India in every respect, except that it doesn’t have entrepreneurs. India, on the other hand, does not have basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transport, hygiene, discipline, courtesy, punctuality etc., but it has thousands & thousands of entrepreneurs! Sadly, entrepreneurs in India need to be two things at the same time: straight & crooked, mocking & believing, sly & sincere, because India per se does not reward entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have to pay their way through to success - they have to pay the Government, the politicians who are not part of the Government etc. to clear the numerous hurdles they face, and things can still backfire at them.

Adiga also says that despite its triumph in drinking water, sewage & Olympic gold medals, China still doesn’t have democracy. India might not be able to provide basic amenities to its citizens, but its billion plus citizens have the right to vote and to choose their own future. However, is the process credible? Are the elections free & fair? What about the politicians that stand for the elections? They are mostly criminals…do they work for the development of this country & its citizens? So even if we have democracy & the right to vote, are they of any use to us? Shouldn’t a country work at providing basic amenities to its citizens before it tom-toms it’s (false, dysfunctional) democratic set-up?

Adiga also shares some interesting anecdotes on India. For instance, he says that India is two countries at the same time: an India of Light & an India of Darkness. The ocean brings Light to India where as the river (Ganga in this case) brings Darkness. All places situated near the ocean are in the Light where as places situated along the Ganga (UP, Bihar, Bengal) though extremely fertile, are still plunged into Darkness. Secondly, there is such discrepancy in the social status of the master & the servant in India (inclusive of house help, drivers, peons etc.) that in order to get a job in the Light, a man from the Darkness can even be forced to hide his religion from his masters & worship Gods of another faith!

There are two things I didn’t like about the book. First of all, it shows India in a very poor light. I tend to have problems with this attitude of most post-colonial Indian writers. Their favorite topics are either those related to the Raj, or expounding on the miseries & misfortunes of India. I can't help but get the feeling that they pick these topics with their eyes on the Booker & other such awards. But then, one might argue that that’s the reality once you look beyond the gloss of the malls, multiplexes & glass & concrete buildings of India.

Second of all, it is an exaggerated account. Not everyone who manages to become an entrepreneur has to commit murder on his way. Agreed they have to face numerous hurdles, but being forced to commit murder is an extreme scenario.

However, I would definitely recommend reading ‘The White Tiger’. It’s humorous – humor that’s subtle, black yet hits bulls eye! And it makes one think…are we really such a great nation as we are made to believe by those in positions of influence, such as the Government, the school textbooks etc? Or is it all a myth, a great story based on fallacies created to attract the attention & investment of Western nations?

You decide.


Moksh Juneja said...

i very interesting thought that even i highlighted in my review was that White Tiger is actually shows India in very poor light.. for the same reason, it should not have been part of the Booker price!!

Scarlett said...

Yeah, and that's dangerous because the story is extreme (guy committing murder to become an entrepreneur) & that might be construed as the reality about India by the world (I'm sure a lot many people across the world would be reading the book now that it's won the Booker!)

Random Words said...

Most of the people who have read it would have the same views but i enjoyed it completely. There are certain things/instances that are captured by Adiga so well. I have spent some years in part darkness (read a small town - neither a village as he depicts nor a metro) and i can say that he has done complete justice. I agree to the murder bit but it is an amazing and enthralling depiction.

Scarlett said...

@Random Words - Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book thoroughly as well. All I meant that the story was a bit too extreme & it does show India in a very poor light. That it's a fact things are bad in India, is another point altogether.