Tuesday, August 10, 2010

White Tiger Bites Indians

Let me preface this discussion by explaining why I have finally gotten around to reading a 2-year-old Booker Award-winning novel when everyone else in the literary universe has already forgotten about it and moved on. I've spent the last two years studying the intricacies of Cajun women's narratives of travel and transformation in order to finish my dissertation. If it wasn't about Cajuns, women's travel writing, study abroad, oral narratives, or rites of passage, I didn't read it. So I was more than ready to devour some new-to-me books. I was out shopping for random knickknacks at Big Lots one day and there Aravind Adiga's White Tiger was, languishing on the .50¢ book table with piles and piles of other enticing tomes, all offered at this insanely cheap rate. I picked up about 15 of them that day, and White Tiger just happened to be the first of the 15 that I decided to read. Having thought this over for at least a week, I can only say that sometimes high literary theory is called for, and sometimes it isn't. In thinking over Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, I'm honestly not sure which way to go. Is it literary, intellectual, art? Oh-my-yes. But it's also visceral, searing, and more than a little cruel. Perhaps Adiga's deft negotiation of this literary tightrope is why this novel won him the Booker prize. It left me feeling deeply ambivalent yet absolutely captivated. I've read it twice in a month. It lingers with me, like the thick smell of cypress water, dead fish and algae drifting up from the Louisiana bayou on a hot and moonless August night. Rather than risk spoilers, I will simply say that Aravind Adiga's tale reads like it's the ideological love child of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Edward Said's Orientalism; a love child that was abandoned at a tender age and adopted by auntie Gayatri Spivak, under whose tutelage it learned when to be silent, when to speak, and when to be snarky.

I think it is very interesting that Adiga chose the epistolary form to convey Balram Halwai's narrative. Framing the narrative as an extended letter addressed to a foreign dignitary automatically casts the reader as an outsider to the discourse. The reader increasingly takes on the role of voyeur, learning things that she shouldn't, by all rights, be privy to. At times, the squalid awful details Halwai gives make his life begin to seem like the sort of awful road accident he studiously avoids while driving the insane streets of Delhi. The novel's readers in turn increasingly become like the rubbernecking drivers clogging up the motorway he navigates so gingerly. One consequence of Adiga's choice of the epistolary form is that the narrative becomes sordid almost to the point of becoming sensational. As a result, those who read White Tiger are implied to be thrill seeking eavesdroppers, vicariously experiencing the biting darkness of the upwardly mobile Indian underclass, all with little risk to their personal well-being. I'm not sure whether this stylistic choice is brilliant or cynical, or both. Maybe it all depends on who the reader understands herself to be in relation to the text. Considering Adiga's portrait of conniving drivers devouring Delhi's popular “Murder Weekly” tabloid, it begins to seem that Adiga was primarily concerned with forcing the reader to come to terms with the voyeuristic (perhaps even sadistic?) streak that compels rapt attention but little else.

I also find Adiga's choice to have Halwai address the Chinese premier interesting: Halwai does not fashion his narrative to inform or entertain white Western ears. He is looking east, to China. In so doing, Adiga subtly connects China and India as twin scavengers whose economic fortunes depend on the astronomical level of commercial consumption that characterizes the Anglophone diaspora, most especially America. If not for the excesses of the comparatively rich white West, neither China nor India would be nearly so financially prosperous. This is acknowledged by Halwai, who believes that India and China have much to offer each other- India has technology, entrepreneurship and democracy (at least the rich, modern parts do), but China has capital, discipline, and most important to Halwai, infrastructure. He offers himself to the Prime Minister as an expert on Indian entrepreneurship, citing his authority as a former member of the servant class working to keep master happy, and as a former driver for wealthy, politically-connected Indian elites. To Halwai's thinking, the government would have to see India as it really is, rather than as they pretend it is, to be able to understand and help replicate Indian-style entrepreneurship for the Chinese, because Indian entrepreneurship relies on recognizing and then subverting the master/servant dynamic. As the chapters progress, the tone and form begin to change, a shift telegraphed by the continuously devolving letter headings, meant initially to parody the conventions of business letter etiquette. The pretensions of proper business negotiations begin to slip away along with Halwai's entrepreneur mask. By Chapter 3, it becomes clear that Halwai is not addressing the Chinese premier in hopes of being acknowledged as an expert on anything, much less entrepreneurship. Rather, it is a way for him to sort through and come to terms with the poverty, desperation, conniving, theft, and murder that made it possible for him to join the ranks of the upwardly mobile in Bangalore. Halwai uses the Chinese premier as an excuse to make and rationalize his confession. In addressing Halwai's narrative to the Chinese, Adiga cleverly sidesteps the postcolonial implications that would arise if Halwai was addressing British, or even American, political figures. Western guilt is not the point Adiga cares to make through Halwai's narrative. He aims his critique of post-millennial Indian society squarely at the economic and political elites in Delhi and the technology entrepreneurs of Mumbai and Bangalore. But then again, it isn't these people who dish out the awards.

Artistic merit notwithstanding, the longer I read White Tiger, the more I had a nagging sensation that something was...off. I found myself asking at one point, is White Tiger really the sound that Spivak's subaltern would make if he spoke? Adiga's observational acuity, wit, audacity, and depth made a moving and disturbing portrait of one very exceptional, flawed, (Manna) Balram Halwai--the sort of character who sticks with you long after the story's over. But as I read, I began to have serious doubts about the authenticity that, presumably, lies at the core of the novel. Adiga's credibility as an author counts on the reader's presumption that he knows his people, their struggles, their experiences, beliefs, and dreams--that he is one of them and portrays them authentically. The committee that awarded Adiga the Booker Prize for White Tiger, as well as the authors heartily recommending it in colorful blurbs on the dust jacket, clearly believed that Halwai was a faithful interpretation of the average rural Indian trying to move up in the world. According to John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8, White Tiger “...is the authentic voice of the Third World, like you've never heard it before. Adiga is a global Gorky, a modern Kipling who grew up, and grew mad. The future of the novel lies here.” Andrew Holgate of the London Times claims that “unlike almost any other Indian novel you may have read in recent years, this page-turner offers a completely bald, angry, unadorned portrait of the country as seen from the bottom of the heap; there's not a sniff of saffron or a swirl of a sari anywhere...” People who make things happen in the literary world very much believe that Adiga's work is an authentic portrait of the modern India and that Balram Halwai is an authentic portrayal of the contemporary Indian. The more I pondered White Tiger, the more that nagging sensation began to feel like a mosquito attack.

I also find suspect Halwai's attitudes toward his murder of Master Ashok and the subsequent murder of his own family at the vengeful hands of Ashok's landowner-family. Other than Halwai's brief recognition, which occurs in an odd-fitting moment of quasi-magical realism near the end, that his family will be entirely slaughtered in retaliation for the murder he is about to commit, and his blood-boiling rage that his masters dare threaten his family at all, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything resembling love in Halwai's feelings for his family. There are several mentions of honorific deaths and Halwai's touching and dutiful attending these dying family members, and several moments where Halwai's affection for his brother Kishan briefly outshines his absolute resentment for Kishan's removing him from a promising educational opportunity. But there is no joy possible anywhere in Halwai's life, no genuine family love, and beyond the rare misty-eyed lament about missing his village and his family, no affection for anything from his former life. They are the means by which and reasons that he is kept in the “Rooster Coop,” an ideological analogy Adiga invents in White Tiger to describe the social circumstances in which people such as Halwai live. By contrast, Halwai never stops speaking of the lovely and decent master he murdered, portraying them both as victims of a corrupt world. Halwai states that he feels as possessive about master Ashok's life as he does about his murder, and will defend his master's good name to any who dare slander it. If Halwai is meant to explode the stereotype of the good and faithful servant class as an angry, exploited, cruel, and greedy mob victimized by their situation in life, doesn't Halwai's love for and loyalty to the memory of his corrupt master contradict Adiga's explosion of that stereotype and re-inscribe the idea of the good and faithful servant at a much more insidious level? I think it does, and the proof of this reinscription is that Halwai shows zero love, loyalty, or affection for his own family that was murdered by master Ashok's corrupt and wealthy family. Halwai is genuinely more remorseful about having murdered his master to free himself than he is at the death of his family, whose deaths he cannot bring himself to acknowledge. We are led to entertain his feelings on the subject as valid, given the pivotal role that family duty plays in maintaining the “Rooster Coop,” that Halwai murdered and thieved his way out of. In the world of White Tiger, family is an oppressive and evil force that can and should be sacrificed to get ahead in life. This may be true in the world of the novel, but readers are in danger of presuming that modern Indians feel the same way as Halwai. I do not wish to say that Adiga's Halwai is a totally fabrication with no truth anywhere in it, but rather to say that Halwai is not only a “half-baked man” but a half-baked character as well, one who has been mistakenly embraced as authentic, and this leaves a very distorted impression of the people struggling to make lives for themselves in India. Adiga's art here is as brutal in its unfairness to people in India as Adiga portrays Halwai's granny Kusun to be to her family.

As it turns out, I am not the only one to call Adiga's portrayal of the villagers and their lives into question. In the literary review he wrote about White Tiger for the Indian national newspaper, The Hindu, Indian author and Bihar native Amitava Kumar criticizes Adiga's arrogance at portraying life in Bihar while knowing nothing about it. Kumar has a tremendous amount of authority to criticize, Adiga's portrayal of Bihar and its relationship to the rest of India because he was born and raised in Bihar. Kumar points to one passage of White Tiger in particular that he finds so false as to be offensively unfair:

A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of lesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.

Kumar explains that “I had witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seemed to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he was writing about. And yet, my objection wasn’t simply that I found Adiga’s scenario implausible. Rather, I wanted to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the last line of the paragraph quoted above and recognised how wrong it was...As I continued, I found on nearly every page a witty observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounded false. I stopped reading on page 35.” Kumar goes on to make an insightful criticism of the novel and the complex politics of the authentic and the real in which the novel is hopelessly enmeshed. I don't care to entirely retread that entire argument here, because my main point is more related to another of Kumar's comments, that “the first-person narration disguises a cynical anthropology. Because his words are addressed to an outsider, the Chinese Premier, Halwai was at freedom to present little anthropological mini-essays on all matters Indian.” Kumar accuses Adiga, and in my opinion rightfully so, of acting in “bad faith” towards his subject. The authenticity issues at the heart of White Tiger are important because the ultimate consequence of Adiga's claims to authenticity have led the British literary elite to embrace this cruel and unfair portrait of modern rural India as true, largely based on a the cynical quasi-anthropological digressions that Halwai makes in his narrative.

It seems that the nagging sensation/mosquito attack I felt was the painful and slowly dawning realization that Adiga's portrayal of Halwai is probably not necessarily an authentic portrayal of a traditional Indian from a small village in a poor state, even though the entire literary world seemed to think it was. As a reader, I felt manipulated and cheated by Adiga's bad faith. As an ethnographer and folklorist, I was incensed at Adiga's pretensions to enthographic authority.
My primary research interests are ethnography and folklore, and I have done much work studying the relationship between folklore and literature. In my research and experience, authors who build their stories on conflicts that are rooted in regional differences will always have culturally specific references in the text. Given Adiga's conceit that inland India nourished by Mother Ganga is Darkness, and coastal India washed clean by the ocean is Light, this novel is crucially dependent upon regional differences for character, plot, and theme. Generally speaking, local folklore is folded into the layers of an author's work, often providing local color but even more often providing a cultural counterpoint to the written text. As this is an epistolary novel narrated by a man claiming insider knowledge that his correspondent needs to know, it makes good sense to include myriad anthropological mini-lectures about life in India; the narrator is building his credibility as a cultural expert. But what these lectures convey in stark indignation and anger they totally lack in local folklore, which is to say that there is a complete lack of reference to, or use of, the culturally-specific expressive culture unique to a place that demonstrates in an artful way the world view and attitudes of the people who live there. In this case, a world view that is not, in all likelihood, as wholly vile and cannibalistic as Adiga makes out.

One striking example of this is Adiga's use of “the Black Fort”. Adiga brought it into the story to serve as a cypher that would be given meaning only when associated with Halwai's dawning consciousness. Lovely symbolism, but when places such as the Black Fort are found in or around a community, they are always the locus of local lore: myths, ghost stories, legends about people, events and battles, memorates of the funny or sad or scary experiences of friends and family members. When authors who have been strongly influenced by place and the specific culture of that place fold things like the Black Fort into their work, it is usually because they wish to convey how that place is a nexus of meanings gleaned from the local lore about it- the site is portrayed as a meaning-drenched symbol. When a character speaks of or interacts with the site, she/he interacts with the many layers of meaning it holds, layers which serve to comment upon and deepen the character. Adiga's Black Fort is devoid of these layers of meaning. It is suggested that Laxmahgarh has a few stories about the fort, but these are mentioned in passing and summarily rejected to make way to use of the site as a literary symbol. Halwai's fascination with the fort symbolizes his fascination for the exotic and the grand—the fort is a synechdoche for The Light of coastal urban India--which is so far from his village life as to seem magical and mysterious. That his granny mocks his fear, claiming (rightfully as it turns out) that Halwai's fear would scare him from exploring the fort, the larger implication is that his fear is would similarly keep him from escaping from Luxmangarh. His later disdainful spitting upon his village from between the walls of the Black Fort clearly conveys the hate he has come to feel for his home, family and neighbors, as well as their cultural values, as a result of his exposure to somewhat better economic circumstances. The Black Fort is suitable as a literary symbol, but it is hardly believable as a special site surrounded by a living community. I grant Adiga's doneĆ© that Halwai is an angry, savvy, wounded man robbed of things he rightfully deserved because of family duty and social inequality, and that he had convincing reasons for spitting upon his home village. But my respect of Adiga's artistic choices and his skillful execution of them pulls up short when I am asked to believe that Halwai and his reactions are representative of an entire group of people- i.e., those who live in Adiga's Darkness.

Sadly, the critics who love this novel clearly believe Adiga is giving a truthful representation. One wonders if those who live in inland India would appreciate Adiga's portrayal of them as backward, petty, peasants living in total Darkness. Would they see themselves as hopeless denizens of villages blighted by Darkness? I think many of them would be hurt, indignant, and angry at being portrayed so one-lopsidedly. Yet there is little danger in them ever encountering Adiga's cynical portrayal of them because, ironically, one detail Adiga got right is the staggering unavailability of actual books in rural villages.

The issue of cultural representation at the heart of my response to White Tiger is one example of the intellectual fallout from the post-structuralism characterizing much of American literary thought since the 1980's that acutely impacted folklore studies. Folklorists conduct hundreds of enthographic interviews with people who often live in marginalized cultural groups or in remote areas that are marginalized by default through being distant from the urban centers where social and cultural policy priorities are made. Very often we are tasked with bringing this work not only to the critical think-tank of the academy but also to the larger public in the form of arts and music festivals and other cultural events. We are on hand to serve as mediators between the performers and the audience, because our primary function in the public presentation context is to provide interpretive background on what audiences are seeing and hearing. Folklore experienced a discipline-wide crisis of representation that left some grappling with whether we should even bother to bring traditional arts into public presentation, as our efforts are doomed to inauthenticity. What we finally decided on is a policy of good faith. We cannot present the “truth” of a culture to an audience. We cannot guarantee absolute authenticity of performance given that the festival stage is very different from the front porch of the local bait shop where fiddles are played and stories are swapped. The only thing we can do is try to be as honest and fair in our presentation and interpretation of the culture as we possibly can be. We don't aim to present ourselves as authorities on the culture whose interpretations are faultless, because we recognize that our duty is to maintain professional integrity by granting the people we work with authority over their own culture, and working to convey that to audiences both public and academic.

Adiga is a journalist, not an ethnographer. In fact, he is a journalist from upper-class India who was raised in Australia and educated at both Oxford and Columbia. He has, as Kumar points out, “taken the bus, or at least a hired taxi, to the hinterland.” and “might have traveled on a boat and risked being eaten by a Royal Bengal Tiger,” or “have walked in the tight, smelly alleys in the slums and...met a hired killer or two”. Kumar admits that White Tiger and novels like it “seem direct responses to the numbing social violence in nearly every strata of Indian society.”, Kumar, even though he is himself a journalist writing in this genre of Indian literature, admits that “...reportage is only an inoculation against the charge of inauthenticity.” In White Tiger, Adiga is only fictionalizing what he saw during his years as a journalist correspondent for Time magazine, and as everyone knows, journalists are concerned with exposing and conveying the gritty reality of their subjects. Which is fine, but a problem arises when the journalist becomes so disheartened and angry that he stops looking for other aspects of real life that don't confirm his pessimistic view of the subject about which he writes. In Adiga's case, that subject is India. Adiga feels anger and indignation on behalf of the people he sees exploited in Indian society, but he is definitely not one of them. Righteous indignation does not a cultural insider make. Consequently, White Tiger is not an expose of any “real” India about which Adiga has authority to speak. Rather, it is an expose of Adiga's experience reporting on India, and the only authority he has is the authority over his own experience. There is nothing wrong with that in journalism or in literature, so long as readers recognize that this is the case. In the case of White Tiger, they clearly don't.

That critics have mistaken Adiga's bad faith for truth is particularly distressing given that White Tiger is necessarily a postcolonial context. One of the reasons that the British empire justified colonizing 40% of the known world was the seemingly unassailable claim to a cultural supremacy made evident through superiority of Britain's military, technology, and economy. The people of India were regarded as dark, backward, and slightly less savage than the conquered people of Africa and the Caribbean, albeit most promising as colonial subjects due to their traditional respect for a caste system so rigid and distinct that the Imperial British class hierarchy seemed to be merely a lax, inconsequential formality by comparison. Adiga's White Tiger more or less confirms the original Imperial view that India was a land of darkness, made light only in the areas where western culture—in modern times the consumer culture of America as well as Britain—had taken root and flourished. Critics who embraced White Tiger so strongly as to award it the Man Booker prize have, albeit unwittingly, perpetuated the Imperial tendency to further legitimize its views by awarding the loyal subject for confirming its views. Adiga's prize was not a win for India; it was a win for reactionary stereotypes that having been embraced and legitimated will only make and honest and respectful understanding of India and Indians that much harder to realize.

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