June 17, 2012
By Paul Malachi
Revisiting The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man-Booker Prize in 2008, the author looks into the background of the prize, the jury, and the winner, and finally embarks upon a critique of the book itself. The book’s views on social suffering, inequality, and most importantly, emancipatory possibilities reflect political attitudes of the post-liberalisation Indian middle classes. – Ed.
SECTION 1 – BACKGROUND
The Man-Booker Prize
The Man-Booker Prize was established in 1969 by the Booker Group, the UK’s largest food wholesale operator. Established in 1835, the Booker group has been heavily involved in international sugar trade for well over a century and has been noted to have a long history of direct involvement in the use of indentured labor in Britain’s colonies . In 2002, the prize began to be sponsored by the Man Group – with its own history of commodity trading in rum, sugar, coffee, and cocoa in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As the commodity trading landscape started to move in the 1970’s towards increased financialization, the company began to provide concomitant services. Currently, the Man Group manages up to $68 billion in mostly hedge funds, employs 1700 people, has 15 offices worldwide and is headquartered in London. The Man-Booker prize is one of the richest (~$68,000) and well known literary prizes in the world. Winners are usually guaranteed commercial success and wide circulation.
In 2008, the Man-Booker prize was awarded to 33 year old Indian author Aravind Adiga for his book ‘The White Tiger’. The 2008 judging panel comprised 5 members and was headed by Michael Portillo, Former British MP and Cabinet Minister. Another member of the panel was Hardeep Singh Kohli, TV and Radio broadcaster.
Portillo, the chair of the panel, was a Conservative Party minister and strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher. He served as a junior minister under her leadership and also held Cabinet Minister positions in successive governments including Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Employment, and Defence. From 2002 – 2006, Portillo served as non-executive director of defence contractor BAE systems. Since 2002, Portillo has been a media personality as a commentator and writer/presenter of documentaries and reality shows.
Hardeep Singh Kohli was born in London and worked for the BBC directing children’s TV. He began working independently in 1996 and had mixed critical and professional success since then. In 2007 he was involved in a reality TV show centered on celebrity card games. He has also appeared on various cooking shows in Britain as an occasional guest, performed stand-up comedy, and has hosted a game show. The other judges on the panel were Alex Clark, editor of Granta magazine, Louise Doughty, a novelist, and James Heneage, founder of a bookstore chain.
The criteria for selecting the Man-Booker prize winner are not made public. In 2008, Mr. Portillo, the panel chair, said that he was looking for something that would “blow his socks off”, and Adiga’s book reportedly did according to his speech at the award ceremony. There are indications that the decision may not have been unanimous. Portillo later said that the final panel deliberation was marked by “passionate debate”. We can safely assume from his earlier remarks that Mr. Portillo was debating for ‘The White Tiger’. The other close contender whose candidature presumably featured in this debate was veteran and critically acclaimed novelist and poet Sebastian Barry. A panelist who requested anonymity said that Adiga won by “the narrowest of margins”.
Aravind Adiga was born in Mangalore in 1974 and emigrated to Australia in his teens. He studied English literature at Columbia University, US and also studied at Oxford University, UK. His father and grandfather were doctors and his other grandfather was a lawyer. Aravind was an accomplished student who stood first in the state of Karnataka in his 10th standard. His teachers remember him as a “quiet and obedient boy” who was “dedicated towards studies and respectful towards teachers”.
In an article titled “How English Literature Shaped Me”, Aravind traces his literary intake starting from reading comics up to age 10, moving on to ‘The Hardy Boys’, Alistair MacLean thrillers, Agatha Christie, and later Mark Twain. He described growing up primarily speaking and reading English and reflects that “doing away with English seemed to me tantamount to doing away with India: We were the language’s and the language was ours”. He also mentions that to him and his friends, “All the glamour was in English, and when they were done with Alistair MacLean, they went on to Desmond Bagley or Jeffrey Archer or some other foreign writer”. Growing up he preferred British literature to American literature because while the Americans had supported Pakistan in the 1971 war, the British had “resigned all interest in India in 1947 and … were a neutral nation as far as I was concerned”. British writers therefore comprised a majority of his reading and his teenage years were filled with ” those exciting young British writers named G K Chesteron, G B Shaw, J B Priestley, and Somerset Maugham”. He also read Indian journalists in English prolifically and says that he acknowledges the impact of writers like Kushwant Singh and MJ Akbar on his work. In sum, he believes that his formative years of reading the above authors were extremely important because to him English was symbolic of the central message that “the world was a place full of light, and if spoken to in a rational language, would respond in one”. This positive attitude shaped his teenage outlook on the world.
After his education, Aravind worked for the Financial Times, Money magazine, and TIME. During his years at Money magazine he wrote articles on investment and finance topics. Some of his early writings for Money include one titled “Opportunity Stocks” which begins with the following paragraph: “We know of great investors like Warren Buffett, John Templeton and Fayez Sarofim who became rich on blue chips that they picked up dirt cheap and stuck with for decades. We’ve often wondered when we’d get the chance to do the same. Well, this just might be it. The basic truth of stock market investing remains this: You don’t get rich by buying at the top of a bull market. But you also don’t get rich by trying to catch the absolute bottom of a bear market.” He proceeds to then give several points of advice on how to make wise investment decisions in order to make money on the stock market including providing the example of how after the start of the Iraq war the stock market had its “best week” since 1982. He also wrote other pieces analyzing investment potential in biotechnology and pharmaceutical stocks in the US.
At TIME magazine he began to write pieces on India’s IT sector, jobs, and outsourcing. Notably, one of his TIME articles in 2005 compared India and China. (A similar comparison sets the backdrop of his prize winning book). Titled “A Healthy Fear of China”, Aravind compares the $500 billion foreign investment China has received since liberalization to the $5 billion India received since 2003. In his view this amounts to humiliation of the Indian Finance Minister at international forums. Citing Indian CEOs who are shocked at China’s infrastructure when they visit Shanghai, he argues that this shock can be a good thing because it leads to a sense of “urgency”. He states that it was this sense of urgency that led to the Planning Commission making the case for opening up the retail sector to foreign investment and a slum clearance drive being authorized in Mumbai. Aravind approvingly describes how Chidambaram and Azim Premji had been using the Chinese threat to “turn up the heat on those who are blocking reform”. According to him, those blocking this vision of progress are politicians and bureaucrats who have accumulated outdated ideas from “half a century of socialism”.
As a TIME correspondent, Aravind began to also write on human interest topics. In one article on his visit to Mangalore after spending more than a decade abroad – he describes a feeling of fear when he notices how rapidly the city was growing structurally and economically, and changing culturally. Noticing the large number of construction migrant workers in the city living in poverty, he feels that the “large permanent underclass that the boom had left behind” was being largely unacknowledged.
The Booker Prize win catapulted Aravind to international fame. He gave several high-profile interviews to leading media outlets around the world. He was also greeted with widespread admiration in India. In these interviews, Aravind often says that his book throws light on the lives of the poor in India which are being ignored by current development stories. The interviews also inevitably broached real world topics which gave occasion for Aravind to publicly state his political views.
Aravind makes prominent references to what he calls the great divide in modern Indian history – the year 1991. He states, “When I was a boy in India, we lived in a closed-off, socialist economy where just about everything was controlled by the government. It was a stagnant, largely corrupt system, and this defined life. And in 1991 everything changed, and the economy was opened up and what is called the New India began.”
Political Views and Policy Prescriptions
Aravind Adiga’s views could be taken as representative of India’s large and growing middle and upper middle classes – especially those who grew up on the two sides of the “great divide”. He remembers the pre-liberalization era when he grew up in a “provincial town in a socialist country” before it became a “booming town with malls and call-centers”.
In almost all of his interviews, Aravind stresses the corrupt nature of Indian governance making repeated mentions of the thousands who die of tuberculosis every day. He believes that it is up to writers like him to highlight the “brutal injustices of society” in a time of great change.
From his TIME magazine writings, it is clear that on a macro level, he believes that India should take lessons from China, and compete with them for foreign investments. He also favorably views the economic liberalization programs underway since 1991 and considers any attempt to oppose it as going back to failed “socialist” policies that are a throwback to pre-1991 days. It is also apparent that he clearly notices the current catastrophic suffering of the majority of the population.
In one of his more outspoken interviews, Aravind states his position on Indo-US relationships. Berating India’s “inept socialist politicians and diplomats” who have “foolishly abused America far too often at international forums”, he applauds the “dramatic improvement” in ties in recent years. He views this development as the start of a “real friendship” between the two countries. His two complaints about the US are that Indians are sensitive to the “crude anti-outsourcing rhetoric” in the US and US military aid to Pakistan. In his view, India must not “ask too many concessions” from the US and shed all remnants of its “old knee-jerk anti-Americanism”. He expresses hope for this relationship that it can grow into one of the most important ones of the 21st century.
Aravind expresses strong views on colonialism, or the absence thereof. Disapproving of the middle classes who “think of themselves still as victims of colonial rule”, Aravind points to the fact that it would be absurd for him for example to think that he is a victim of the interviewer (white British man) as evidence for his position. Instead he believes that India and China are “too powerful to be controlled by the West anymore”.
SECTION 2 – WRITING ABOUT THE POOR
Author and Narrator
It is not that an author with a middle class upbringing, an elite education, and a burgeoning career in finance writing is unqualified to speak in the voice of the desperately poor. Rather, it is important to recognize that Aravind in his own way attempts to empathize with their suffering as he understands it through his lens. Balram’s voice then, is not an independently speaking poor man, but rather is a projection of how Aravind imagines such a person would think and act.
Aravind admits that it is a challenge for a novelist to create a narrator who is completely unlike him. However, his interactions with the poor while traveling in India for TIME gave him some personal insights into their lives. He says “I spent a lot of time hanging around stations and talking to rickshaw pullers….In India, the poor are darker-skinned because they work outside .. without their tops …But also their intelligence impressed me. Rickshaw pullers, especially, reminded me of was black Americans, in the sense that they are witty, acerbic, verbally skilled, and utterly without illusions about their rulers.” The above description of the mental and linguistic abilities of the poor could be applied exactly to Balram, and it is conceivable that these encounters provided the inspiration for creating the character.
In this sense, it is hard to view the realities of Aravind’s life experiences separately from the text in the story or from the protagonist. In fact several elements in the story suggest an overlapping of their personalities. Aravind’s own views about the primacy of the India-China comparison and the bright economic future of these “Asian tigers” forms the backdrop of the story. This is very important to Balram as well, hence his letter to the Chinese premier and his insistence of offering advice about Bangalore and its entrepreneurs. Aravind’s experience returning to Mangalore and seeing the “permanent underclass” indicates his awareness of the “two Indias” and this awareness presumably prompted the birth of Balram who shares this vision. Both of them also share the strong conviction that the future belongs to India and China, and that the days of the West’s dominance are over.
The technique of speaking through the voice of someone like Balram produces text which is hard to critique – either for literary quality (how else would a rural semi-literate man speak) or for robustness of argument. Balram displays a mixture of insight (as when he understands the structural nature of inequality) and irrationality (as when he explains that the West is on the decline because of their tolerance of homosexuality). Notwithstanding such statements, Aravind’s treatment of Balram’s character overall perhaps reveals the limitations of the authors own imaginative capacities rather than those of the protagonist.
The White Tiger
The White Tiger provides a window into the lives and choices of the rural and urban poor during a period of unprecedented economic growth in India. Protagonist and narrator Balram grows up in rural poverty in India, migrates to an urban metropolis to work as a driver, and eventually breaks out of poverty by killing his employer and stealing his money.
It appears that the Balram’s reflections on his experiences reveal an awareness of structural social problems and an attempt to locate a locus of control for escape from poverty within individual action rather than in organized challenges to structural power. The following paragraphs trace key elements of the narrative – Balram’s social position, his experiences with poverty and power, his observations on the contrast in the lives of the rich and the poor, his analysis of socioeconomic problems, and his views on what can constitute possible emancipatory possibilities from poverty induced suffering.
Balram’s Social position
Balram grew up in extreme poverty and his father, a rickshaw puller, died of untreated tuberculosis in a dysfunctional government hospital. His uncles worked as manual farm laborers when they could find work. Balram worked as a cleaner in a tea-shop in his childhood and experienced urban homelessness. Even while working as a chauffeur in an urban city he continued to live in poor housing. He encounters examples of institutionalized power in the form of landlords extracting rent and labor from villagers and the machinations of the powerful local politician, “the Great Socialist”, in his village. Through professional life as a chauffeur, Balram had intimate visibility into the personal lives of his powerful employers. His outward attitude to his employer or “master” is one of fawning humble obedience. He continued to live in a state of servitude until he killed his employer and escaped with money.
Views on Social Suffering and Inequality
The contrast between the rich and the poor is a consistent theme in Balram’s narrative. He characterizes India as “two countries in one” (p. 10) – an India of Light and an India of Darkness referring to the divide between the rich and the poor. Balram personally witnesses the migration of the rural poor to urban centers to find work as well as the squalid living conditions of the poor in Delhi who live alongside immense wealth. Because he has access to the inner lives of the wealthy, Balram is in a good position to note the stark contrast between the people living in the two Indias.
Apart from the trivially obvious observation that Balram notices social suffering, it is important to note that Balram views these issues as a structural problem. He prominently compares the condition of those in the ‘Darkness’ to chickens living in a coop in miserable conditions. He also ascribes agency to a group of actors – “they” – comprising 0.1 % of the population who enslave the rest of the population (p. 96). The personification of “them” in Balram’s personal life is his employer, who he reverently calls ‘master’. Balram often describes social suffering and inequality through the framework of a master class exploiting a servant class. This distinction becomes especially clear to him as he contemplates the fact that drivers in Delhi often take the blame for their employer’s driving accidents including serving jail time in their place. Balram bitterly says, “We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse (p. 96). Yes, that’s right: we all live in the world’s greatest democracy. What a fucking joke.” From this, we can conclude that Balram not only notices poverty induced suffering around him, but also believes this to be a systemic structural problem with the rich masters controlling the lives of the poor servants. He characterizes this divide between the social groups as “Men with Big bellies”, and “Men with Small Bellies”. In this worldview, there are only two possibilities: “eat – or get eaten up” (p. 36).
From his analysis of the structure of inequality in the country, Balram makes another important assessment. He comes to believe that culpability for the suffering of the servants lies partly with the mentality of the servant class. He explains that money or power alone does not run the system, but rather the loyal attitude of the poor towards the rich precludes any thoughts of rising against them. Referring to this as a mentality of ‘perpetual servitude’, Balram asserts that this ideology is so strong in the servant class that “you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.” (p. 96)
Balram often explores the theme of escaping the grinding poverty and powerlessness of his social circumstances. In fact, his identity is closely bound up with this theme. His self-conception as an ‘entrepreneur’, although used sardonically, is of someone who made it out of poverty in a tough, competitive world. Balram’s lengthy analysis and explanation of the chicken coop analogy underscores the importance of this question to him.
Balram never seriously considers the political economy of the class divide or the possibility of collective action for social emancipation. His narrative of the lives of the poor makes numerous mentions of the pettiness or barbarity of their lives, but never considers them as sites of any real emancipatory potential. These mentions include graphic descriptions of unsanitary conditions, references to slavish attitudes pervasive among the poor, and their incapacity to rise above their social circumstance to think about beauty or liberation. He blames this attitude as self-defeating which pulls back even those who are trying to escape (p. 138). Balram says “If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India”.
Rather, he is more amenable to focusing on what individuals can do independently to escape or fight the system. Balram’s fond and proud recollection of his father’s decision to “fight” the landlord’s oppression by choosing to be a rickshaw puller rather than a farm laborer is an indication of the limited scope of his sample space of emancipatory possibilities. His self-identity as an entrepreneur epitomizes his philosophy: he recognizes that the system can be unjust, cruel, and brutal, and that suffering is structural and systemic but the only solution is to game the system by any means necessary and escape poverty into material wealth. This to Balram is the pinnacle of emancipation. To reach this goal, Balram advises those in the ‘Darkness’ not to waste time waiting for a social revolution. Instead, he says, “the book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian. Crap it out, and read” (p. 160). In a final indication of his belief about the universal applicability of his emancipatory strategy Balram asserts that his journey into wealth and respectability embodies the struggle that “every poor man” in the country must be making. (p. 179)
Balram’s diagnosis of social suffering as acutely affecting the servant class displays his understanding of the structural dimension of inequality. To ameliorate this situation he places the locus of intervention in individual action acting independently to secure financial stability. During his time in Delhi, Balram makes some overtures towards favorably considering a social revolution. In one passage, as he observes the urban homeless, he wishes that there be a civil war in Delhi and for blood on the streets (p. 123). But these ideas are never seriously considered or developed. It is as if, for Balram, such direct challenges to structural power are wishful thinking, never in the realm of the possible.
SECTION 3 – LITERATURE AND POLITICS
As Aravind’s numerous interviews show, it is almost impossible to talk about his book without getting into politics. Indeed, Aravind seems to never shy away from this and takes these opportunities to explain his views on poverty, governance, socialism, terrorism, and colonialism to name a few topics. In all these interviews, Aravind displays astonishing (for his educational pedigree) ignorance about the deeper causes of poverty and suffering in India. While his rhetoric seems radical, his analysis often naively stops at blaming “corrupt politicians” and “lack of healthcare services” as the “root causes” of India’s problems. He is eager to berate “socialist politicians and bureaucrats” and enthusiastic about foreign investments but appears completely innocent of any traces of understanding either of the political economy of globalization or of the brutality of the impact of neo-liberal reforms on India’s poor.
In his interviews and public statements Aravind displays the passion and zeal of a convert when he talks of the poor. He compares himself to Dickens and says that writers like them are important for social change because they highlight the injustices of society. Armed with his recent discovery of poverty in India Aravind almost assumes the poignancy and spiritual depth of a prophet foretelling coming tragedy.
Coming from New York City after spending time fraternizing with finance writers and TIME journalists, it is likely that the shock Aravind felt when he saw the desperate poverty juxtaposed against great wealth was genuine. To his credit this jarring contrast moved him enough to write about it. While his insistence that all is not well with the economic boom is at face value a useful contribution to make to development discourse in the public sphere it also introduces a grotesque caricature of the poor in public imagination. This caricature primarily focuses on the filthiness, barbarity, and sub-standard quality of economic, social, emotional, and intellectual lives of the poor. While Aravind describes elsewhere how impressed he was with the ‘acerbic wit’ of the poor, this comes out in Balram as crude, vulgar, and bitter statements – more jarring than witty. Ironically, Aravind claims that one of his favorite books was The Grapes of Wrath – a story set during the Great Depression but whose primary themes are compassion, love, humor, and human dignity in a time of great suffering. The inability to see the poor as capable of beauty or dignity first and foremost dehumanizes them and makes them victims to be targeted for intervention rather than agents themselves of emancipatory change.
One reason for the book’s wide spread acclaim is that it “shines a light” on the under belly of India’s development. The general theme in all these admiring stories and reviews is that this is a crucial, timely, and important observation. It is as if this poverty itself is a recent phenomenon – something that arose unnoticed while the nation focused on economic development. Negated by this narrative is the formulation that this urban and rural poverty arose not because of chance neglect of policymakers trying to engage in higher goals like economic development but rather as a direct consequence of these economic policies.
Aravind’s favorite example of tuberculosis in India which he likes to repeat in almost every interview provides a good illustration of the contradiction between his concern for the poor and his ignorance of the political economy underlying their suffering. Recently, after pharmaceutical markets were liberalized, the price of drugs increased four-fold and in some instances 10- fold, pricing it out of reach of the poor. As a direct result of this policy, tuberculosis is a death sentence to the poor, whereas before they could at least afford to buy life-saving drugs. Similarly, one of the reasons for the rise in tuberculosis is malnutrition. After the food markets were opened up for speculation in 2007 hunger in India increased dramatically as nutrition intake of the poor became hinged to speculation on Wall Street.
India’s liberalization program was cheered by the middle class and the new and more aggressive phase of neo-liberal development currently underway will undoubtedly find support in these sections as well. Ominous recent developments marking this phase have been documented on this website including signing nuclear, defence, and agricultural contracts with the US and the selling of tribal land wholesale to mega-corporations.
In a time of crisis there is a pressing need to make the connections between policy and poverty. Instead we are presented with Aravind Adiga offering policy prescriptions from the platform that the Man-Booker prize gave him. It is using this stage, and reaching a wide section of the Indian middle class, that Aravind applauds the recent “dramatic improvement” in Indo-US ties and declares the irrelevance of colonialism even as members of Monsanto and Cargill sit on the board of the agency planning the future function of India’s agricultural institutes.
1. In 1972 the winning author John Berger protested during his acceptance speech against Booker Connell. He blamed Booker’s 130 years of sugar production in the Caribbean for the region’s modern poverty.
Image courtesy: http://annabron.blogspot.com/