And now I move from E.M. Forster’s fictional, early 20th century Chandrapore to New Delhi of a century later in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Same country, different world.
Adiga’s novel is not one to wow with verbal pyrotechnics. It is a straightforward story told by a self-educated narrator, who is forced to leave school at a young age and works himself up from tea shop “spider” to driver to entrepreneur through his own ingenuity/opportunism. Adiga writes simply; there are no secrets here. As such, the pages glide by quickly, but also, I’m afraid, a little cheaply. There’s not much beyond the surface, not terribly much to contemplate.
The story unfolds as a long letter written to then-Premier of China Wen Jiabao over ten nights. I could have done without this clunky construct. It doesn’t add much to the narrative, and the little asides to leader of China about the differences between his country and India are cute but not unduly penetrating.
Still, I am interested in the way Adiga creates momentum in his narrative. What pushes us on as readers to stay engaged, to want to know more? Is it just the “exotic” (to us) setting, the self-satisfying illusion that we’re traveling to another world, into a completely different life? There is some of that. And yet one has to wonder how “authentic” the perspective is, authored as it is by a man born into a well-to-do Indian family who had the privilege of emigrating to Australia during high school and then studying at Columbia and Oxford. Adiga’s perspective is likely most represented by the character Mr. Ashok, the driver’s boss. Ashok’s behavior and viewpoint (what little we see of it through the narrator) ring true, whereas the narrator’s don’t quite pass the sniff test. More specifically, this life of a downtrodden, impoverished Indian man feels manufactured–there is nothing surprising there, nothing I couldn’t have imagined myself.
So what else keeps us engaged? Is it just the plot then? It could be the plot. There’s a feeling of anything-can-happen that makes me want to see how the author has chosen to proceed. Of course, there is a good amount of foreshadowing as well, the promise of something dark (not so dark, actually). And it helps that the narrator is a scoundrel–this is now en vogue and could account for some of our fascination. How does a “bad” person think? What are his motivations? What bits of goodness complicate his life?
But perhaps I underrate Adiga. A random passage from the novel’s early pages:
The next day my father came with me to my school, for the first and last time. It was dawn; the place was empty. We pushed the door open. A dim blue light filled the classroom. 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.
The “low, red wallpaper” is a nice touch. The whole scene, actually, is quite nice, simply drawn, as I’ve mentioned, but still, somehow, brimming with visual detail: “dim blue light,” children stealing paan from the sleeping schoolteacher, “hands on hips, back arched slightly.” What do most of us beginners fill our paragraphs with? Certainly nothing as fertile as this.
Note to self: Do not overlook these stories, though they might not impress at first. There is still much to learn.