Well, he’s gone and done it. This evening, the Press Club will be pounding with the angry thumps of journalists who can’t believe that bugger Adiga went and won the bloody Booker, man. Or Man Booker, if you want to lose colloquial flavour and be technical about it. Sebastian Barry with The Secret Scripture was supposed to be the favourite for the bookies with Adiga as a close second. Next thing you know, Aravind Adiga, gift wrapped with bow tie no less, is the second youngest winner of the Booker prize and apparently Australia is tugging at his coattails in an attempt to claim him (shoo! He’s ours. Not only does he live in Mumbai now, he lived in India until he was well into his teens and then went to Australia, so there!).There will now follow grunts about how the Booker is as political as the Nobel. Some will question the validity of the Booker because who in today’s day and age still holds up the damn Commonwealth? Others, hopefully, will go out and read the book. Because whether or not you had money on Barry, Adiga’s debut novel is good stuff – confident, clever and sharp.
The point is, of course, was it the best book produced in the countries of the Commonwealth this year and that’s a tough question to answer because Adiga had stiff competition this year. Plus, we haven’t seen any of the non-Indian books at local bookshops. I’m willing to bet if I ask for The Secret Scripture at Crossword Bookstore, I’ll be given a reader’s guide to The Da Vinci Code. Considering the fact that they asked me if Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s books should be in the Management section, anything is possible. So I’ve no idea if Adiga’s is the best novel out there. What I do know and am highly intrigued by is the style in which The White Tiger was written. Having divided Balram Hawai’s bildungsroman into letters, Adiga’s found a perfect way to reach the modern reader. With researchers pronouncing that attention spans are being reduced with every click of the tv remote or mouse, this policy of dividing a novel into small parts may well rule. Next to his punchy, vignette-esque writing, the conventional narrative with its fondness for style and sub-plots may well feel meandering and demanding (one of the complaints levelled against The Enchantress of Florence, for example). Even a slim novel like the wickedly-written A Case of Exploding Mangoes (highly-recommended, by the way) asked of the reader a longish attention span that would ensure they didn’t forget about Shigri while reading about General Zia or the blind Zainab. From the expansive 300-paged tome of the 20th century, are we turning back towards the single-strand novella that could be (and often was) printed episodically? It’s certainly more environment-friendly (less paper = less deforestation).
The White Tiger is one of the few instances of the contemporary subaltern surfacing in Indian English literature. The novel has none of the quietness of the helpless father in Mrinal Sen’s film Kharij nor the affected anger or dignity of many of Mahasweta Devi‘s protagonists. Instead, The White Tiger is bold, sharp, honest and frequently funny. In a country that boasts of having one of the most profitable Louis Vuitton outlets internationally and the world’s largest slum, this is a big deal because, as Adiga mentioned in an interview, what he has written is a picture of “mainstream culture” with all the masala that makes for life in India. This is the New India, the one Chetan Bhagat doesn’t write about in his Five Point Someone-esque tripe.
Adiga’s hero is Balram Halwai, a son of the soil who lives in a very real India of privileges, corruption and violence. All he wants to do is to survive, preferably in comfort. The novel is made up of letters written by Halwai to the Chinese Premier, describing the India that Halwai knows and the one that isn’t shown in newspapers and television reports about the country with an economy growing at an absurd rate like 10% (or something like that). The bitterness in Adiga’s writing is wonderfully pungent amidst the insipid depression and ennui of the characters that inhabit much of Indian English writing, like The Inheritance of Loss, another Booker winner (one that was entirely inexplicable unless it was the Booker’s attempt at being “post-British” as John Sutherland puts it). Vij has a point when he says the Booker is coming perilously close to becoming like the the Miss Universe in the late 1990s – if you’re Indian then the odds are in your favour. Interestingly, 9 out of the 42 Bookers awarded till date have India as the setting. (The other favourite is Ireland – hence Sebastian Barry being a favourite – but if you’re Irish, then you need to throw in a death in the family.) The Empire does indeed write back. Though really, if the Booker wants to be seriously post-British, perhaps it should consider letting American authors into the fold.
Sutherland makes an interesting point when he says that with its choice, the Booker is holding up what it thinks the novel as a genre should do. By awarding The White Tiger, the judges have voted for literature’s capacity to be truthful. Once upon a time, it was the media’s job to tell us the truth from fanciful depictions of reality; now with all of us being cynically aware of the media’s capacity for creative non-fiction, it’s apparently back to literature being the cup-bearer for history.