The White Tiger and us

Posted in books, society by jrahman on May 8, 2009

I finished Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in two nights.  Let me begin with some quick observations. 

  • The prose is very simple and crisp.  There is no Rushdiesque long sentences.  But it is still quite evocative. 
  • Adiga describes poverty very accurately, but without sentimentalism or development porn.  I was reminded of Satyajit Ray’s movies. 
  • However, unlike Ray’s rural movies — and very much like his urban movies — Adiga has a strong, albeit subtle, subversive tone.  I like subversion.
  • I am never going to be able to look at a driver the same way again. 

I strongly recommend the book, and if you haven’t read it, you may wish to stop right here.  On the other hand, if you have read it, looking forward to your thoughts.

The protagonist of the novel escapes grinding poverty of rural north India by becoming a driver.  He first drives for a local big wig (‘godfather’ in Bangladeshi parlance), and then the big wig’s bidesh ferot son and his westernised wife.  He becomes privy to the urbane couple’s indiscretions, some innocuous, but some very deadly.  He starts of being very respectful of the couple, but as the story progresses, he comes to realise the grotesquely unjust nature of his existence.  He ends up committing something illegal, something that we would normally consider morally abhorrent.  And yet, laws simply don’t matter in that very dark country, and in Adiga’s narrative, it is not self-evident that the protagonist has indeed done anything morally wrong.

There are at least three prisms through which we can view the story, and its relevance for today’s Bangladesh.

First there is a Frantz Fanon style class rebellion lense.  Adiga’s protagonist is driven by a desire to have what is not available to him, and he is not afraid to use violence to get it.  The same kind of motivation — the have nots trying to grab by force what they are denied — has been attributed to the events at Pilkhana on 25-26 February.  More generally, that kind of class rebellion idea is not uncommon in among the readers of Daily Star/New Age or the blogosphere.  The general view is that we live in a disgustingly unequal society, and as the scales drop from their eyes, the have nots will rise up and do what Adiga’s hero does.  Of course, whether this scares or excites one depends on their politics.

Then there is the vision of a sort of Naipaulian dystopia.  Adiga’s hero comes from Darkness — surely an allusion to Naipaul’s first book on the land of his ancestors.  But in Adiga’s telling, New Delhi may be a big city, but the lights there ain’t bright.  In the bleak country, rights and wrongs have ceased to matter (if they ever really mattered that is). 

The relevance of this interpretation for Bangladesh, if anyone wonders, is described here.  Rumi Ahmed notes, accurately, that while the chattering classes think about socialist or socialism-leaning nationalism, tangential dealings with Islamism, reforms and revolutions, idealism turned populism, for many suffocating in the middle class Dhaka — not the grinding poverty of slums and landless peasants — the path out may involve those trodden by guys named Giasuddin al Mamun or Tokai Shagor or Pichci Hannan.

If a society has no moral anchor, then what is it but a dystopia?  Seen from this angle, Bangladesh is a dystopia.

And yet, and yet, that may not be the full story either.  We can view the protagonist’s action through a lense of Weberian spirit of capitalism.  Adiga’s hero is not content with what the fate has dealt him.  He wants to change his lot.  He does so by learning — to read, to drive, the vacuity of his employers.  He does so by applying his knowledge.  He does so by being an entreprenuer.  Indeed, that’s how he describes himself in the very first page.

He also does so by leaving his dark village and grim Delhi for brighter Bangalore.  Like all migrants — whether arriving at the Ellis Island or at Heathrow, crossing the American plains in the 19th century or the Mediterranean today — our hero is in search of the city where he can be true, much like Islam’s Prophet (who, incidentally, was also a trader). 

And the relevance for Bangladesh?  Well, if we look around, we will see a lot of examples where through hard work and indomitable human spirit, people have improved their lot.  For example, what is Dr Atiur Rahman’s inspirational life story but a testament to this spirit? 

The Bangladesh that I know is not all that different from the India of Adiga.  A typical driver of a typical affluent Dhaka household is aware of all the sordid little things we, the self-styled bhadraloks, try to hide from the society.  Everytime I’ll look at a driver, I’ll now think, he knows, he knows our secrets, and the hypocrisies of our moral posturing

But the question is, what does he think after that?  He would not have read Fanon, Naipaul, or Weber.  But his thoughts will fit one of these men’s framework.  Which one?  Is he boiling in rage that is one spark away from an eruption?  Does he see no hope?  Or does he dream of a better day?

9 Responses

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  2. Robin Khundkar said, on May 9, 2009 at 4:21 am

    I read the book! I was disturbed by it. I have no dispute in the way he described the immoral and self-centred South Asian middle classes. But something bugged me. May be it was guilt!

    Here is UCLA’s Prof Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s critique of the book as published in LRB

    Also Pankaj Mishra the noted writer responds to Sanjay

    • jrahman said, on May 9, 2009 at 10:16 am

      Robin bhai, I think I know what you mean about the unease/guilt.

      Thanks for the links. I am not a huge fan of Mishra, but I’m on his side in this one.

  3. tacit said, on May 15, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I went out and got WT. I, too, felt uncomfortable pangs of guilt listening to the driver’s inner soliloquy.

    I think the distance between darkness and light in BD is shorter. And both the darkness and the light are less intense.

    The political process is described very, very well. The empty rhetoric, the nexus between the police, politicians, and businessmen, and the endless bags of money needed to keep the machine going, are all nicely painted.

    By the way, I recommend Sacred Game by Vikram Chandra, if you have not read it. More sprawling, more epic, and much better dialogue.

  4. Robin said, on May 18, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Sacred Game is an excellent read. But it is essentially a fictionalized version of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City! Also a great read!

    I am currently reading Ramachandra Guha’s “India after Gandhi”. A very insightful book on what went right and what went wrong in Post 1947 India.

  5. Bonbibi said, on May 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    ha ha ha ha ha – evil laugh – I’m so glad this book was written, a taster of things to come.. but only in places where the outrageously rich flaunt their wealth in front of their ‘others’: the dirt poor humans they share space with and who they consider little better than dogs..
    Have often wondered why there were so many muggings in Dhaka, in London, in Delhi and not in places like Kolkata, Paris or Stokholm.. i think these last places don’t have the outrageous, in-your-face consumption by a rich few..
    When your policies and politics preach the ideals of equality (and in my naïveté I was hoping that i’ld find in Bangladesh greater signs of equality than in West Bengal – because Islam praches equality and in contrast we all know Hinduism is inherently based on inequality, right? even if in places like Kolkata there is, each year, even less to go around) and shows an inherent disgust of opulent lifestyles – yeah, yeah, I can live with the ‘stingy’ epithet if it means certain cities are going to treat people more like humans and less like dogs – there remains a flicker of hope.. otherwise, its going to be which dog kills the other first.

  6. Random Desh ramblings (2) « Mukti said, on August 14, 2010 at 11:37 am

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