Friday, October 17, 2008

What does the Booker win mean for Arvind Adiga?


Some Indians are upset at Arvind Adiga's Booker win because they think it was wrong of him to have exposed the dark side of India (Read: The dark horse and Roars of anger).

The truth is that the dark side of India has always been out there, provided that one was living and breathing with one's eyes open in the first place--in news reports, blogs, and non-fiction writing--it has been there all along (Forgot Pankaj Mishra's and Arundhati Roy's writings, to say the least? And they don't read Tehelka there, do they?). This could also be seen as one of the side effects (on the British consciousness) of Salman Rushdie's move to New York. The man used to keep the British up to date with the goings on of the sub-continent.

I don't know about The Guardian and other UK dailies but as far as I know, the NYT and the IHT have been regularly publishing reports on the dark side of India--communal violence, widening socio-economic divide, corruption, negligence of states like Bihar, etc. Looks like the Booker judges were not exposed to such reports--that's why it took Adiga's novel for them to get informed about this aspect of the country--one of the world's rising powers. "This book changed me," Booker judge Michael Portillo said. "It changed my view of certain things, like what is the real India and what is the nature of poverty." Good for him! At least now the learned man knows something that he ought to know.

As for India, you need not worry. Criticism is part of life and it is the job of writers and journalists to point out the social ills. As citizens, we can work to build a better India.

But to come back to the complaint, after the success stories from a rising India, it is the dark side of India that is attracting the attention of the Western junta. What's it? A feeling of “schadenfreude” against a resurgent India? Look how Jala's film (Children of the Pyre) won the best documentary film prize at the Montreal film festival. Adapting another Indian novel by Vikas Swarup, filmmaker Danny Boyle has made a film on a man from the Mumbai slums doing well but being questioned for his doing well precisely because of his origin. That film is Slum Dog Millionaire which is said to be well-received in film festivals.

I am not saying all this to take away credit from anyone involved. My message to the upset people is simply this: Expect more negative stories from India making it to the Western press and book stores. Being upset at it won't change anything.

But honestly, I don't think one can blame Arvind for writing this kind of an angry book--for going where he went for his literary material. As a writer, he wrote what caught his fancy. However, I also agree with what Nilanjan S Roy has said: "The idea that what Adiga has done is path-breaking is ridiculous. No doubt, he has written a great book and given us a character, Balram Halwai, that will stay with us. But as anyone in India who reads widely enough knows, he's not 'the first to go where no other Indian author has gone before' as reviews in the west have proclaimed."

I haven't read the book so I can't comment on its merit. But among what I have read recently, The Peacock Throne dealt with the similar class of people. And, anyway, I don't need to read a novel to know about such people as I have literally grown up with characters like Balram Halwai minus the ascribed villainy as a class trait--if that's how readers choose to read the work of fiction and work out the equation.

As a caveat, for the benefit of Portillo and others, to get the impression from this novel that all of India's poor are likely villains and throat cutters would be to get it all wrong. And to assume that India's poor have only two ways--politics and crime --to come up in life would be to believe in the naivety of the partial truth. I have seen poor Indians becoming successful businessmen and skilled workers by the dint of their hard work and smartness. I have read about the sons of rickshaw-pullers making it to the civil services. There are many stories. Arvind chose one of them to tell through his novel that he found the most compelling.

However, many critics, including Professor Amitava Kumar, have questioned the authenticity of his portrayal of a character like Balram (from the darkness, that is Bihar) in a seminal essay (Bad News: Authenticity and the South Asian political novel):
I also loved what I’d heard of Adiga’s cheeky use of the epistolary form, that the whole book was a letter from the Indian servant to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Certainly, the narrator’s voice is bold and funny...But when I started reading the book, my enthusiasm evaporated. I did not know until I began reading the novel that the protagonist, Balram Halwai, is from the state of Bihar, where I was born and grew up, and which Halwai in the course of the entire book calls by the name Darkness. But more than the name was unsettling. In the book’s opening pages, Halwai begins to tell the Chinese Premier the story of his life. We are introduced to the poverty of rural Bihar, and the evil of the feudal landlords. Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist. I find Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive...As I continued, I found on nearly every page a familiar observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounds false. I stopped reading on page thirty-five.


No matter what, I am happy for Arvind to have won the prestigious award. The man worked hard--he left his job after a successful stint at the Time. He had the best education available to him--he too could have become an investment banker or a doctor. But he decided to become a journalist and a writer. How many people take that path?

With his Booker win, he has raised the bar so high for all young Indian writers--and especially for those geniuses who have gone to places like Oxford and Columbia. Their friends might be asking them: dude, when are you going to chuck your job and whip out that Booker winning novel? (The banking and finance sector is anyway doing poorly so the timing is right, isn't it? Ha ha, just kidding).

Here is an interesting account from Arvind's friend at the Time magazine who was there at the Guildhall when the Mangalore boy's name was announced as a winner:
For Ravi Mirchandani, who edited Adiga's book and was sitting beside him at the table, the win was especially sweet. The White Tiger was the first book he bought for Atlantic, which hired him in 2006 after he was fired from a job at Random House. The novel was shown to him by Adiga's agent, who insisted that he read it that night and make an almost instant decision about whether to bid for it. "I sat down with the manuscript and after the first six pages I was just so excited," Mirchandani said. "When you're reading a first novel, you're often thinking: 'This is fantastic, keep it up, keep it up' " — only to find the writer stumbles and falls. In Adiga's case, Mirchandani said, "The voice is fantastic and it never falters."

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Amid all this hullabaloo, I have been wondering about one thing: whatever happened to the Naipaulian advice to novelists: stop bringing the news! Dickens used to do that when journalism was yet to uncover the dark side of industrialization in Britain. And imagine, Adiga's novel has actually been called Dickensian! Does it mean journalism has failed?

If yes, then this could be good news for Tehelka. Tehelka sales team, please take note. Send a sample subscription copy to Portillo and company, and thank Mr Adiga for opening a new corner of the market to you and your ilk of truth-tellers.