Long versus short: ‘The White Tiger’ and ‘Between the Assassinations’ by Aravind Adiga
| The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
| Between the Assassinations
by Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga will go down as having maintained India’s winning streak in the international literary scene by bagging the 2008 Man Booker prize. The fact that he pipped at the post his more illustrious compatriot Amitav Ghosh makes his triumph even more significant. The question is whether The White Tiger, his debut novel, is deserving of the high profile it has achieved. And now that Adiga’s first volume of short fiction, titled Between the Assassinations, has been released close on the heels of his Booker win, how would one review Adiga as a writer?
The first thing which is of note about Adiga’s work is that it is a welcome break from the dominant trend of writing by the diaspora. Indeed, Adiga slams the door shut in the face of the West even while portraying India, both pre- and post-economic reform, as an insufficiently imagined community. The novel, a triumphant product of globalisation that has reversed the power equations between the North and the global South, is marked by its pronounced irreverence towards the West (“In twenty years’ time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we will rule the world”) and its comic deflation of the white man (in decline, as the novel’s first-person narrator says, due to “buggery, drug abuse and mobile phone usage”).
Between the Assassinations for its part, though set in the backdrop of the killings of two Indian prime ministers – Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – zeros in on the local by focusing on Kittur, a Malgudi-like (but real) south Indian small town. Adiga holds up its far from desirable scenes, situations and characters to an up close inspection in the clinical, self-effacing and epiphanic vein of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The writing also has a freshness that makes the finely-honed and delicately sculpted style of much diasporic writing look formulaic and contrived. The White Tiger and Between the Assassinations have broken out of the mould; the use of the epistolary form in the former (the story is told in the course of seven letters that the narrator Balaram writes to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao) and the blend of reportage and narrative in the latter are especially noteworthy.
White Tiger plumbs the depths of darkness simmering beneath the much-hyped ‘Shining India’. On the surface, this dismal picture conforms to the West’s stock image of India, and though there are grounds for fearing that this will make Western co-option of the novel easier, Adiga’s view from below serves to show the writer as a critical insider. The series of binary cuts that Adiga reveals in the Indian society of today, namely the division between an ‘India of Light’ and an ‘India of Darkness’, between people with big bellies and those with modest tummies; between the English liquor men and the Indian liquor men; and above all, the division between the car owners and their drivers, are uncomfortably close to the truth.
As such, if Adiga is to be faulted at all, it is not for his somewhat simplified social equations, but for fighting shy of the radical solution which seems to be called for by his logic. For, the applicability of the doctrine, as it stands in the novel, seems to be limited to the agenda of justifying the gruesome killing that is at the novel’s centre, of a master by his servant. The closing sentences of the novel make it clear: “I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.” The lines suggest that much more than personal gratification is at stake here; perhaps even something as momentous as social justice. The action of the novel is also to some extent headed in the same direction. Balaram Halwai is a lowborn in terms of caste and calling, a dropout son of a rickshaw puller. His lot is to massage the feet of the village landlord.
It is in the mundane descriptions that Adiga is at his evocative best. Sample, for instance, Adiga on Balaram’s feelings about the foot massage:
“I had to heat water on the stove, carry it into the courtyard, and then lift the old man’s feet up one after the other and immerse them in the hot water and then massage them both gently; as I did this, he would close his eyes and moan. … After an hour, he would say, ‘The water’s gone cold’ … The water in it was dark – dead hair and bits of skin floated on it. I had to fill the bucket with fresh hot water, and bring it back. … I washed my hands for ten minutes, and dried them, and washed them again, but it made no difference. No matter how much you wash your hands after you have massaged a man’s foot, the smell of his old, flaky skin will stay for an entire day”.
Clearly, the anger is directed at an abhorrent practice, and Adiga portrays the master-servant relationship in all its inherent sadism, beyond the pietistic ritual it is taken to be. But there is a problem: the description feels more like pathology than sociology, and it is this pathology that directs the novel from here on. Balaram makes it to Delhi as the driver of Ashok’s (the America-returned son of the village landlord) Honda City car. It is in Delhi that he encounters the hallucinogenic cocktail of power, politics and sexual perversion. It is here that he becomes aware of the unbridgeable gulf between light and darkness. He moves in the illuminated zones of Delhi as the car’s driver, but is consigned to the murky depths of the city’s underbelly, a dichotomy aptly mirrored in the multi-storied apartment with its basement. He is witness in Delhi to the carefree, opulent and selfish lives lived by the elite on whom he wants to wreak his revenge. But it is here that Adiga changes tack by setting the low born on the course towards being a social climber. He mistakenly calls the latter an entrepreneur.
For Balaram, entrepreneurship is first and foremost about wanting a way out of his servile existence. But he wants to do this not by confronting but by manipulating the system. Accordingly, Balaram murders Ashok in Delhi one rainy evening on a lonely stretch of road. He then turns up in Bangalore, the hub of India’s silicon revolution and sets up his “White Tiger Drivers” and becomes a part of the booming IT industry in that city. He becomes an owner and a master or, in his lingo, he is “in Light now.” He turns out to be a different kind of master, a cynical manipulator of the social system, where everyone is pliable.
A question that would occur to any reader is, has the class war doctrine broached in the novel been taken to its rightful conclusion? It might be that this outcome is more in tune with cynical postmodernism, embodied by Balaram Halwai. Referring to the murder he committed, in a morbid parody of Lady Macbeth, Balaram says, “All the skin-whitening creams sold in the markets of India won’t clean my hands again.” It is in this rewriting of cult as kitsch that Adiga’s novel declares its allegiance to postmodernism. Thus, it is not Balaram’s roguery but his cynicism that is finally so astounding and alarming. A novel which embraces such cynicism can only move away from sociology towards pathology in the end, prioritising individual salvation over collective salvation.
But what saves the day for Adiga is his collection of short fiction. For there is a range of character portrayal and a wealth of detail in these ten short stories in Between the Assassinations that is missing in the longer work. Kittur is presented with a mixture of empiricism and imagination that is quite unique in contemporary Indian English writing. Adiga is a journalist by training. His reporter’s skill shows in his keen eye for detail: houses, streets, climate, sewage, vegetation and development. What is more, he spins stories about Kittur to bring out its diversity, its pluricultural fabric, as well as its chronic underdevelopment, “the finespun fabric of corruption.” A chronicler of an urban experience that not only meets the eye but also lurks in street corners and alleyways, Adiga expresses his writer’s credo thus in the ninth story “Bajpe”: “but a small town is like that, full of hidden treasures.” Maybe it is the short take and not the long shot which is Adiga’s forte after all.
~ Himansu S Mohapatra is a professor of English at Utkal University in Bhubaneshwar.