Thursday, October 22, 2009

White Tiger

I read the White Tiger a second time. It was even better the second time, although darker.
I think it is a great book and deserved the prize it won.

But I found myself wondering about the motives of those who praised it. The White Tiger aptly and rightfully exposes and critiques corruption in India, but at the same time it reeks of a snobby middle class delicacy about the filth of the poor. This is an issue of class, not nationality. The author is just as disgusted by the poor as his Oxford peers and those who reviewed the book and loved its honesty.

I began to notice this because the author harped so much on the chewing of betel leaf. It is gross by our standards to be sure, but it is also a respite and relief for those who live lives of unrelieved poverty and work. Naming a character "Vitiligo-Lips" was just mean, and dehumanized him. The author could not stop talking about his pink lips.

I realize these are literary devices, but there comes a moment when the device becomes simply an expression of disgust and nothing more. I wanted the author to be a little less squeamish. But at least he lives in India and is not one of those over-refined expats.

What I think is brilliant about the White Tiger is the complexity of Ashok. He is corrupt, weak, myopic, and disloyal. But at the same time his humanity breaks out occasionally, only to be immediately squelched by India's history and culture. Their sheer weight make it difficult for people to get out from under. I think he may be underappreciated compared to Balram, who is of course, a tour de force character.

The Indians I have talked to verify that corruption is everywhere from low level public servants and service employees to the highest ranks of business and government. This makes me appreciate even more our Wild West traditions of going after the bad guys in our never-ending morality plays, cast as they are in simple, black-and-white terms. Europeans laugh at this simplicity, but I think the notion of clear right and wrong helps keep a check on corruption without the cloying uniformity that Europeans use to effect the same. Americans can be wacky and creative and individualistic (and I think we have something of a corner on the market here) without tipping over too far into the sinkholes of amorality that confront India, as Adiga wrote about.

Great find Christopher. I rarely read a contemporary novel so interesting. I think partly it is because The White Tiger is actually very old-fashioned; it has a real plot, it is not crafted from bored cynicism (like Naive Super), it engages a clear morality, and it is happy to entertain. Perhaps there is a colonial sensibility here; Adiga may be more in touch with 19th and early 20th century literature because of growing up upper class in India where education is more traditional and less likely to be prey to the House on Mango Street mentality here.

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