When compared with the journalist or the scholar, the fiction writer seems absurdly free. He (or she) can construct a story in any way he chooses. His characters have the freedom to say whatever they like—in fact, they are most persuasive when we feel them to be “free”, and not mouthpieces for the author’s ideas. All we demand in return is not that the story be true, but that it be plausible.
The White Tiger | Aravind Adiga :HarperCollins, 322 pages, Rs395
But, this requirement shows us that the fiction writer’s freedom is actually a difficult freedom. Constructing a plausible story from scratch—a story in which narration, dialogue and plot construction work together to produce the effect of lived experience—can be harder than reporting or analysing a true story. This is the reason why, when judged by the highest standards, most novels are failures, some are honourable failures and few are successes.
Fiction writers can misuse their freedom through simple incompetence, or by manipulative plotting, or by a failure to imaginatively realize the inner lives of their characters, or by simplified and schematic thinking that waters down the complexity of the world. Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger seems instructive in this regard, because it seems to fail in all the ways mentioned above.
The White Tiger takes the form of a series of letters addressed by an entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. It is a slick monologue somewhat reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist but, while Hamid’s protagonist Changez addresses the reader, there seems no good reason for Balram to address Wen. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells Wen the story of how he was for long a denizen of “the Darkness” and how, after murdering his employer, he struck riches.
Some other reviews of Adiga’s novel have praised Balram’s cynical, world-weary voice as a refreshing view-from-below, an antidote to romantic thinking about “the new India”. But, they ignore the extent to which The White Tiger itself participates in the perpetuation of simple binaries. The two most conspicuous words in the narrative are “malls” (prosperous, materialistic urban India) and “the Darkness” (benighted, suffering rural India), a realm of rapacious landlords and fatalistic citizens reconciled to living in “the coop”. Balram’s village, Laxmangarh, has many malnourished children with eyes that shine “like the guilty conscience of the government of India”.
It is certainly true that India’s malnourished children are an indictment of government. But would a man such as Balram—a murderer, and corrupt—conceptualize a situation in these terms? Or, is this just Adiga speaking through his character, trying to win some brownie points for social concern?
Adiga’s story is never more wretched than in one of the closing scenes. Balram now runs a taxi service in Bangalore, and one of his drivers knocks down and kills a youth. Balram has contacts with the (inevitably corrupt) police, and gets the case hushed up. As a gesture of charity, he visits the aged parents of the deceased with compensation of Rs25,000. The mother will not take it. But “the old man, the father, was eyeing the envelope”, reports Balram. Eventually, they take the money.
This scene is reprehensible not because Balram is so despicable (although he is), but because of Adiga’s implication that anybody—even parents whose grief is as fresh as a wound —can be bought in India as long as the price is right. The India of Adiga’s novel is certainly grotesque, but Adiga gleefully feasts upon and exaggerates this grotesquerie.
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