Did I actually read The White Tiger before pronouncing the Booker “undeserving”? No I did not. which is why I attributed “undeserving” to common consensus rather than to myself. I had gone by the views of reviewers I trust, such as Chandrahas Choudhury.
But I am happy to report that since then, I have, as a service to my readers, read that novel. This surprising turn of events came about as a result of a series of coincidences. I visited Mumbai, and there I found that my brother was in possession of a pirated copy of the book. The horrors of a long-distance flight on Northwest airlines lay ahead of me, and I wanted a book that I could finish by the time I reached Amsterdam. I asked my brother if I could borrow it. He was only too happy to lend it. I started reading it at the airport and finished it somewhere over Asia Minor. Yes the novel is utter crap and Aravind Adiga is an incompetent writer.
For a novelist who sets out to depict the reality of the “Darkness” – his name for the India that is not shining – Adiga’s ignorance of what he sets out to depict is palpable.
His protagonist is named Balram Halwai. He has apparently been born into the poorest stratum of society in a district in Bihar. Schooling has been unheard of in his family and it is only due to his father’s desire that his sons should escape poverty that Balram and his brother find themselves in school.
When I read the name Balram Halwai, it made me uneasy for some reason that I could not put my finger on. I ignored the unease, partly because I was reading quite fast and mostly because there were so many other ridiculous things in the novel to distract me. Then, when the novel moves to discuss caste for the first time, it suddenly struck me: What is a person, obviously born into a lower caste, doing with a name like Halwai? If you know anything at all about caste, you will know that the notion of purity is most rigidly enforced in matters of food and drink. Where in India can a lower caste person also be a traditional seller of sweets?
But wait a minute. It turns out that Balram Halwai is not a lower-caste person after all. After introducing the concept of caste, and the fact that Halwai means seller of sweets, Adiga finds himself having to explain how instead of selling sweets, Balram’s family is working as landless labourers. Balram’s family is supposedly in this state because his grandfather suffered losses in his business. But hey, when he started off Balram’s story, didn’t he make it sound like the family has been in poverty for generations?
Now, the thing about caste, as sociologists will never tire of pointing out, is that it is different from economic class. A Brahmin family that falls on hard times is still a Brahmin family. They will continue to get support from their friends and relatives who, needless to say, happen to be Brahmins. They will socialise with others of their caste, and their social, economic and cultural aspirations will come from people of their own caste. People’s fortunes may ebb and flow, but it is very unlikely that a family of traders turns into a family of landless labourers in the course of a generation. That is not how the caste system works, as Adiga would know if he knew the first thing about the caste system.
There is more. A couple of pages after Balram’s caste is introduced, Balram finds himself asking for a job from the son of the village Zamindar. The Zamindar is also present. The son asks Balram whether he belongs to a lower caste or an upper caste, and Balram has the opportunity to do some complex mental gymnastics to decide on what answer to give. Again, in which village of India will you find that a person’s caste is not immediately known to everyone concerned? Or if it is not known, won’t it be possible for the Zamindar to immediately determine the caste from the name?
This is the mess that Adiga makes of just one part of the novel. You will find such instances in every page of it. The novel is at its worst in the areas where the author is the most ignorant. When it enters into a milieu familiar to him, it rises to the level of mediocrity.