Thursday, 16 October 2008
Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize - A Time for Introspection
Aravind Adiga has won this year's Man Booker Prize with his debut novel “The White Tiger”. As soon as I heard this news today morning, my initial reaction was ‘Good for Him!’ Yes, you guessed right. I didn’t really expect Adiga to win the Booker. In fact, I thought Adiga’s book was not even as good as Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and I didn’t expect the Sea of Poppies to win the Booker either though it was a lot more realistic. My money was on Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture. I thought Philip Hensher’s Northern Clemency might have a chance as well.
I had read White Tiger when it was released a few months ago. And I didn’t like it all that much. I was planning to write a review of the White Tiger for Desicritics one of these days. I would have done it earlier if I thought it stood a chance of winning the Booker, but I didn’t give it a chance at all.
After I heard the good news (for Adiga that is) I cast my mind as to why I hadn’t liked the book all that much. The protagonist Balram Halwai, semi-educated, a self-made man, a murderer, a rags-to-riches story, writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. In these letters, Halwai raises all sorts of questions which probe the dark underbelly of Shining India. The first question which popped in my head was, why on earth would a self-made made like Halwai write to Wen Jiabao? Even if such a person were to start writing letters, and there was no reason why he should, it was never going to be to Wen Jiabao. I could envisage an Indian writing a letter to the American President or to the British Queen or the Secretary General of the United Nations. But no, not to the Chinese Premier. Here you have a rich man who has exploited the system, given bribes, committed a murder and made a success of himself, wanting to reform the very system he has mastered and asking questions usually raised by charity workers or journalists. No, it didn’t make sense to me. And I have read more than one review by an Indian which seemed to take a similar approach.
I did come across a lot of very flattering reviews in various western newspapers which seemed to gloss over the contradictions I have mentioned above. But I ignored them. I still didn’t think Adiga stood a chance. Michael Portillo, the chairman of the judges, described The White Tiger as “in many ways perfect. It knocked my socks off,” he said. I’m sure it did knock Portillo’s socks off. Otherwise, Adiga would not have won the Booker.
Why was my analysis so much way off the mark? Did I have a problem with the undue harshness with which Adiga probed India’s dark side? I don’t think so. I am very much aware that India has a very dark side, of a proportion that can easily eclipse the shining bit. There are quite a few books showing India in a bad light, that I have liked. Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” comes to my mind instantly. May be it is easier for an outsider to focus on the story and ignore the sort of the contradictions I have pointed out above. Or maybe, I am just too critical of fellow-desis. I’ve heard friends say that a book which fails to show India in a negative light will never win the Booker. Did Adiga win the Booker because he washed India’s dirty linen in public? I’ll never know, but I do look forward to Adiga’s next work which might redeem him in my eyes.