Date : 30-10-2008, Thursday | 2 Comments
“ಭಾರತವನ್ನು ಬೈಯ್ಯಿರಿ, ‘ಬುಕರ್’ ಪಡೆಯಿರಿ” ಎಂಬ ನನ್ನ ಲೇಖನಕ್ಕೆ ಅಭೂತಪೂರ್ವ ಪ್ರತಿಕ್ರಿಯೆ ಬಂತು. ಆದರೆ ಕೆಲವೇ ಕೆಲವು ಜನರು ಅಪಸ್ವರವನ್ನೂ ಎತ್ತಿದರು. ನಮ್ಮ ದೇಶದ ಹುಳುಕನ್ನು ಎತ್ತಿತೋರಿಸುವುದರಲ್ಲಿ ತಪ್ಪೇನಿದೆ? ತಪ್ಪನ್ನೇ ಎತ್ತಿ ತೋರಿಸಬಾರದು ಎಂದರೆ ಹೇಗೆ?
ಎಂಬ ಪ್ರಶ್ನೆಗಳನ್ನು ಮುಂದಿಟ್ಟರು. ಖಂಡಿತ ತಪ್ಪನ್ನು ಎತ್ತಿ ತೋರಿಸುವುದರಲ್ಲಿ ಯಾವ ತಪ್ಪೂ ಇಲ್ಲ. ಆದರೆ ೩೦ ವರ್ಷಗಳ ಹಿಂದೆ ಇದ್ದ ಪರಿಸ್ಥಿತಿಯ ಚಿತ್ರಣವನ್ನು ಇಂದು ನೀಡಿ, ಅದೇ ‘ನಿಜವಾದ’ ಭಾರತದ ಎಂದು ಪ್ರತಿಪಾದಿಸುವುದು ಎಷ್ಟರಮಟ್ಟಿಗೆ ಸರಿ? ಒಂದು ವೇಳೆ, ಅಡಿಗರು ಬರೆದಂತೆಯೇ ಭಾರತ ಇದೆ ಎಂದೇ ಇಟ್ಟುಕೊಂಡರೂ ಸಮಸ್ಯೆಗೆ ಪರಿಹಾರವೇನು? ಈ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ಅಡಿಗರು ಮೌನ ತಳೆದಿದ್ದಾರೆ. ಅವರು ಪ್ರತಿಪಾದಿಸುತ್ತಿರುವ ‘ನೈಜ’ ಭಾರತದ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ಅವರ ಮನದಲ್ಲೇ ಅನುಮಾನಗಳಿವೆ, ಅಳುಕೂ ಇದೆ. ಹಾಗಾಗಿಯೇ “ಔಟ್ಲುಕ್” ಪತ್ರಿಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ “ಸ್ಕೂಲ್ಬಾಯಿಶ್ ಪೀಪಿಂಗ್” ಎಂದು ಅಡಿಗರನ್ನು ಛೇಡಿಸಿದ್ದಾರೆ. ಇತ್ತ ಪಾಶ್ಚಿಮಾತ್ಯ ರಾಷ್ಟ್ರಗಳಿಗೆ ಸಲ್ಮಾನ್ ರಶ್ದಿ, ಅರುಂಧತಿರಾಯ್, ವಿ.ಎಸ್. ನೈಪಾಲ್ಗಳಂತಹ ತಥಾಕಥಿತ ಭಾರತ ದ್ವೇಷಿಗಳು ಬೇಕು. ನಾವೆಷ್ಟೇ ಸಾಧನೆ ಮಾಡಿದರೂ ಸದಾ ಭಾರತವನ್ನು ಟೀಕೆಯನ್ನೇ ಮಾಡಿಕೊಂಡು ಬಂದಿರುವ ಪಾಶ್ಚಿಮಾತ್ಯರ ಮನಸ್ಥಿತಿ ಯಾರಿಗೂ ಗೊತ್ತಿರದ ವಿಚಾರವೇನಲ್ಲ. ನಮ್ಮ ಚಂದ್ರಾಯಾನವನ್ನು ಟೀಕಿಸುವ ಬಿಬಿಸಿ, ‘ಔಟ್ ಸೋರ್ಷಿಂಗ್’ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ನಕಾರಾತ್ಮಕ ಭಾವನೆ ಮೂಡಿಸುವ ಸಲುವಾಗಿ ಹುಸಿ ಸ್ಟಿಂಗ್ ಆಪರೇಶನ್ ಮಾಡಿ “ಯುವರ್ ಪ್ರೈವೆಸಿ ಅಟ್ ಸೇಲ್” ಎಂಬ ಶೀರ್ಷಿಕೆಯಡಿ ಭಾರತೀಯರು ವಂಚಕರು ಎಂದು ಬಿಂಬಿಸಲು ಯತ್ನಿಸಿದ “ದಿ ಸನ್” ಮ್ಯಾಗಝಿನ್ಗಳಿಗೆ ಅಡಿಗ ಅವರಂತಹವರು ಬೇಕು. ಅವರು ಹೇಳಿದ್ದು ಕೆಲ ಭಾರತೀಯರ ಕಿವಿಗೂ ಅಮೃತವಾಣಿಯಂತೆ ಕೇಳುತ್ತದೆ ಅಷ್ಟೇ!! ಆದರೆ ಸತ್ಯವನ್ನು ಮುಚ್ಚಿಹಾಕಲು ಸಾಧ್ಯವಿಲ್ಲ. ನವೆಂಬರ್ ೨ರಂದು ‘ದಿ ಹಿಂದು’ ಪತ್ರಿಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ಪ್ರಕಟವಾದ ‘ದಿ ವೈಟ್ ಟೈಗರ್’ ಪುಸ್ತಕದ ವಿಮರ್ಶೆಯನ್ನೊಮ್ಮೆ ಓದಿ, ಜತೆಗೆ ಸಿಎನ್ಎನ್-ಐಬಿಎನ್ ಬ್ಲಾಗ್ನಲ್ಲಿ ಡಿ.ಪಿ. ಸತೀಶ್ ಬರೆದಿರುವುದರ ಮೇಲೆಯೂ ಕಣ್ಣುಹಾಯಿಸಿ.
On Adiga’s The White Tiger
By AMITAVA KUMAR
For a novel that is supposed to be a portrait of the ‘real’ India, The White Tiger comes across as curiously inauthentic. Is it a novel from one more outsider, presenting cynical anthropologies to an audience that is not Indian?
In May this year, the murder of the 14-year-old school girl Aarushi Talwar as well as the man who was a servant in her household, Hemraj, took centre-stage in the media. All through the summer, I followed the story from a distance, from my home in up state New York. Then, in mid-June, I read an article in a British newspaper about the case, in which there was mention of a popular novel that had already been written about the fear that the Indian middle class had about domestic servants. The novel, the article said, “tells the story of a bitter and disenchanted chauffeur in Delhi who slits his employer’s throat.”
That is how I came to discover — from a news-report about a terrible crime — The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s debut novel that has just won the Booker Prize.
Soon after I learned of the book, I met Adiga in New York City. Adiga told me that his novel had been the fruit of his labours as a reporter in India. He had travelled to various parts of the country, including places whose backwardness had shocked his sensibility. The White Tiger was his rebuke of the cheerful, and false, notion of a new, transformed India.
What Adiga said was exciting to me: I have long subscribed to the idea that one of the novel’s primary tasks is to produce a map of the contemporary. By one definition, then, the province of the novel is what you read in your newspaper each morning or watch on your television at night. The novelist’s task is to explore how the news enters people’s lives and indeed becomes a part of daily life.
I also loved what I’d heard of Adiga’s cheeky use of the epistolary form: that the whole book was a letter from the Indian servant to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Certainly, the narrator’s voice was bold and funny. One review had quoted Adiga’s protagonist: “Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are only three nations I admire.” And then, his belief that “the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man” because “our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse.”
Questions of representation
But when I started reading the book, my enthusiasm evaporated. I hadn’t known until I began reading the novel that the protagonist, Balram Halwai, was from the State of Bihar, where I was born and grew up, and which Halwai in the course of the entire book calls by the name Darkness. But more than the name was unsettling.
In the book’s opening pages, Halwai begins to tell the Chinese Premier the story of his life. We are introduced to the poverty of rural Bihar, and the evil of the feudal landlords. Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist. I found Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in a bad Bollywood melodrama. However, it was his presentation of ordinary people that I found not only trite but also offensive. Here is his description of the migrant Bihari workers returning to their villages after their hard labour in the cities:
A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of flesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.
I had witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seemed to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he was writing about. And yet, my objection wasn’t simply that I found Adiga’s scenario implausible. Rather, I wanted to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the last line of the paragraph quoted above and recognised how wrong it was.
As I continued, I found on nearly every page a witty observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounded false. I stopped reading on page 35.
Yet, I was anxious about my response to The White Tiger. No, not only for the suspicion about the ressentiment lurking in my breast but also because I was aware that I might be open to the same charge of being inauthentic. My own novel, Home Products, published last year, had as its protagonist a journalist who is writing about the murder of a young woman. The case was based on a well-known murder of a poet who had an illicit relationship with a married politician. Kidnapping, and rape, and, of course, murder, feature quite frequently in the novel’s pages. By presenting these events through a journalist’s eye, I had tried very hard to maintain a tone of observational integrity. At some level, realism had become my religion.
Since then, I have wondered whether my choice of the journalist as a protagonist isn’t itself a symptom of an anxiety about authenticity. Was it the worry of an expatriate Indian, concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject? To invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage was to build banks against the rising tide of that worry. I know now that this worry informs my reading of all novels about India.
Reach of realism
For years, in the wake of Rushdie, I had imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the non-resident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed-up names and dates. But for me now, more than magical realism, it’s the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude that more clearly betrays the anxiety about authenticity.
This condition is more subtle. It has limited fiction’s reach, keeping writers to what they know. Look at Jhumpa Lahiri, who has assiduously mined the experience of Bengali immigrants of a fixed class. But these are the better ones, writing about what they know; lesser writers have been content to churn out what we all seem to know, arranged marriage, dowry, saris, and spices. Quite apart from this whole slew of stay-at-home writers, home being in most cases somewhere outside India, are the ones who, like Adiga, have taken the bus, or at least a hired taxi, to the hinterland. They might have travelled on a boat and risked being eaten by a Royal Bengal Tiger. Or they have walked in the tight, smelly alleys in the slums and, if they are enterprising, met a hired killer or two. This brings a different frisson to the body of writing which, given its roots in the middle-class, has often been insular and dull. And these works seem direct responses to the numbing social violence in nearly every strata of Indian society. But reportage is only an inoculation against the charge of inauthenticity. It hides larger untruths. Authenticity does matter, but only as it serves the novel’s more traditional literary demands: that the fault lines be drawn where the internal life and the larger world meet.
A couple of weeks ago, I resumed my reading of Adiga’s The White Tiger. Balram Halwai, the book’s narrator and hero, was painting a mythical image of Bihar when I had last left him. As I encountered him again, we were following him on his journey out to the metropolis.
As I got deeper into the book I discovered that Halwai hadn’t so much moved to Delhi as move into a car. And because he was a chauffeur, it was important that the important and meaningful talk between his employer and his wife, and also the employer’s other relatives, all had to take place inside the car. Apparently, the expensive apartment the employer owned in Gurgaon was only for sleeping, not for living, and this sacrifice is important for the sake of the plot. And useful also for delivering numerous bits of potted dialogue between the members of the ruling class:
‘Why are we going to this place in the middle of nowhere, Ashoky?’ Her voice, breaking the silence at last.
‘It’s my ancestral village, Pinky. Wouldn’t you like to see it? I was born there — but Father sent me away as a boy. There was some trouble with the Communist guerrillas then. I thought we could—’
‘Have you decided on a return date?’ she asked suddenly. ‘I mean to New York.’
‘No. Not yet. We’ll get one soon.’
The description of the journey to the ancestral village in Darkness is a clean and fine piece of writing:
We drove along a river, and then the tar road came to an end and I took them along a bumpy track, and then through a small marketplace with three more or less identical shops, selling more or less identical items of kerosene, incense, and rice. Everyone stared at us. Some children began running alongside the car. Mr Ashok waved at them, and tried to get Pinky Madam to do the same.
But even at such moments, the novel reveals its great weakness. Who is looking here? Let’s remember that the village to which the car is returning is not only the employer’s village but also Halwai’s — he is returning to the place where he was born and grew up and has only recently left. Yet does it appear to be the account of a man who is returning home? He recognizes no landmark or person, he has no emotion, he has no relationship to the land or the people.
This is at the heart of the book’s bad faith. The first-person narration disguises a cynical anthropology. Because his words are addressed to an outsider, the Chinese Premier, Halwai was at freedom to present little anthropological mini-essays on all matters Indian. It is an “India for Dummies” that proves quite adept at finding the vilest impulse in nearly every human being it represents. I don’t only mean every member of a corrupt and venal ruling class, but also of the victim class itself, portrayed in the novel’s pages as desperate and brazenly cannibalistic. Reviews of the book in mainstream publications, including The Economist just earlier this month, present it as glimpse into “real India”. Whose India is real, Adiga’s or mine?
Anxiety of authenticity
Almost exactly eight years ago, in this newspaper’s pages, the writer Vikram Chandra published an inspired, polemical essay called “The Cult of Authenticity.” Chandra’s anger was directed against those “cultural commissars”, mostly critics in India, who were suspicious of writers’ use of clichéd Indian motifs. These critics claimed that an easy appeal to saris and samosas, and the employment of a few well-known words like karma and dharma, were the means by which writers, Indian writers in the West, signalled their identity and coddled their readers. Chandra bristled at the suggestion that others, by dictatorial fiat, could choose his material for him. Chandra made an argument not only for artistic autonomy but also for the essential hybridity of any writing. His point was that because the culture around us is mixed-up and in flux, the literature that drew on that culture would reflect that energy and impurity. It was inevitable, for example, that he should employ words in English and other Indian languages. Just as people did on the streets of his native city, Mumbai.
Quite explicitly, Chandra was also arguing against the notion of any real India, an India that was accessible only to a certain kind of writer, one who lived in the hinterland, or received poor advances, or wrote only in an obscure, regional language. Against such a purist aesthetic, Chandra was pushing for a recognition of the actual, impure world in which we all live and write:
There will always be a prevailing market and a prevailing ideology, and a head of department who fiercely upholds that prevailing ideology, a head of department whose cousin owns the press that publishes the books, whose cousin’s best friend reviews the books for the Sunday paper, whose cousin’s best friend’s cousin gives out the government grants and the fellowships to Paris. All art is born at this crossroads of ambition and integrity, between the fierce callings of fame and the hungers of the belly and the desires of one’s children and the necessities of art and truth. Michelangelo knew this, and Ghalib knew this. There is no writer in India, or in the world, no artist anywhere who is free of this eternal chakravyuha, this whirling circle that is life itself.
Chandra’s argument against the impossible-to-satisfy and hypocritical demand for purity was liberating; yet, even while feeling culpable as a critic of his charge, I wondered where that left criticism. Did Chandra’s injunction to writers — “Be fearless, speak fearlessly to your readers, wherever they are…” — not also apply to critics?
His opponent in the essay is an academic critic; Chandra shrewdly graphs himself as the street-smart writer. There is a lesson in this. Such is the impurity of our enterprise, as writers or as critics, that even in the act of proclaiming our freedom from the demands of authenticity, we are never free from brandishing it.
Yearning for the real
Unlike Chandra, I don’t think there is freedom at hand from the entire question of authenticity, largely because there is no escape from the yearning for the real. The painfully real, the brilliantly, euphorically real, the emphatically real. Either in our lives, or in our writing. And for me, living abroad, this also translates as a parsing of tales about India. After his book was included on the long list, in an interview on the Man Booker website, Adiga said: “It’s a great thrill to be longlisted for the Booker. Especially alongside Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie. But I live in Mumbai, where not many people know of the Man Booker Prize; I’m still standing in long queues and standing in over-packed local trains in the morning and worrying about falling ill from unsafe drinking water. Life goes on as before.” I envied Adiga’s way of claiming authenticity at this moment when he is himself in the news: he has access to the real India, he is standing in long lines, he is afraid of drinking dirty water. I could write a novel about this.
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