Thursday, September 19, 2013

The ‘Slum-dog Millionaire Syndrome’ and more

My review of Arvind Adiga's 'The White Tiger'

By that expression in the title, I, in no way suggest that slums do not exist in India, or that themes such as class struggle, servitude or corruption are inappropriate for novels. But that many authors writing on India and particularly on its social context, are tempted to play to the Western gallery. This, they do, by perpetuating stereotypes and furthering simplistic understanding rather than problematizing the issues or providing an insight into them. 

It has been a while since I read this novel and had been wanting to write about it, but never got time enough to put these lines together. Adiga’s main protagonist in this novel is a son of a rickshaw puller from the remote village of the Hindi heartland which is characterized by poverty, feudalism, naxalism and a broken system of governance - marked by a lack of education, healthcare facilities and basic amenities. The story is his struggle in upward mobility from being a cleaner at a small-time sweet-shop to becoming a car driver to a politically influential and wealthy family of erstwhile feudal lords to ultimately an “entrepreneur” at Bangalore.  But his escape from poverty and exploitation is not through a “farcical” ladder that the Democracy promises but through crime - a common theme among many Leftists. The novel written in a humorous way brings out some very important aspects of class struggle and servitude, not very accurate though, nevertheless very relevant to the current Indian social and political context. 

Adiga, through the plot, shows how rampant corruption and a broken system of Governance has ensured that the fruits of democracy have remained outside the reach of a large section of people. He also brings out eloquently how the attitude of servitude and the nexus of rich, politically influential and well connected section of people has turned the essential promise of Democracy on its head – a phenomenon in current day India which I prefer to call “Neo Feudalism’.  I, to a large part agree with him on that.

But there are things in his novel that can be diagnosed as symptoms of the ‘Slum-dog Millionaire Syndrome’. The novel is written completely with a Western audience in mind. For example, Adiga goes to lengths to portray that elections in India are completely and openly rigged. It is one thing to say that there are irregularities and the other to say that elections are completely a farce as is claimed by many Naxals. Even in Bihar, where Adiga situates most of the plot, there have been regime changes through the ballot and even the most invincible of leaders have seen the end of their rule through elections. It is not wrong to show an exploitative system, but it is definitely unfair to undermine the aspiration and the struggle of the people to change it. On this count and others too, Adiga's novel tends to conform to stereotypes about India and is fraught with errors and exaggerations.

Now consider this from his novel: in the family of landlords where the protagonist works as a driver, and also probably in the whole novel, the only people who seem to have some conscience, or are seen to even capable of moral struggles within themselves, are the son of the landlord, who is educated and has returned from America, and his American wife. Why has the route to conscience always have to go through the West? Why not, if that can help win a Man Booker?

But my bigger problem with Adiga’s novel is that while it attempts to capture the voice of the underdog and the "Subaltern", it is only superficial at it at best. His novel fails to capture the moral complexity of their lives or partially even  realize that the poor and the exploited too have their own inner struggles and moral crises, and that they too can rise to respond differently (and often even creatively) to the system than just being mechanical beings that are driven to just react to it. Adiga fails to put himself in the shoes of the under-privileged whose voice he attempts to capture.

Adiga’s writing may indeed shock and surprise his audience with his depiction of poverty and also provide intellectual enticement to his readers. It also brings some interesting perspectives on the table. But it fails to provide an insight into what he has chosen to write about. 

1 comment:

  1. Well, to be honest people who come back from abroad have much more sympathy towards the poor, for they consider everyone as equal, at least in principle. This is because when you are abroad you don't have domestic help and you have to do everything by yourself. I personally observed people who thought they were princes while they are at home and a complete change of attitude when they come back from a stint at abroad. And regarding your point about inner straggle and moral crises, I think it was also touched at times in the novel, may not be in detail. Overall, I think Adiga has done a very good job and I would like to think Booker was more of a afterthought than his target when he started writing. A good review nonetheless.


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