“The impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India”
by Krishen Kak on 20 Oct 2008 2 Comments

A few days ago the 2008 Man Booker Prize was announced for the best original full-length novel in English by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen. The winner, beating such seasoned novelists as Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie, was India-born first-time author Aravind Adiga for his novel “The White Tiger;” at 33 he is perhaps the youngest-ever Booker awardee.

A great distinction indeed, and full credit to Adiga for being acknowledged as among the best by the English-language White Western literary world. What has gained him this recognition – and the substantial money that goes with it, and will flow to him from it? 

The White Tiger follows Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw puller whose dream of escaping the poverty of his village takes him on a journey to the bright lights of Delhi and Bangalore, where he will do almost anything to get to the top.

"It was important for me to present someone from this colossal underclass, which is perhaps as big as 400 million, and to do so without sentimentality," Adiga told reporters after the awards ceremony. "The book has done very well in India. It was a bestseller before this was announced. There's been a need for a book like this," he added……

Adiga said his aim in writing The White Tiger was to represent the poor. "Balram Halwai is a member of the invisible Indian underclass - one of the millions of poor Indians who have been bypassed by the economic boom," he told Reuters before the Booker Prize winner was announced. "The novel attempts to give literary voice to those who are being written out of the narratives of our time - the poor" 

“It's not a book that's meant to ingratiate itself with anyone,'' Adiga told the BBC before the prize was announced. "The tone of it was meant to be provocative and even a bit nasty at times. It's meant to get people thinking''

So, what did it get the Booker Prize committee thinking?  According to Michael Portillo, the committee chairman: "What set this one apart was its originality. For many of us this was entirely new territory - the dark side of India. It's a book that gains from dealing with very important social issues - the divisions between rich and poor and the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India."

Portillo said the central character was sympathetic while also being "absolutely vile and absolutely unrepentant", and likened him to Shakespeare's tragic hero Macbeth. He added: "The overarching evil is poverty, the chicken coop from which the poor not only can't escape but have no wish or ambition to escape." 

Adiga, though he said the book is not meant “to ingratiate itself with anyone” certainly succeeded in ingratiating it with Portillo who declared, "The novel is in many ways perfect. It is quite difficult to find any structural flaws with it.''

A novel – a fictionalized account; a protagonist who is absolutely vile and absolutely unrepentant; a context that is dark India; an India of the poor, of divisions; of despair and hopelessness and fatalism; an India in which the poor – 400 million, many times more than the entire population of the great Britain – are destined to wallow in the evil of their poverty; an India of the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in it. A wretched India. The India Adiga knows and lives in. Mainstream India. An India with which to “entertain” his English-language readers, that he hopes his readers will find “fun.”
http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=1552). And Portillo agreed - “the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal manner.”

Wretched India - a perfect theme.  Shock and entertainment - a perfect formula. Together - the perfect combination for White Western recognition and success. And surely it is just a coincidence that the novel’s satanic protagonist has a Hindu name.

Upper-class Chennai-born Aravind Adiga studied in a Jesuit mission college in Mangalore, migrated to Australia, studied at Columbia and Oxford, started off as a financial journalist, worked for Time magazine, and now freelances from India. Of Indian origin, he speaks to the White West in its primary language. He speaks to it with authority – he graduated from its best institutions. Sound credentials, you will agree, to represent to the White West the desperately poor of India. 

[As an aside, I may point out that Adiga, who says he represents the poor, looked dashingly honorary-White in his Western black formal-wear for the award announcement dinner - unlike another Indian who decades ago went to England, had tea with her king, and wore for it what he usually wore every day.  This other Indian didn’t wear a bowtie; he wore, he said, what the poor whom he represented wore. 

Adiga says he gives “literary voice” to the poor – it remains to be seen what he does now for them...there's that Pounds 50,000 prize money to start with!  He did dedicate the award to the people of Delhi where he lives, but perhaps that too was just a “literary voice”.  He has said nothing so far about actually putting it to the use of that Indian underclass, writing about which won him the money and fame.]

He writes fluently, and uses his skill to present a mainstream India and India’s poor to shock and entertain English-language readers. He writes for a Western (and a Macaulayite Indian) readership. The Booker recognizes, trusts and affirms his knowledge and authority, for he knows – “trust me”, he says

Michael Portillo, son of a Spanish immigrant to Britain, is a confirmed Christian, studied in elite institutions, was a senior "right-of-centre" Tory MP and Cabinet Minister, a Privy Councillor, and a favourite of Margaret Thatcher. He was also a favourite of Norman Tebbit till Tebbit learned Portillo was a liar

Portillo voted in favour of the Iraq invasion.  He was on the board of the defence company BAE Systems.  He had also been employed by Kerr-McGee, the oil giant ranked 30th on the 2003 Political Economy Research Institute's Toxic 100 list and is now on its board.  He too claims some concern for the disadvantaged.  

Portillo clearly had the deciding say in selecting the winner: Adiga, 33, is a surprise winner…."It was pretty close," said Portillo, and in the last stages it was down to a battle between The White Tiger and one other book

Announcing the winner, Portillo said "My criteria were 'Does it knock my socks off?' and this one did...the others impressed me... this one knocked my socks off"

“My criteria”? Not the committee’s? With his kind of background and with a book meeting his criterion, need we be surprised that as chairman of the 2008 Man Booker Prize committee, he chose a book that tells the White West of "the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India"?  

The British government still suffers its colonizing "mission to civilize" mindset.  Don't believe me? Read on....
"5. The British government
The British government has been supporting ActionAid since the early 80s and is a substantial donor to it and, indeed, to many NGOs in other countries. ActionAid staff have been members of official British delegations, and have been on deputation to DFID [the British government’s Department for International Development]. ActionAid and DFID work ‘particularly closely to influence policy changes’ in key sectors in other countries through ‘strategic level agreements…linked to strategic funding’, and in 1999 DFID donated GBP 3 million to ActionAid. In 2000, DFID entered into a ‘Partnership Programme Agreement’ with ActionAid, committing GBP 4.5 million to it during 2001-04 with an unspecified amount for a further two years, in addition to its other grants to it. 

Policy changes? Strategic agreements? Strategic funding? And millions of pounds! Do you seriously believe all this is for charity? Does the leopard change its spots? What has been the pagan experience of British missionary-colonial rule? Tested by time, it was one of divide-and-rule. Where is the evidence that the British have had a change of heart?.....

Consider that DFID in January 2004 ‘supported’ a Development Alternatives–PricewaterhouseCoopers National Seminar on ‘Advocacy for Realising Rights and Removing Poverty’, focusing on ‘what can be done by the civil society to improve policy formulation and design by Government’ as part of the British Government’s ‘Poorest Areas Civil Society’ (PACS) Programme for India that presently webs together 350 ‘civil society organisations’ through ‘a large resource base’ to cover 7,000 villages. 

Actively involved in the seminar w[as]....ActionAid (that noted too this programme’s ‘huge resource base’). The entire tenor of the seminar was critical of the Indian government, and ActionAid stated significantly that ‘Only you and I can change the country, bring about a silent revolution in the country. PACS can initiate that so that all of us can say, we did it.’ Ask yourself why the British government with its huge resource base should support and encourage criticism of our government policy and action? Why should ActionAid want to change our country? Why should the British government agree to match whatever resources ActionAid raises from the corporate sector in India? For example, ICICI Bank gave ActionAid Rs 3.5 crores which became Rs 7 crores when the British government matched it. Why should ActionAid and PricewaterhouseCoopers want a British government-supported ‘silent revolution’ in our country? Why are they focusing on States most of which have a strong Christian missionary presence? Where is ‘charity’ in all this? 

The last time the British involved themselves in ‘changing’ our country, India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6 percent in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3 per cent at that time, to as low as 3.8 per cent in 1952
http://www.vigilonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=970&Itemid=1&limit=1&limitstart=3) Yet the British nobly want to save us from ourselves (and save our souls too, but those for Someone else). 

Adiga's may be a well-written book, but that is not the point here. The point is why Portillo chose it. He chose it for the shock and entertainment value to White Westerners of "the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India". And, of course, Portillo knows it'll now become a Western bestseller, telling hundreds of thousands of White Westerners that mainstream India is wretched. It may very well be but, as I said, that is not the point here.  

Adiga has not written to inform and to educate, to ameliorate the lot of the poor. By his own admission, he has written to entertain, to amuse. Adiga uses India to further himself professionally with the White West. Portillo uses Adiga to “educate” White Westerners.  Portillo said it clearly - "For many of us this was entirely new territory - the dark side of India.” Thanks to Adiga’s Booker, the White West’s worst Macaulayan stereotypes about India will be widely reinforced.

Adiga’s BBC interviewer Rebecca Jones suggested pithily – it’s only by “cheating, corruption and, ultimately, murder that [one] is able to rise from rural poverty to urban prosperity in the new India” and she followed her conclusion with a jingle that mockingly went “Made in India” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7666000/7666709.stm). 

Rina Chandran of Reuters echoed Jones by saying “the prize-winning tale…rings true in India”

Adiga’s own father, a surgeon settled in Australia, “thought it was a blunt and realistic portrayal of the Indian reality”

And that “national newspaper” mis-named The Hindu, with Macaulayan grandiloquence  declaimed editorially, “The novel, a trenchant critique of contemporary India, bypasses the superlatives of the economic boom to tell the story of an India that is savage and dark. It strips away the veneer of a shining nation to reveal a society that is mired in corruption and injustice, where the poor are invariably the victims of a brutal class system. The White Tiger is a brilliant and unflinching vision of modern India”

Note the Booker subtext---- "the impossibility of the poor escaping from their lot in India."  Ah, with we Indians ruling ourselves, what else can be expected?

Adiga asks, “As to what lies in India's future -- that's one of the hardest questions in the world to answer”

That’s literary pretence.  Both Adiga and Portillo, with their kind of backgrounds, should know the answer:
Here you have nearly three hundred and fifty millions of people, lifted to a civilisation and to a level of peace, order, sanitation and progress far above anything they could possibly have achieved themselves or could maintain. This wonderful fact is due to the guidance and authority of a few thousands of British officials… who have for generations presided over the development of India.
If that authority is injured or destroyed, the whole efficiency of the services, defensive, administrative, medical, hygienic, judicial; railway, irrigation, public works and famine prevention, upon which the Indian masses depend for their culture and progress, will perish with it. India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages…
It is our duty to guard those millions from that fate.
- Winston Churchill 

Adiga reports to the White West that the new India is barbaric. He, of course, is not. He has been civilized by the White West and, in turn, it rewards him. He panders to the prejudices of the White West by exploiting the Indian poor as his ideological colony. 

Portillo implies to the White West that Churchill was right, wasn't he?  India deserved to remain a White colony. Ah, the White Man's Burden.

India remains in the West's news for reasons that reinforce what it wants to perceive of India. Western missionary-colonial powers brutally colonized India. Thrown out politically, the West continues its mission culturally and evangelistically. Portillo and Adiga provide more grist for the West's Macaulayan designs.

This year’s Booker is a political, not a literary award. 


"The young author said, `India is a society of profound inequality and inequality is not just a moral vice - it also leads to instability.'  The new Indian fear of instability has affected Adiga also, who faced difficulty in getting an accommodation in Mumbai because of his single status. Adiga said people automatically suspected him of being a terrorist" 

However, in his pre-Booker "Bachelor bigotry," 
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/28/india.renting) Adiga gave a very very different reason, and not one word did he say pre-Booker of "people automatically suspected him of being a terrorist".

And since when has inequality been "a moral vice"?  Nature itself is a composite of hierarchical systems. The human too is a hierarchical animal. All human social systems are unequal - there is inequality based on race, birth, colour, age, sex, physical appearance or strength, educational attainment, wealth and property, geographical location, political ideology, theological belief, and so on, take your pick.  Human social systems accept some and reject others as context changes, and people like Adiga rationalize these choices as "moral" ones. 

It is relevant that White America pridefully defines the American as Homo aequalis derived from Thomas Jefferson's "self-evident truth" that "all men are created equal" - a "truth" that Elaine Pagels has noted is "empirically unprovable", and that certainly wasn't true for American society in Jefferson's time nor is it true today. But it is a myth politically and evangelistically expedient to propagate as morally superior to Louis Dumont's characterization of the Hindu as Homo hierarchicus. Adiga, with his characterization of heathen mainstream India as profoundly unequal and, therefore, morally vicious, implicitly affirms to his Macaulayan readership the profound equality and, therefore, moral virtuousness, of White Western society.  Recall that the motto of Columbia University, Adiga's Ivy League alma mater, is "In Thy light shall we see light" (Psalm 36:9).     

There is also still no report of his deciding to use even a moiety of his prize-money to reduce the inequality that so distresses him about mainstream India.    

As I said, Adiga exploits India and Indians to further himself professionally.  That is his choice.  But it is Portillo's political choice of Adiga's book that attests to Adiga's readers his presentation of our heathen civilization as inferior to the White Western.     

The author is a cultural anthropologist and retired civil servant. He co-edited “NGOs, Activists & Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry” (Chennai: Vigil Public Opinion Forum, 2007)

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