The White Tiger
If there is a natural hero of popular literature in the Asian century, it has to be the Indian entrepreneur, whose journey from obscurity to prosperity is a parable for the liberation of the third world.
The hero of Aravind Adiga's debut novel is an entrepreneur in Bangalore, and he tells his back-story in the course of seven letters to the Chinese premier, dictated over seven nights.
Sounds far-fetched, writing to the inscrutable Chinese? Well, people routinely do weirder things in pop fiction. If you remember your Alice Walker, they even write letters to God. Besides, this hero is uniquely qualified to address the premier, who is coming to Bangalore to investigate the peculiar negative binary that links the two biggest powers of the Asian century.
He wants to know why China has all the development indices and absolutely no entrepreneurs while India has "no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, courtesy or punctuality," but has entrepreneurs crawling out of the woodwork. And who better to teach him a thing or three about entrepreneurship than the fiber-entrepreneur of Bangalore, Munna, alias Balram Halwai, alias Ashok Sharma, alias the White Tiger?
The man from nowhere who runs the back end of India Shining - his SUV service drops call centre employees home in the wee hours. Munna's story was just dying to be told. It's almost a decade since the success of Gurcharan Das's
, a travelogue of India's journey from socialism to liberalisation, opened up a new market.
Since then, globalisation has triggered an ever-rising shit-storm of self-congratulatory India Shining literature. Non-fiction titles peddling this discredited political idea, with titles redolent of Viagra spam, now outnumber sexy offshore buy-outs by several orders of magnitude.
As I write this, two are being set loose in the same week: Shobhaa De's
Superstar India: From Incredible to Unstoppable
and a more sober tome from Oxford titled
India: The Emerging Giant
In fiction, Silicon Ghati and the call centre are being used as backdrops (Chetan Bhagat, Hari Kunzru, etc) with happier results.
But there is something fundamentally flawed with the genre: its canvas is limited to a tiny sliver of reality It's like Cory Doctorow obsessing about immersive Internet gaming and trash-built WiFi when the rest of North America is pondering the morality of the Iraq war.
In our literature, the touristy island of India Shining sheds no light on the ocean of darkness that laps at its picture-postcard beaches. It is this very darkness that illuminates
The White Tiger.
Munna is a child of the dark, the son of a rickshaw-puller in a Bihar village.
A dropout, he gets his real education from overheard conversations and the scraps of paper: torn from magazines and textbooks, in which his meals are wrapped. His first real job is as the local landlord's second driver, which means that his duties include giving the landlord foot-baths and buying his IMFL. And then everything changes when the landlord's son takes him to Delhi, to chauffeur him as he does the rounds of the capital, greasing palms and pressing flesh.
The White Tiger
is an account of Munna's journey from the darkness to the light, and the black thing that he finds pulsing at its heart. Adiga reminds us that the two-nation theory has survived Partition. It is no longer defined by a religious divide.
In an age where everything is monetised, the border between the two nations is the poverty line, and his hero crosses it by an act of 'social entrepreneurship', commonly known as crime.
He qualifies for citizenship in the schizophrenic world of India Shining because he is now simultaneously ethical and crooked, gentle and callous, proud and obsequious. The servant has turned master His story is powered by the two most powerful human emotions - anger and shame.
The anger of those who have been excluded from national prosperity, and the shame of the middle class which is doing its damnedest to perpetuate feudal dominance and keep them in the dark. In the dead of night, Delhi's streets whisper of insurrection.
Poor people gather under the flyovers, reading scraps of paper; discussing, preaching as Munna cruises by in his Honda City, insulated from it all in an air-conditioned shell. "Speak to me of civil was I told Delhi. I will, she said. Speak to me of blood on the streets, I told Delhi. I will, she said." The White Tiger makes no high literary claims, but it is very competently written and brings India Unlit into mainstream literature.
It's kind of radical for our times, starting out as a tropicalised variation on the standard American farm-boy-makes-good myth and morphing into a springing-servant-crouching-master script. Adiga is a delightfully subversive rascal. It's a pity he was born about 20 years too late, or he would have felt perfectly at home in Naxalbari.
Pratik Kanjilal is Publisher, The Little Magazine