Opposite of a white elephant. Animal in the Delhi zoo which inspired title of lucrative, Booker-winning debut novel
asked how he felt after winning the Booker, Aravind Adiga indicated that his publisher has more reason to be happy than him. Asked what he would do with the money, he said he would go look for a bank to stash it in. There’s a disarming simplicity about the man. He is the second-youngest winner ever and has pipped a large-canvas novel by Amitav Ghosh, but it hasn’t gone to his head. The same simplicity informs his book, a clean, smooth narrative which, for the first time in English fiction, explores the impenetrably forbidding territory of class in India.
But class — and caste, its peculiarly South Asian avatar — have informed the work of generations of creative people in the other Indian languages. India’s first telefilm, Sadgati (1981), based on Munshi Premchand’s story, explored precisely the same territory as The White Tiger, minus the possibility of redemption by urban social mobility, an option which globalisation makes available to Adiga’s anti-hero. Art cinema is rooted in that world and Bollywood mainlines on the formula of disadvantaged boy meets daughter of prosperous, snooty family which is determined to keep him down but cannot because God and Mummy exist.
In literature, the newest titles are about the underclass. Maitreyi Pushpa’s 2008 novel, Alma Kabootari, is set in the world of ‘criminal’ tribes. And cutting across languages is the phenomenon of Dalit writing, featuring three generations of authors from old war-horses like Dalit Panthers co-founder Namdeo Dhasal of Maharashtra, who got a Padma award almost a decade ago, to Tamil Nadu’s angry young woman, Bama Faustina. You’d be hard put to name a state without a prominent Dalit writer and the movement now has its own literary press, Navayana.
In comparison, writing in English seems so depressingly middle class, so utterly divorced from the new social reality of an India where the underclass is increasingly restive and creatively assertive. One of its elected representatives, Mayawati, has actually obliterated the caste divide by co-opting Brahmins and she is now within striking distance of Race Course Road. And yet, until Adiga, India Unlit had not really found a voice in the babel of India Shining, as publishers vied with each other to celebrate the Indian economic miracle.
But it wasn’t always like this. The Illustrated Weekly carried what one might call subaltern fiction in Khushwant Singh’s time, and one remembers Kamala Das’s rural stories. But something went desperately wrong circa Midnight’s Children, and it’s only now, more than a quarter of a century later, that Indian writing in English has turned its attention back to the underclass with The White Tiger.