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On The White Tiger's Italicized Gaze
Why do we italicize words like paan, and namaste? Why do we make those we tell stories about outsiders in their own narrative?
The thing is, as the adage goes, anything you say about India, its opposite must be true, too. Thus, to produce a Grand Unified Theory of India is not just a convenient, but a doomed project. It’s why I am wary of most people who theorize India, and even more so, theorize India for people who do not and perhaps cannot accept the contradictions inherent in our country. The tendencies for fascism and fortitude, fear and fight exist, even if it seems like at this moment in history the tides of fascism and fear prevail.
The scandal at the Mumbai Art Gallery week this year was Anita Dube’s new work at the Galerie Mirchandani Steinrueecke. It was an installation meant to champion Bahujans, a marginalized community, with words like ‘Bahujan Samaj’, and platitudes like ‘When Injustice Becomes A Law, Resistance Becomes A Duty’ in thick enamel paint, to a grey background of miniscule enamel eyes stacked in close proximity, like a can of sardines. These very phrases, hailed as fodder for community-building on the streets during protests, feel odd being showcased on the silent, whitewashed walls of a South Bombay Gallery. But such is solidarity. It has the capacity to be rousing, and reductive, uplifting, and patronizing.
That upper caste people make their name and fame off of such Bahujan and Dalit revolutionary platitudes is no surprise, and this was called out by Dalit artist Priyanka Paul. The idea here is that the gallery is more interested in artworks by Anita Dube, whatever their content — radical or otherwise— than Bahujan-uplifting art. (I don’t see an issue with that, since an art gallery has the right to exhibit artworks of artists they are excited by, as much as its viewers have the right to exhibit their concerns.) Paul’s critique comes from the fact that the intention of the exhibit seems to be to uplift the oppressed. If that is the intention, and there’s really no way to find out, then perhaps commissioning Bahujan artists would have been ideal. Like I have noted in a previous piece, authorship is so much more necessary, and less wispy an ideal than representation.
I personally don’t think the intention was to platform Bahujan politics as much as it was to platform Anita Dube. I don’t think that’s ethically wrong. But that also means the artist being platformed must be open to criticism. (Much like if they chose to platform the Bahujan condition, that politics must be open to criticism.)
What was more striking to me in all of this was that background of eyes — like a panopticon, the visual representation of the “Gaze”. The criticism of the artwork built into the artwork. (Perhaps this reading of the artwork is unintended, but meaning is slippery, shape-shifting, anyways.)
But this doesn’t insure the artwork itself against the criticism. It merely re-orients our criticism of the work of art, as something that is self-aware of its issues, even as it embodies those very issues, like calling oneself a misogynist, while performing misogyny. This was something I had to grapple with recently while re-reading The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize winning novel, about the slippery upward slope towards the crab-like capitalist pinnacle of economic security.
Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.
- Vladmir Nabakov
Re-reading might be putting it generously, because I simply don’t have a memory of what I read the first time round, only that I had read it. Perhaps, the only thing I remember was the line about kissing the divine bums of 36,000,000,004 gods. I was on the precipice of atheism then, and this line pushed me godless-wards, armed with blasphemy and humour. (In the movie adaptation recently released on Netflix, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Adarsh Gourav, and Rajkummar Rao, “divine arse” was replaced by “divine feet”. In the brouhaha of censorship in India, where private companies willingly chop off content under the pressure of Twitter trolls cloaked as BJP politicians, this change is understandable, while sad. The book, interestingly, is dedicated to the director of the film.)
The copy I re-read was the same copy I had read the first time, and the back page is littered with a number of an uncle who told me he had had pre-marital sex frankly (a shock to the prude I was, re-orienting the concept of marriage in my head), my star-sign in the Tamil script, and ‘Times Of India’ with a unique typography for T, something I was trying out. (The art teacher who owned a python taught me to write the small-G with the tail of g like a grape-vine. The physics teacher taught me to write S with a diagonal line perched on top of a perfectly curved, off-kilter, semi-circle.)
Now, perhaps it does not matter what I thought of the book back then, because I had just began reading a few years ago, and I plunged into the deep end, reading books like God Of Small Things and The Hungry Tide, which I only vaguely grasped. I was telling a friend who just dipped into God Of Small Things how when its author Arundhati Roy used bottles and mangoes to refer to the cock and the breasts, I didn’t get that metaphor, warping my innocent idea of what sex should look, and even smell like, wondering if sex smells like mango pulp.
This was a time when I read ‘serious literature’ not for pleasure, but for the possibility of future pleasure — if I keep reading such books, maybe one day, I’ll want to, deliberately, enthusiastically read such books. Like most people I was in love with the idea of reading more than reading itself. I loved collecting books more than finishing them. It took me a while to recognize that the idea of, the collection of, and the act of reading are three, very distinct acts, and thus can be considered their own forms of recreation. Though of course, in real life, we love to mix them all up interchangeably. (The number of people I have met who have told me, “Oh I love to read, but I really don’t have the time.”)
The White Tiger was all the rage then. The story of Balram Halwai, born in rural Bihar, where the Buddha gave his first sermon, who ends up getting a job as a driver in Delhi, only to murder his master, and found a startup in Bangalore. It’s satire and black humour, in the epistolary format — the whole book is a series of letters that Balram writes to the the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, explaining his capacity for both class-war and capitalism. The idea of explaining India, producing the Grand Unified Theory Of India And Indians, is thus a fault built into its narrative — it’s literally a collection of letters written by an Indian man to a Chinese man, trying to explain India.
This time round, the book just didn’t work for me as a literary endeavour. Starting off as a satire, it began to take along with it an ethnographic burden, trying to be both sensitive and satirical. Like the eyes of Anita Dube’s installation, it was trying to embed its own criticism of satire — that it’s not sensitive enough — into the narrative. It was also trying to embed its own criticism of sensitivity — that it’s too cloying — into the narrative. The main character, the driver Balram, thus comes across as a psychopath with a conscience.
The excitement and, in my view, the failure of the book, and thus the film which is a loyal adaptation for the most part, is that we have characters, like Balram, and his “master” Ashok, and Ashok’s wife Pinky who are pushing at the limits of caricature, beyond which they become fully realized characters. Flirting with the possibility of humanity, but letting go under the pull of caricature. (In the movie, both the “master” and especially his wife are more sympathetic characters.) What happens in this see-saw between character and caricature, is a lost emotional core. You just don’t care as a reader or a viewer, what happens to these “half-baked” characters.
There’s a very conflicting, interesting moment in the book when Balram is heartbroken seeing his master in tatters, wondering where his concern for him ends and his self-interest begins.
Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love — or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?
But as a book, it just doesn’t cohere. Adiga’s dryness coming across as chapped, and lifeless. So much of the criticism for the film — the odd, pointless structure of the letters, the rushed ending, and the empty, odd humanizing of caricature figures — is actually a criticism of the book. I'm wondering if bad books have ever become good movies?
But that’s just the literary part of it. There was something, seemingly innocent, but, for me, deeply disconcerting in it — the Italics.
Italics, often a way to emphasize something — the name of a book, a movie, or to give weight to a word in a sentence— can also be used to bring attention to something, like a foreign word. What this does is pull that word out of the context of the paragraph and show it to the reader as something “outside” the world of the written book. For example, in this book, among others, the word ‘paan’ is in italics because it is an Indian food item that the reader is not expected to know. So when it is italicized, a deliberate decision by either the writer or editor, it is a sense of comfort to someone who is unaware of it, for it shows that this word is beyond the realm of the Anglophone book, a mere cultural artefact, an ethnographic detail.
The idea is that English is a monolith, and anything outside of English should be either footnoted (I remember a very detailed and deliciously written footnote describing what paan is in a book by Anita Desai — heart shaped betel leaf smeared with lime paste, shredded areca nuts, cardamom, aniseed, folded into a cone and eaten), or italicized. It refuses to think of the language, English, itself as a body that is expansive, folding within it local variations, and quirks. Would we italicize YOLO or Swag? Why is namaste italicized?
When I speak, I usually end my sentences with ‘noh?’ because I don’t want to sound definitive, and also I want the listener to feel like they’re being asked, and not told. (Even if it a statement in the guise of a question). But then, ‘noh’ is a very Indian outgrowth of English. Should it be italicized? Is it English enough? Or should we hyphenate it as an Indian-English word?
This isn’t a new discussion. Writers have railed against the stylistically rigid New Yorker to straighten out the italics. The Dominican American writer Junot Díaz in the late 1990s won this uphill climb, but for her it was a very clear decision rooted in who she writes stories for:
“I write for the people I grew up with,” Díaz told the New York Times. “I took extreme pains for my book to not be a native informant. Not: ‘This is Dominican food. This is a Spanish word.’ I trust my readers, even non-Spanish ones.”
Adiga’s decision to italicize, thus, makes one thing very clear — the intended audience of the book. You don’t need yellow filters to show Mexico to Mexicans, you need it to show Mexico to Americans. Similarly, you don’t need italics to explain India to Indians. You need to it explain India to The West. (Capital T, Capital W, because even the West is an essentialized category, one of convenience, something often forgotten as we, rightfully, focus on nuance while talking about the developing world — wrapping the rich, poor, progressive, conservative into one tight category, the way The West did to The Orient.)
I am not saying Indian writers shouldn’t write for the West. On the flip side I am not saying Anita Dube shouldn’t make art about the Bahujams. I am saying the danger in writing about something is people mistaking your literary endeavour of exoticizing for an anthropological endeavour of fact. This is a criticism that every writer and artist must contend with. There’s no neat answer to the multiplying questions. (I feel the need to keep saying this: criticizing rich people writing about poor people is not the same as telling rich people to not write about poor people.)
A lot of the reviews for The White Tiger wrote about how the book “show[ed] us a part of [India] that we hear about infrequently,” or about Adiga’s “sharp and satirical eye for the reality of life for India’s poor”, or how “not a single detail in this novel rings false or feels confected.”
Then there are lines like this in the book.
Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.
First, literarily, it’s such a weak line, riddled with cliche. But then also, it’s so obvious in its gaze, that simile pandering to the Kamasutra framed gaze of India, there is something tonally off. The psychopath-like tone of Balram, who himself has a jelly-like moral compass driving him, gives him a free reign to be as rabble-rousing, insulting, and ignorant. This is an exciting set-up, but it succumbs quickly to its intended audience. An abrasive cliche, while abrasive, is still a cliche.
Adiga has noted that he wants this book to highlight the injustices of society, like Dickens, Flaubert, and Balzac, that this book isn’t an attack as much as it as an act of self-examination. (My gripe: Is that a necessary binary? Can’t it be both an attack as well as an act of self-examination?)
But the whole literary endeavour of anthropologizing India, to me, reeks of those enamel eyes. His interviews make it even more clear. Satire is often powerful in its capacity to discomfort the viewer/reader out of their preconceived notions. This book does no such thing, at least from a 2021 vantage point. Sensitive storytelling is often powerful in its capacity to comfort the viewer/reader into solidarity with the satan. This book does no such thing, at least from a 2021 vantage point.
This then begs a question: Can we use a caricature to make a cogent social point that moves the needle?
It’s easy to say this in 2021, I have no idea how the world or even India saw itself in 2008. It’s easy to believe that people understood India through an airbrushed perspective, that Bollywood films lent that zeitgeist its rose-tinted glasses.
The best moments of the book and even the film are when, for a second, Adiga makes his character peep out of their satire — making them human and conversant. The moments when, like in Parasite, the reader is made to wonder if the rich being nice is not the same as the poor being nice, for the former it is an indulgence, and the latter, a luxury.
But these are too rare, and even though he ends his book with this human tone, hoping that the last memory of our reading the book is this human conclusion, I could not take my mind off the banality of the whole damn enterprise — selling fact as fun and crudeness as comedy.
I must emphasize again, this is not to axe an outsider’s perspective, which is also vital to one’s self-image. The very label ‘India’ was actually given from the outside — from the Persians who thought of Indians as those living beyond the Sindhu River. Persians softened the initial S to H, making it Hindu, which the Ionian Greeks later changed to Indus, and thus Indians. Our identity is marked by the gaze. So why shouldn’t our storytelling too? It only makes sense, and also, like India, it doesn’t make sense at all.
I know this was a long, winding, perhaps a bit distracted post. If you like what you read, tell others. If you don’t, tell me. I would (honestly, actually) love to hear your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org