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June 17, 2008

The India Thomas Friedman failed to glimpse

Ever since the Big Cheese himself, Thomas Friedman, spent a few weeks in Bangalore back in 2004 and then came back to pronounce that the world, after all, is flat and we should all engage in a free-market orgy, we’ve seen an influx of literature (both fiction and non) from India, proving him … a bit of a fathead.

To name but a small sampling, we’ve had the literature of immigrant experience (Jhumpa Lahiri), the literature of call-center life (Chetan Bhagat, Hari Kunzru), the literature of recent Indian history (Rohintin Mistry, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy) and the literature of zany — oftentimes maddeningly unreadable — magical realism (Salman Rushdie, Manil Suri). 

The White Tiger: By Aravind Adiga. The Free Press; 276 pp.,
The White Tiger: By Aravind Adiga. The Free Press; 276 pp.,

Of course we did not need natives of India to tell us that Thomas Friedman was wrong. A few minutes spent watching the panderer in an interview will convince a viewer of average intelligence that the man is saying what people want to hear. The same might be said of a good deal of Indian literature. You can take the colonialist out of the country, but you can’t take away the desire to hear stories of colonialism and its discontents (and its aftermath and the fact that it will never, ever go away, not ever — not even if India gets into an all-out nuclear dustup with Pakistan — its history will still be there).

Indian fiction, unlike its American and European counterparts, is in a boon time. Novels are selling like — well, not like hotcakes, but like takeout curries. In fact, the one surefire way for an author who is not Jackie Collins to make it big in America is to move here from India and make up some good stuff about the immigrant experience. It will get on the bestseller list! It will be made into a movie with Bollywood dancing! The author will get to go on Oprah!  

The antidote to all of the pandering has arrived in the form of a sly and blisteringly funny debut novel by Aravind Adiga. Born into the kind of hopeless squalor that Western readers cannot get enough of, Balram Halwai, the savagely honest narrator of “The White Tiger,” witnesses his rickshaw-pulling father die a hideous tubercular death — and vows to break out of “the darkness.” He becomes a driver (of a real car, not a rickshaw) for Ashok Sharma, heir to a ruthless landlord in Delhi, and his wife, referred to always as “Pinky Madam.” 

Written as a series of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, on the eve of his visit to India, Balram’s tale is the corrective to the sanitized, censored, prosperous India that Jiabao is inevitably going to be shown — the India of Thomas L. Friedman, in other words. Here Balram describes the newly-moneyed at their daily exercise routine:


While they walked around the apartment block, the fatsos made their thin servants … stand at various spots on the circle with bottles of mineral water and fresh towels in their hands. Each time they completed a circuit around the building, they stopped next to their man, grabbed the bottle — gulp — grabbed the towel — wipe, wipe — then it was off on round two.


Through Balram’s cunningly told account of how he came to murder his employer, steal 700,000 rupees from him and set himself up as the owner of the most prosperous taxi-service in Bangalore, he paints a picture of the real India: steeped in corruption, greed, inhumanity and an abiding chaos of inequality — of class, caste and religion — there is no redemption, not even via computers. Democracy be damned. There are no false notes here, except for the fact that Balram himself is brilliantly delusional, the ultimate unreliable narrator.

It could just be that because Adiga is Time magazine’s Asia reporter, he has a better grip on what’s going on in the subcontinent than does a New York Times columnist who flies in for a couple of weeks every few years on his way to a South Pacific vacation. In any case, even if the two aren’t having a closed-door session anytime soon, I do wish our Tommy Friedman would at least sit himself down with “The White Tiger.” The thought almost gives a person hope. 


Mary Welp is the author of “The Triangle Pose” and LEO’s book critic. Contact her at leo@leoweekly.com