In 1995, “Charles Kuralt’s America” was first published. The book was Kuralt’s summarization of his reportorial lifetime spent at CBS News (1967 to 1994) exploring the people and land of America. The book is organized into only twelve chapters, and each chapter represents a month of the year, from January through December, in which Kuralt describes why he selected each happy location to represent his choice for “place of the month.”
When I read his table of contents, I was impressed by Kuralt’s sense of structure. How clever to describe the immensity of America in a writing calendar! As impressed as I was by his architecture, I must admit to have been wary of reading his choice for the December’s entry: “New York City.”
Let’s face it. I’ve been to Twin Bridges, Montana (population, 357 in the 2010 census), Kuralt’s choice for September’s chapter. Despite the town’s charm, the Winston fly rod company, and the nearby trout streams, I could accept that he would be able to capture an accurate portrait of Twin Bridges in the space of a chapter.
But New York City! How in the world can someone describe a city of 8 million people, arguably the greatest city in the world, in one chapter that’s only twenty-eight pages long, including pictures.
Kuralt was a writing magician, and he pulled the rabbit from the hat right in front of my eyes and made me a believer in his verbal prestidigitation. How did he do it? Well, by telling the reader in the chapter’s first paragraph that people don’t live in New York City: “We live in our neighborhoods,” he said. And each neighborhood has its unique drugstores, barbershops, hardware stores and restaurants, and everyone gets to know by first name his or her mailman. In December, Kuralt went home–after his peripatetic journey across America–to spend Christmas in his village, Greenwich Village.
It was with similar trepidation that I approached first listening to, then reading and even re-reading, “The White Tiger,” by Aravind Adiga, a novel about contemporary India that won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2008. How does one write a novel about a country of 1.2 billion people, I wondered to myself, and hope to make it representational about a country and its people?
Obviously, the Man Booker Prize award committee thought he had written an international work worthy of recognition. Critics such as Lee Thomas from the “San Francisco Chronicle” described Adiga’s first novel as filled with “richly detailed storytelling,” and David Mattin in London’s “The Independent” praised Adiga for his “thrilling debut novel.”
But in Charles Kuralt’s home town paper, “The New York Times,” in November of 2008, Akash Kapur, a fellow Indian to Adiga, called the book “simplistic” and “an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.”
What are the ambiguities of modernity in India today? In the “Sunday Money” section from the “New York Times” published May 6, 2012, Tyler Cowen writes in “Never Mind Europe. Worry About India” that even though India is “likely to end up as the world’s largest economy by the next century” that the decline in the economic growth rate in contemporary India is unevenly distributed, “with the greatest burden falling on the poor.” He also states that if this trend doesn’t reverse itself that “millions of Indians, for another generation, will fail to rise above extreme penury and want.”
Ironically, that same Indian writer, Akash Kapur who criticized Adiga’s portrait of India in “The White Tiger,” has recently published “India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India” in which he states that upon his return to South India in 2003, after receiving an education at an American boarding school and at Harvard, that every other person he met seemed to be an “entrepreneur.”
Kapur goes on to say about today’s India that “For the first time in my life, but arguably in India’s history too, people dared to imagine an existence for themselves that was unburdened by the past and tradition.” He also adds, “India, I felt, had started to dream.”
After Kapur married and settled down to live in his “new” India, he admits that he was appalled by what he at first admired about his re-found country. Kapur points out that over 300 million of India’s people—roughly the population of the United States he was educated in—live in abject poverty, on merely a dollar a day. More than half India’s surface water is polluted, and almost 50% of its land has eroded. And India’s air is considered by some to be the most polluted on the planet.
Kapur describes the millions of young people in India today who have left their small country towns behind to move closer to jobs in India’s large urban centers such as Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai, all of them contributing in part to the immense ecological problems that face the country as the Indian middle class grows.
How then does Aravind Adiga’s novel, this “incomplete portrait of a nation,”compare in what it says about modern India to Kapur’s new non-fiction book?
Adiga (like Kapur, also a native Indian, and also educated in the United States but in this case Columbia, not Harvard) tells the story of his world, like Kuralt did, through an architectural device, in this case through seven letters (a biblical allusion?) written by Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. Balram is a”half-baked,” man, a “self-taught entrepreneur,” an “original listener” who wants to share his lifetime of experience and learning with China’s Premier who is about to make a visit to Balram’s home city of Bangalore, India.
Balram Halwai believes that “our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse,” and that in just twenty years time “it will be just the yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid,” and so India and China have much in common because “we’ll rule the world.”
Balram, born in a small rural town in the “Darkness” (everywhere the river Ganges—Mother Ganga–flows) but now living in the “Light” through hard work, self-education, bootstrapping ingenuity, and a timely use of brute force, has elevated himself by becoming an entrepreneur. He owns and operates a taxi service that safely delivers men and women to their graveyard shifts as call-center workers for American businesses half a world away. Through telling his personal story to Jiabao, Balram hopes to help China create more of their own entrepreneurs, in part because he has “great admiration for the ancient nation of China.”
The personal letters Balram writes to Jiabao become more and more informal (by the seventh letter, he simply addresses Premier Wen Jiabao as “Wen”) and simultaneously more revealing about the living and cultural conditions in India as well as Balram’s complicated life situation of living as a man in hiding because of a brutal murder he has committed of the man who was once his master. The conversational nature of this profound disclosure becomes a symbol for the matter of fact disclosures that Balram makes about a culture that is being destroyed from within as it economically prospers—for now.
“There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever. This last one is the worst.” Indian culture, it seems, is built on corruption, which is rampant. It is a culture where “a handful of men have trained the remaining 99.9 percent…to exist in perpetual servitude.” This, Balram labels, “The Great Indian Rooster Coop.”
“We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in,” Balram says. The irony is that “The coop is guarded from the inside.”
On multiple instances throughout his letters to Premier Jiabao, Balram makes reference to the four great Muslim poets—Rumi, Ghalib, Iqbal, and one “whose name I have forgotten”—but the poet he likes to quote is Iqbal who once wrote, “You were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open.”
Balram says, “I am tomorrow.” In India, tomorrow means living with paradox: light with darkness, freedom with oppression, free elections with pre-determined results, and servants with entrepreneurs.
In the end, I think Akash Kapur was right in his criticism when he said that “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is an incomplete portrait of modern Indian. That is the novel’s strength, because a complete portrait would be a series of graphs and charts and statistics, not a novel that is filled with ambiguity and paradox.
By definition, a paradox is never complete. It just is what it is. And in this case, it is a great work of modern art.