The Short Version: The Vishram Society is a somewhat falling-down but still rather decent block of flats in Mumbai. The tenants all know one another and it is a happy, if not quite wonderful, life. After a developer comes to them with a stunning buy-out offer and the buy-out is held up by one stubborn individual, greed begins to win out and the once-harmonious Society devolves into the very worst that humanity has to offer.
The Review: I read The White Tiger a few years ago with apprehension – it had won the Booker Prize by that time but it also seemed to be riding the wave of Slumdog Millionaire obsession with India. I wasn’t sure if it was timing & hype that got the book recognized or if it was actually a worthwhile read. I can’t honestly remember much of the book at this remove – but I found it interesting enough that I devoured Adiga’s collection of short stories, Between the Assassinations, shortly thereafter. What I most distinctly remember is a feeling of learning when I was reading those books. I do not know a damn thing about India. Most of what I know is political in nature, involving the conflicts with Pakistan and the leadership struggles they’ve had (see: the titular assassinations of Adiga’s collection). But culturally, I’m as ignorant as anyone else who saw Slumdog Millionaire and found themselves intrigued.
So I look at Mr. Adiga’s work with the eye of someone culturally, anthropologically, interested. It is, in many ways, much like one might look at Dickens’ work: capturing a time and place removed from our own in such a way that you come to learn from it – not just about the society but about the basics of human nature, too. I believe that Mr. Adiga is on his way to becoming a modern-day Dickens for India – and that this can only be a good thing, especially when the books are as excellent as his current offerings have been.
I admit, I feel a bit lost at times when reading his work (I just flipped back through The White Tiger and noticed moments of similarly confusing cultural references) – but that’s because I simply have zero cultural basis to go on. I’m at the mercy of my mind’s eye – which is unquestionably Western – and of Adiga’s writing. So when he says that something is pucca, I either have to look it up… or go off of context. Being a stubborn reader, I tend not to break the flow – and so I had to go off of context. And that, I find, is a double-edged sword. I created my own idea of pucca throughout the reading and while it was pretty spot-on regarding the actual translation of the word, it’s still colored by the experience of reading this particular book and these stories. I’m learning from one source. This is better than learning from none, but still dangerous, you know?
Anyway, the story itself is what’s most important here: even if you aren’t interested at all in India, the nuanced creation of such a diverse cast of characters, all of whom are neither good nor bad but simply human… it’s impressive to say the least. I read a review saying that Dickens created heroes and villains while Adiga creates far more ambiguous characters – and that’s a valid argument. None of these characters are particularly Good or Bad but some shading in-between. Even Masterji is not wholly good: you can’t understand, after a certain point, why he doesn’t give in and take the money. Sure, there’s something noble in his fight – but nobleness in the face of ridiculous odds is not noble but simply stupid. Similarly, you understand why his neighbors all begin to change their opinions and why they do what they do. The conclusion is not justified – but it was also the inevitable end, from moment one. There was no other way to end this story and that right there tells you something very specific about humanity: across borders, boundaries, cultures, languages, across everything, human beings will inherently act the same. It is predictable. It is terrible. It is greedy. It is self-interested. And in the end, none of us are immune to that – even the saints. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of Gandhi’s birthday and the death of a dog in the street – where men leap out of their homes and cars to chase after the man who ran down a stray – and the shocking violence perpetrated less than 100 hours later. We look up to men like Gandhi but only when it is convenient. Only on his birthday. Only when it doesn’t hurt our self-interest.
And that’s what Shah is all about: self-interest. He and Masterji are mirror-images, in a way: both dying of something that neither of them want to address, both fighting for what they believe in, one arguably Good and the other arguably Bad but with that mirrored aspect that makes both of them like brothers instead of true opposites. I can safely say that I liked Masterji more than I liked Shah… but I can also say that I probably would’ve been one of the people pressuring Masterji to take the buy-out. I’m not sure that I would’ve gone through with the ending – but like Ibby, I might’ve tried to stop the event and then ended up being one of the main perpetrators. Who is to say? Humanity’s capacity for self-deception and for evil in the name of Self-Interest is limitless.
The plot itself is, yes, predictable – and it does take a little while to get going, as Adiga introduces us to each of the various characters we’ll come to see across the tale – but that doesn’t change its power or potency. We’re onboard with the story because it makes sense to us, although we (being the West) might not see so much of it in the same way. And yet every time we see a major corporation buy up some historic building and smash it down to make way for a new high rise or Walmart, we’re simply seeing the Western side of this story. When Masterji wonders what the sense of building two new high-rise buildings in a place where there is already a massive water shortage, you have to stop and wonder too. It’s about progress and what exactly progress should mean. You might have a shiny new building – but if the roads are shit and the pipes don’t carry water to and sewage from your building, who will want to be there? But we want what’s shiny and that’s what Masterji is fighting against: the encroachment of the modern “now now now” on the last bits of tradition he can cling to.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I think that Aravind Adiga is one of the most important authors writing today. He’s a crucial voice providing that all-too-rare “cultural diversity” in mainstream publishing and, not only that, he does it with style. It is a shame and a disgrace that the New York Times has yet to review this book, especially considering the pedigree. The Dickens of India is here to stay, whether we (being the West) are reading him or not. None of us have the time to learn everything about the rest of the world – we all know it and that’s a sad fact but it’s a true one. But when an author like this appears on the scene and shows us that the entire world, no matter how different, is made up of the same thing – fallible human beings – we really ought to take note and listen. You might not even notice you’re learning; it’s that good of a book.