The morning after Aravind Adiga won this year's 50,000-pound Man Booker prize with his novel The White Tiger, British newspapers — as also some published in India — were ecstatic. The Daily Telegraph described Adiga's debut novel as the "savage and brilliant tale of Balram, the son of a rickshaw-puller trying to escape poverty." The author's tale is in the form of letters from Balram to China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, written on the eve of his visit to India.The judges who selected The White Tiger for this year's top honour described it as a "complete novel". Two obvious choices, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, were markedly overlooked. Ghosh made it to the short list; Rushdie was not so lucky."In the opinion of these five people (the judges) taken together, Salman Rushdie's was not one of the top six books for us. We didn't have a huge debate about it," Michael Portillo, chair of the judges, told mediapersons. "I can say that the discussions we had about Salman Rushdie, as with all the other books, was a discussion about the book and not about the author," he added.We don't know what either Portillo or his fellow judges had to say about Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies. We do know, however, that Rushdie, apart from presenting Fatehpur Sikri as a steaming, scheming seraglio also portrays an Akbar who is neither great nor tolerant but as human (or inhuman) as the Muslim rulers who preceded or followed him. Britain's lib-left intelligentsia would not be comfortable with such an idea of Akbar the Great.We also know that Ghosh has been scathing in exposing the 'free trade' promoted by John Company between India and China as no more than illegal drug-running. The profits of the opium thus traded kept the Empire in the black. That lives were ruined here and in China were of no consequence and remain none of Britain's concerns. In this age of neo-colonialism sustained by the West's concept of 'free trade', Sea of Poppies is an anachronism and a subversive text.The publishers of The White Tiger are ecstatic; they hope to sell 100,000 copies of the book in India alone. That may well be possible but studies have shown that people who buy books that have won prizes never get down to reading them cover to cover; it is unlikely Adiga's novel will meet a better fate.So they will never get to know of its contents, which in any case have been smothered by hyperbolic praise that really means nothing. Few will discern the sneering tone, the deliberate though sly denigration of all that is India today and which, Adiga's fans claim, has been captured in The White Tiger. Just how shallow this claim is proved by excerpts from those portions of the book that have been splashed in British newspapers.Here's a sample of the ‘truth about India laid bare' by Adiga. "It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power… I too should start off by kissing some god's arse." And then Balaram asks, "Which god's arse, though? There are so many choices. See, the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods. Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from."And while he does the choosing and kissing, he asks the Chinese premier for time. "Bear with me, Mr Jiabao. This could take a while. How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?"We are not told what Wen Jiabao had to say to this.
FRONT PAGE Sunday Pioneer, October 26, 2008