Sunday, January 18, 2009

Adiga's White Tiger and Nepali Identity

My take (from a Nepali's perspective) on Aravind Adiga's Man Booker winning novel is published in The Kathmandu Post. Here's an IANS report on it. Below is the article.

Stereotyping Nepalis
Deepak Adhikari
As fellow South Asians, we may take pride in the achievement of Arvind Adiga who won this year's Man Booker Prize for his novel The White Tiger. But read it closely and you will find the novel quite shocking. In his debut novel Adiga has blatantly misrepresented Nepalis in several pages.

He has peopled The White Tiger with a bunch of Nepali characters. But surprisingly, all of them have been left without names. His marginalized characters are only “slant-eyed” Nepali security guards or prostitutes “with Chinese eyes”. Here is Adiga describing the protagonist, Balram Halwai, navigating “from house to house” for a job: “A sly, slant-eyed Nepali with a white moustache peered at me through the bars of the gate.” Then he sees the Stork, the master from his village: “I knew he was coming down to save me. I just had to divert this Nepali fucker as long as possible.”

Earlier in the novel, Balram is taken to a brothel by his driving instructor. In first person narration, Balram comments: “A blinding flash of light: a blue door opened, and four light-skinned Nepali women, in gorgeous red petticoats looked out.” Here, his old driving instructor reveals his penchant for foreign girls by which he clearly means Nepali women. This stereotyping of Nepali women as prostitutes does not end here. At the end of the novel, the notion of Nepalis as lowly servants and prostitutes is reinforced. After being frustrated with his master's debauchery, the murderer-turned-entrepreneur protagonist visits a brothel in New Delhi. He runs into a pimp who says, “You look like you can afford a Nepali girl. Aren't they beauties?” Then Balram thinks that “the Nepalis up there, behind the barred window, were really good-looking: very light skinned and with those Chinese eyes that just drives us Indian men mad.”

Many English-educated urban Indians -- and this Madras-born writer is one of them -- have a distorted view of Nepalis. They think Nepalis are modern-day slaves -- women languishing in brothels and youths keeping vigil at the “house with ten-foot-walls” in India

Yes, Nepali girls are trafficked into Indian brothels and unemployed men cross the border in search of jobs. But it is an attack on Nepali identity to present them as Nepalis without names. He presents these characters as if they were generic Nepali specimen. Granted, a novel is a work of imagination. But when a novel gets a prestigious award, it climbs further up the bestseller list. And the readers may come to identify Nepali men with wily security guards and Nepali women with those who sell sex for livelihood.

The numerous references about Nepalis in the book cast them in a negative light. Adiga, a former Time Magazine correspondent who has attended prestigious universities in the West where literary theories are in vogue, should know this.

The only good thing for Nepalis to come out of the novel is Balram's origin. Thankfully, the driver who kills his master is not a Nepali but an Indian from Bihar's backwaters. However, the murder, committed out of jealousy and frustration, is eerily reminiscent of similar incidents in India in which servants have killed their elderly masters. In such cases, Nepalis have often been framed as culprits. The recent case of Arushi's murder and the Indian police charging a Nepali worker with the crime grimly reminds one how things can go wrong for Nepalis in India.

Coincidentally, this is not the first Booker winning novel by an Indian projecting Nepalis in a negative light. Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, a novel set in Kalimpong during the '70s, a turbulent period in its history, is replete with misrepresentation of Nepalis in India. The Inheritance of Loss is a story of a retired judge Jemubhai "more lizard than human"; Sai, an orphan teenager from Dehradun; Gyan, a Nepali tutor of mathematics; a nameless cook and his son Biju, the quintessential illegal immigrant stuck in New York.

Gyan Rai, Sai's lover, the protagonist of the novel, is depicted as a rebel who does not hesitate to rob his lover's house in the name of freedom. Wade through to the fourth page and you will see rowdy Nepali insurgents barge into the judge's house. Desai, who had lived in Kalimpong for a few years, was condemned by the locals for her work.

If these novels are anything to go by, Indian writers' perception of Nepalis seems utterly stereotypical.


b said...

Dont you think that this perception of nepali's are based on the fact that most indian's see nepali's as a " kanchi" or a "kancha" only? They probably dont know that we're beyond being just prostitutes or house guards! Sadly the marginalized are always gonna be treated this way until we rise above all this! I think from your experience in the US u must have seen that most hispanics are chicos and chicas, no? Dont you think this is the same situation?

Anonymous said...

Deepak jee,

Most of the people from South India are gifted with great knowledge on fabricating issues and making stories. They can sacrifice so many things for their own advantage whether it be their own family.

Jo Jo

Anonymous said...

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Kay in India said...

I think you missed the point. So did the Biharis and Delhites and Bangloreans and Muslims(etc) who were angry about the stereotypes presented in the novel.

These stereotypes aren't the views of the author, they're the views of his protagonist. His protagonist is a barely literate villager, what did you expect?