Barbara Korte – Can the Indigent Speak? Poverty Studies, the Postcolonial and Global Appeal of Q & A and The White Tiger


Can the Indigent Speak? Poverty Studies, the Postcolonial and Global Appeal of Q & A and The White Tiger

Barbara Korte

Published in Connotations Vol. 20.2-3 (2010/11)


1. Poverty as a Challenge for Literary Criticism

In a document of the United Nations, poverty is defined as "a human condition characterised by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights" (UN 2001). This definition reflects the current understanding of poverty—in the social and economic sciences as well as in the humanities—as lack in terms not only of material, but also human and cultural capitals. In the twenty−first century, indigence and crass social inequality have become phenomena located not only in developing countries, but also increasingly in the societies of Europe and North America. In an age of globalisation, new social walls between rich and poor are being erected everywhere. Faced with the new worldwide visibility of poverty, Poverty Studies are on the rise, and they have begun to include the analysis of literature (as well as other forms of art),1) acknowledging, just as studies in human development have recently done,2) that the literary narrative has a special capacity to present poverty as the multi−faceted experience of individual human beings rather than in the form of anonymous statistics.

Literary and cultural studies are challenged to offer approaches to such (re−)presentations, not only in light of traditions of 'poverty literature' which, in the English language, date back to the Middle [→page 294] Ages,3) but also with respect to theoretical questions. It is here that an important impetus comes from Postcolonial Studies—not primarily because this area of study focuses on cultures in which poverty has always been an urgent problem.4) Above all, issues prominent in the discussion of poverty (now and in former periods) have long been analysed for the forms of marginalisation—and resistance to them— that arise from colonial subordination: the power over and of representation (Stuart Hall), the importance of 'authority' (Homi Bhabha), and the 'agency' to act and speak for oneself.5) In particular, Poverty Studies frequently echoes Gayatri Spivak's influential question, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In her seminal essay, Spivak answers this question in the negative (cf. 308), and she also rejects attempts to 'lend' the poor a collective, homogenising and paternalistic voice.6)

This is a position also encountered in recent discussions of poverty literature. Walter Benn Michaels (2006), for instance, who sparked a debate on the literary treatment of poverty in the US, observes that such treatment is rarely authored by the poor themselves, and that in the cases where poor people do speak for themselves, they employ forms of articulation that transcend their own class and reach privileged readers only (cf. Michaels 200). Such claims can hardly be contested. What seems more important, however, and should concern literary and cultural critics more, is the fact that literature has long spoken about poverty, and that there is an accumulation of literary presentations of indigent life throughout time and across cultures that has reached readers and affected the ways in which these readers imagine7) and take positions on poverty. It appears to be the prime responsibility of literary studies to scrutinise the modes and ideological positions of these representations, while their specific authorship seems of subordinate importance. Of course, whether subalterns are granted opportunities to speak, and to be listened to, are questions of social and ethical relevance which literary criticism must not push aside. But are the non−poor disentitled to write about poverty? Not from the point of view of Aravind Adiga who, in an interview published in The Guardian about The White Tiger (one of the novels to be [→page 295] discussed below), claimed his right to write about experiences he never had himself: "I think the whole point of being in literature, of being in imaginative fiction, is to try and get under the skin of someone else and to speak in the voice of someone else […]. That's the reason I became a writer. I never wanted to write about someone like myself" (Adiga, Interview). Do Adiga and other novelists 'steal' stories from the poor when they write about them?8) Do they 'ventriloquise'9) for them or commit acts of ethically suspicious class 'passing' of the kind George Orwell is associated with in British literature?10) Are literary treatments of poverty a fictional equivalent to 'slum tourism'11)?

Rather than raising questions that involve individual authorship, my subsequent discussion regards literary texts as (more or less) fictional projections in which poor people are represented and, in the specific cases to be analysed, assigned an authority to raise their voice and speak (as well as act) for themselves. Even where their authors are members of cultural elites, such texts per se create impressions of poor lives with a potential to impact on their readers' social imaginary. In recent years, such texts have been produced in growing numbers, to critical acclaim and often with significant performance on the (globalised) English−language book market. It appears that novels by writers with a background in post−colonies—notably in the Caribbean12) and the Subcontinent—have been particularly successful. It might be suspected that these novels are attractive to readers in the global North because they deal with a poverty that is not located in the North, because they appear to deflect a problem which is also the North's by setting it in the developing world. But part of their success can also be attributed to the fact that their authors have found ways to write about poverty that depart from literary traditions of treating this theme, whether realist or sentimentalist. Such traditions were significantly shaped by nineteenth−century British cultural production (most prominently from the pen of Charles Dickens), i.e. the representational practice of a society that developed strikingly similar strategies for dealing with its indigent at home and the indigenous people of its [→page 296] colonies.13) By providing alternatives to—and sometimes even twisting—'familiar' modes of poverty literature, postcolonial novels have a potential to challenge their readers' imaginations of poverty quite beyond their immediate 'postcolonial' context.

The two novels by Indian authors at the centre of the following section, Vikas Swarup's Q & A (2005) and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), were written in English with an eye on international audiences,14) and both enjoy a high visibility on the international and especially the UK book market15) even several years after their original publication. The sales figures for Q & A were significantly boosted when the novel was adapted for the Oscar−BAFTA−and−Golden Globe−winning film Slumdog Millionaire (UK 2008, dir. by Danny Boyle); those for The White Tiger as soon as Adiga was awarded the 2008 Man Booker Prize.16) Both novels are set in an India that has transformed into a tiger economy and for this fact alone depart from a literary image of India as the world's poorhouse to which Indian writers themselves have copiously contributed.17) As portrayed by Swarup and Adiga, globalised India is still a place of abject poverty, but this poverty is now contextualised in finanscapes and mediascapes (Appadurai) that not only create new dimensions of social inequality but also present new opportunities to reject and rise from poverty—if only to a few determined individuals. It is the stories of such determined individuals that the two novels undertake to tell: the narratives of exceptional men who stand out from the millions in their country who cannot, or do not dare to, escape from social suffering. The autodiegetic narrator of Adiga's novel explicitly identifies himself as a "white tiger," i.e. a creature "that comes along only once in a generation" (35), capable of breaking out of the "rooster coop" in which most of the Indian poor prefer to stay. The narrator−protagonist of Q & A diagnoses his people's "sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us, and yet remain unaffected by it" (84), but he himself develops a different mentality. With their exceptional central characters, Swarup and Adiga have found a means to treat (Indian) poverty in a distinctly non−generalised way, and they also avoid a [→page 297] familiar romantic rags−to−riches pattern that promises wealth to any individual willing to work hard enough and persist in his efforts. Rather, it seems a major point of both novels to disturb preconceptions which their readers might have about poor people and how, according to these preconceptions, they might 'authentically' speak and act. What serves this purpose exemplarily is a narrative voice that endows the indigent with conspicuous agency and powers of enunciation.

2. Fictions of Agency: Q & A and The White Tiger

In both novels, highly individualised narrators have significant achievements to share: Ram in Q & A participates in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the global media franchise that promises wealth through trivial knowledge; although uneducated in any formal way, Ram wins the jackpot because he can answer all of the questions as a result of the experiences accumulated during his young and humble life. Balram in The White Tiger has been kept as a despised and ridiculed servant for most of his life until he murders his wealthy, westernised master and steals the money with which the latter has intended to bribe the government. With this money, Balram manages to re−invent himself as a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore, "the world's centre of technology and outsourcing" (3).

There is an undeniable social asymmetry between the novels' narrators and their authors: Swarup wrote Q & A while serving as a diplomat for his country in London; Adiga, the son of a surgeon, enjoyed a high−profile education at Australian schools and prestigious American and British universities before he took up a career in journalism, working for Time magazine, among others. This social asymmetry, which also extends to most of the novels' readers, has attracted criticism especially from Indian reviewers and critics. Criticism was particularly vehement for The White Tiger, especially after Adiga won the Booker—a prize, after all, that has been noted for promoting, and [→page 298] helping to sell, exotic otherness (cf. Huggan). As A. J. Sebastian summarises in his article on the novel,

some Indian critics wonder if Adiga intended the novel primarily to get western readership, projecting the protagonist, getting away with his crime, being a victim of perpetual servitude […]. Similar is the anguish of Amardeep Singh who is perturbed by Adiga's narrating about India's poverty for a non−Indian, non−poor readers [sic], through a half baked Indian protagonist who is a sociopolitical caricature. ("Poor−Rich Divide" 242)

To the Guardian's Book Club reviewer too, Balram is an inauthentic narrator because his voice appears to be his author's rather than his 'own':

The frequent reminders of [the narrator's] lack of education and supposed naivety unwittingly draw attention to the sophistication of the writing. Even if it is spiced up with earthy profanities and an unembarrassed delight in scatalogical [sic] detail, there's no getting away from the fact that the voice of the novel, if not the viewpoint, is that of an educated, highly−trained writer—especially thanks to a frequent striving for almost Edward Gibbon−esque aphorism. (Jordison)

Q & A attracted less polemical attention, but its (rather loose) adaptation to the screen sparked a heated controversy over its alleged confirmation of stereotypes and its supposed exploitation of Indian poverty for the gratification of Western voyeurism. A reviewer of the London Times even referred to the film as "poverty porn" (Miles).18) Such allegations may not be unjustified, but they seem to miss a point about agency that both novels (and also Slumdog Millionaire) provocatively try to make—namely that the poor, once they stand out as individuals, may be quite different from what most audiences know or imagine about them. A seemingly 'inappropriate' voice can be seen precisely as part of this representational strategy, as Ana Cristina Mendes briefly suggests for The White Tiger and its narrator's command of language. To Mendes, the fact that this language seems to be at odds with the character's social background is not a flaw (as some critics have claimed), but part of Adiga's aim to undermine readers' [→page 299] preconceived notions about the poor and their 'probable' capabilities: "Adiga's failure to achieve (an in itself untenable) authenticity is deliberate" (284).19)

Balram in The White Tiger is neither a reliable narrator (he is prone to exaggerate and contradict himself), nor a likable character,20) but he is conspicuously a master of trope and pithy phrase, as in the following instances:

A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father's spine was a knotted rope […]. The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen. (26−27)

The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor—they never overlap, do they? See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?
Losing weight and looking like the poor. (225)

One of Balram's powerful metaphors captures the paradox of an urban poverty that is simultaneously 'there' and 'not there,' depending on point of view: While driving his master through Delhi, Balram perceives the car as a shell that protects the people inside from an outside which the rich do not wish to be aware of. Balram, however, has an epiphany when the simultaneous existence of two cities suddenly reveals itself to him:

We were like two separate cities—inside and outside the dark egg. I knew I was in the right city. But my father, if he were alive, would be sitting on that pavement, cooking some rice gruel for dinner, and getting ready to lie down and sleep under a streetlamp, and I couldn't stop thinking of that and recognizing his features in some beggar out there. So I was in some way out of the car too, even while I was driving it. (138−39)

It is rich people's ignorance of the 'other' life and what poverty means to those who have to live with it that enrages Balram so much that he will eventually kill his master. But he also raises his voice to give vent to his anger at being pushed around and humiliated by people who do everything to crush his sense of agency. He is especially outraged [→page 300] at the authorities, above all the corrupt police and the law, who conspire with the rich to keep the poor in their humble state. As Balram comments:

The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle−class masters. We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse. (170)

Swarup's Q & A differs from The White Tiger in plot and in a more humorous, picaresque approach, but there are significant parallels between the two novels. Ram learned to speak "the Queen's English" (33) as a young child, during a brief happy period he spent with a Catholic priest. However, in his instance too the confidence and eloquence with which he narrates his struggle for survival are not what most readers would expect from a man who speaks about life in Mumbai's Dharavi slum in the first person plural—"Dharavi's grim landscape of urban squalor deadens and debases us" (157). Ram displays his acute social observation and poignant rhetoric, for instance, when he compares Dharavi to "a cancerous lump" in Mumbai's "heart" (157). The body imagery employed here is complex: Mumbai's new heart, with its glittering architecture of global capitalism, "modern skyscrapers and neon−lit shopping complexes" (157), seems aseptic—something from which the ill of poverty has been excised. The India of new wealth, like the older India of caste, has othered the poor and declared slum life "outlawed" and "illegal" (157). However, the slum is still there and, like a lethal growth, might destroy the heart from within.

Like Balram in Adiga's novel, Ram also uses his eloquence to express his exasperation about India's blatantly unequal distribution of social power:

Street boys like me come at the bottom of the food chain. Above us are the petty criminals, like pick−pockets. Above them come the extortionists and loan sharks. Above them come the dons. Above them come the big business houses. But above all of them are the police. They have the instruments of naked power. And there is nobody to check them. Who can police the police? (25)

[→page 301] Ram even tells most of his story while under police arrest: he has won the quiz honestly, but because the show was planned as a hoax in the first place and the producers do not have the money for the jackpot, Ram's success is 'outlawed' and, in order to cheat Ram of his prize, he is accused of having cheated himself—the accusation being constructed on the widespread assumption that the poor cannot 'authentically' have access to the capital of knowledge and must therefore be suspected of fraud when they display it.21) This is a prejudice—which many readers of the novel might also have—against which Ram protests explicitly and quite early in his narration:

There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself. By dabbling in that quiz show. They will wag a finger at me and remind me of what the elders in Dharavi say about never crossing the dividing line that separates the rich from the poor. After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use. (12)

Knowledge as a human capital which the poor are denied to have is less prominent a theme in The White Tiger, but it is important there too because early in his life Balram is deprived of a concrete opportunity to develop his brain. An intelligent boy, he is granted a scholarship but then cannot profit from it because his family is obliged to others and he has to contribute to their income. Balram is resourceful, however, and practices self−education, acquiring knowledge useful for his later rise in the world by closely observing other people's behaviour and in particular by listening to the rich.

The two protagonists share a spirit of resistance to being victimised and sweepingly categorised.22) This spirit is revealed not only in their outspokenness, but also in their various transgressive acts. Transgressing boundaries is an element in their behaviour that Ram and Balram are quite obviously pleased with. The major transgression is that they become rich themselves. This is preceded, however, by many minor and temporary acts of class−crossing, for instance when Balram 'trespasses' into a shopping mall,23) or when Ram crashes the dinner party of an indecently rich woman with the dead body of the [→page 302] handicapped son whom she has hidden amongst the poor,24) or when he once uses a hard−earned salary to travel like a middle−class man:

Looking at the typical middle−class family scene in front of me, I don't feel like an interloper any more. I am no longer an outsider peeping into their exotic world, but an insider who can relate to them as an equal, talk to them in their own language. Like them, I too can now watch middle−class soaps, play Nintendo and visit Kids Mart at weekends.
Train journeys are about possibilities. They denote a change in state. (178)

In this episode, Ram's triumph is short−lived because the middle−class family in his train compartment do not appreciate that he should enjoy the possibility of crossing the poverty line. When the train is waylaid by bandits, they make sure that Ram loses all the money he has hidden on his body. More significantly, however, Ram raises the point that a change in state may also not be part of his readers' imaginary of Indian poverty:

If you were to search for me in this crowded maze [of New Delhi's Paharganj railway station], where would you look? You would probably try to find me among the dozens of street children stretched out on the smooth concrete floor in various stages of rest and slumber. You might even imagine me as an adolescent hawker, peddling plastic bottles containing tap water from the station's toilet as pure Himalayan aqua minerale. You could visualize me as one of the sweepers in dirty shirt and torn pants shuffling across the platform, with a long swishing broom transferring dirt from the pavement on to the track. Or you could look for me among the regiments of red−uniformed porters bustling about with heavy loads on their heads.
Well, think again, because I am neither hawker, nor porter, nor sweeper. Today I am a bona fide passenger, travelling to Mumbai, in the sleeper class, no less, and with a proper reservation. (173−74)

By thus challenging the reader in a passage of direct address, Ram also asserts his narrative agency. The novel's strongest assertion of this agency is a significant manipulation of the reader's knowledge (quite fitting for a narrative that aims to destabilise people's ideas about what the poor can know or what kind of knowledge is a useful 'capital' in the first place). What begins as a plot of a poor man's apparent victimisation when Ram is arrested and interrogated by the [→page 303] police, later turns—quite surprisingly for the reader—into a plot of cunning revenge when Ram reveals that he joined the quiz show, not in order to win a lot of money and leave his poverty behind, but in order to avenge two women whom the show's host once maltreated and humbled: a kind actress whom Ram served and who committed suicide, and a prostitute whom Ram wants to save and marry. That Ram does not narrate his story chronologically helps him disguise the true reason for his participation in the show: telling his story retrospectively to explain why he was able to answer the quiz questions without cheating, Ram points out how he came across the correct answers during various significant experiences in his life. Since his narrative follows the sequence of the quiz questions, however, its flashbacks jump from one experience to another, regardless of their sequence in time, and with many gaps such as Ram's motive for contesting in the quiz. When this motive is finally revealed, what seemed to be a story of fairy−tale luck unexpectedly turns into a story of purposeful endeavour. Significantly, at the end of the novel, Ram throws away the lucky coin that he has always claimed to consult for his decisions: "'I don't need it any more. Because luck comes from within'" (361). But this is a conviction he must always have had because the coin has never been useful as a decision−making device—having two identical sides. Ram's decisions, the reader learns, have always been his own; his agency has always been more important than his luck.

Balram's narrative in The White Tiger works without comparable tricks upon the reader but it does assert the narrator's sense of power. Balram's confidence in his voice is apparent, for instance, in his audacity to address, once more with rhetorical aplomb, the Chinese Prime Minister—eye to eye as members of Asian nations that have inherited the power of the West:

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation [→page 304] in a man's hand and he will throw it back at you with a curse. (175−76)

As this passage exemplifies, Balram has a megalomaniac streak that makes him appear ridiculous at times. However, the attributes which he ascribes to himself at the novel's beginning—"A Thinking Man," "a self−taught entrepreneur," "a man of action and change" (5−6)—are justified by his actual achievements, even if the money he gained through his crime was a major catalyst for his final success.

3. Listening to the Indigent

Q & A and The White Tiger are novels emerging from a postcolonial context that destabilise preconceptions about poverty and the poor. As discussed above, their narrator−protagonists are drawn as exceptional human beings in contemporary India who manage to overcome the general lethargy of the 'rooster coop' and develop idiosyncratic voices. These voices not only articulate the characters' sense of agency and achievement; they also have the power to challenge common generalisations about poverty—not only Indian poverty. But whom will the complex—and provocative—treatments of poverty in these two novels reach? What kinds of readers did their authors have in mind? Who will listen to the indigent as presented in these novels?25)

When Adiga was interviewed about The White Tiger and its controversial reception in The Guardian in 2008, his following answer refers to an intended readership in India:

At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That's what I'm trying to do—it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self−examination. (Jeffries)

[→page 305] This statement points to an Indian cultural elite as part of Adiga's intended audience and the vision of a socially privileged author speaking to socially privileged readers about a poverty that is not their own but that they should be concerned about because it is part of their society. However, as a novel successful on the global book market (even beyond the English−speaking world), The White Tiger speaks to a far greater number of readers outside India. In the interview in question, Adiga did not comment on this segment of his readership, but his international orientation is reflected in the fact that he inscribes his novel in an eminent tradition of European social−realist writing (Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens). In the case of Q & A, such inscription takes place in the novel itself, notably in its playful intertextual gestures towards a 'classic' of poverty literature in English, Dickens's Oliver Twist. As young boys, Ram and his friend Salim are taken to a Juvenile Home for Boys in Delhi that recalls one of the most famous and popular episodes from Dickens's novel:

The mess hall is a large room with cheap flooring and long wooden tables. But the surly head cook sells the meat and chicken that is meant for us to restaurants, and feeds us a daily diet of vegetable stew and thick, blackened chapattis. He picks his nose constantly and scolds anyone who asks for more. (91; my emphasis)

From the home, the boys are sold to a man running a beggars' school in Mumbai, where boys are crippled to become beggars and⁄or trained to become pick−pockets.26) As novels speaking to readers in the UK, North America and other countries in the global North, Q & A and The White Tiger can affect these readers' images of Indian subalternity, but also their imagination of poverty in general. At a time when poverty is no longer contained in an 'exotic,' 'third' world safely removed from the wealthy metropolis, the postcolonial appears to have acquired a new authority in discussing matters of poverty: in theory, but also through its literature.27)

Albert−Ludwigs−Universität Freiburg



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