While the terms “criminal” and “queer” seem disparate on their face, both illustrate the idea of the outlaw in their respective uses. This essay will specifically consider two such outlaw texts: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994). Both Balram Halwai and Arjie Chelvaratnam are outlaws in their respective cultures—one in the legal sense; the other in an ethnocultural sense, defying the boundaries of the domestic sphere, the ethnic sphere, and ultimately the national sphere. By placing these two texts in comparison to one another, different discourses of postcolonial masculinity emerge—not from the traditional concept of masculinity as hegemony, but rather from a masculinity of subversion and contestatory textuality and sexuality.
Keywords: Queer theory; masculinity; global literature; Adiga; Selvadurai; outlaw
While the terms “criminal” and “queer” seem disparate on their face, both illustrate the idea of the outlaw in their respective uses. This essay will specifically consider two such outlaw texts: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994). Selvadurai’s text approaches the outlaw from the perspective of the homosexual narrator, Arjie, but maps his transgressive sexuality within the context of an upper-middle class childhood. Adiga’s text, by comparison, operates on Balram Halwai’s presumptive (if problematic) heterosexuality situated within his status as a thief and murderer. This status, then, demands a reading of Balram from the vantage point of the “criminal narrative.”
As such, the criminal narrative can be defined as a narrative strategy whereby the plot (and associated crimes) is shown through the eyes of the guilty party. This perspective is generally intended to divorce the reader from a more moralistic reading of the character, if he or she were seen through the eyes of another party, or an omniscient narrator, necessitating its demarcation as a sub-genre within the discourse of crime-as-fiction, detective novels and otherwise. Historical examples of this include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (in a more metaphorical sense). The criminal narrative is not a particularly credited genre, as such, yet it very easily informs a close reading of The White Tiger given the clear voice that Adiga gives to Balram.
The importance of the criminal narrative to The White Tiger is critical, insofar as Balram is portrayed by others in the text as illiterate and sub-human (compared with the false bravado of his own self-image), as in his interactions with Ashok and “Pinky Madam.” Yet, as literary theory is quick to point out, with language comes agency, with language comes culture: “To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization” (Fanon 2008: 1-2). Once Balram uses the power of language, and more specifically the power of writing, he assumes agency over his own narrative through the act of writing. Conversely, it can be argued that what Balram exercises is the power of voice; but, the point being made here is that there is a greater efficacy in the agentive power of language through the act of writing, ergo, the act of self-construction.
Yet, by adopting English as the language of his expression, Balram complicates that agency in several discrete ways. First, by using English, he immediately alienates his supposed audience: it is never revealed whether Premier Jiabao would be able to understand the letters he is receiving from his “midnight correspondent.” Adiga blurs the line between the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief (that in the context of the novel everyone is able to speak English) and a deliberate critique of Balram’s sallies at both the educational system and the idea of America at large—that American business texts are of the past, and India is of the present and future. If indeed America (and the broader Anglophone world) is outdated and passé, then what can be made of Balram’s use of a language that represents the past, and further, a deeply complicated sense of memory?
Writing as an active form of meaning-making undergirds Adiga’s choice to write the novel in epistolary form—Balram writes his story to Premier Xiabao, unlike the presumably verbal narrations of Humbert Humbert (to a fictive “gentlemen of the jury”) and Jasmine. By writing, Balram creates his own subjectivity and textuality—which is to say that he “writes himself,” engendering the act of self-creation—beyond the mute sense of being read: by the British in the historical sense, by Ashok and Pinky Madam in the immediate sense, and by the politics of globalized desire capitalism in the broadest sense. Balram first sets up this muteness in his description of the educational system:
Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep—all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with…. Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay (8-9).