Revolution Online, December 14, 2008
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
"The White Tiger is the story of a poor man in today's India, one of the many hundreds of millions who belong to the vast Indian underclass, people who live as laborers, as servants, as chauffeurs and who by and large do not get represented in Indian entertainment, in Indian films, in Indian books. My hero—or rather my protagonist—Balram Halwai is one of these faceless millions of poor Indians."
—author Aravind Adiga in an interview with the BBC
Adiga's first novel is a darkly comic and fiercely angry story. It was recently awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The award propels the book into the center of literary discussion worldwide and its author, who is just 33 years old, into the top ranks of writers in the English language.
At a time when many refer to India as "an economic miracle" citing an economic growth rate of nearly 10% per year, and "the world's largest democracy," Adiga challenges these notions. "It is important," he says, "to introduce other dissonant chords into the largely triumphalist notes. It is important to realize that large numbers of people are not benefiting from the economic boom, that social tensions are increasing."
The White Tiger is not a dry book. The Booker Prize Committee described it as "a page turner." On NPR radio Adiga said he wanted his book to "entertain and disturb." "There's no reason that a book dealing with poverty can't be viciously funny at times," Adiga told the BBC after being awarded the Booker Prize. The White Tiger succeeds in being both entertaining and disturbing.
Out of the Darkness
The book takes the form of a series of letters written from Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, another country frequently described as an "economic miracle" where extremes of great wealth and abject poverty stand in sharp contrast. Over seven nights, in the 150 square foot office of his start-up company in the Indian city of Bangalore (the high-tech capital of the country), Balram takes responsibility for educating the Chinese premiere on "entrepreneurship" before the start of an official visit to India.
Balram considers himself the consummate entrepreneur, having risen from poverty in the village of Laxmangarh in northern India. In Balram, Adiga has created a unique and unforgettable character: part philosopher, part entrepreneur, part psychopathic killer, and one who can be incredibly funny with a sharp eye for irony.
"It was important to create a picture of someone who will challenge you as a reader," Adiga says of his narrator. "It was important not to create a sentimental portrait of an oppressed, poor person."
The India that Balram presents is not one of spices, spirituality and saris. Balram tells the Chinese premier not to touch the Ganges, a supposedly sacred river and frequent destination for American tourists: “No!—Mr. Jiabao, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.”
Laxmangarh, where Balram was born, is in the northern part of India, in the area along the Ganges River which Balram describes as "the Darkness." It is in this part of India that the majority of the population lives, where raw sewage flows through the town, where there is no access to fresh drinking water. This is an area where children are forced to drop out of school to become indentured servants. Balram's father, a rickshaw driver, dies of tuberculosis in a government hospital where there are no doctors—only goats, goat feces, and a cat who has developed a taste for blood. This is not an exaggeration. Tuberculosis kills more than one thousand poor Indians every day.
Some of the funniest parts of the book ridicule the political system in India. There is the omnipresent corruption of both the police and officials. But there is also the way the revisionist "left"—people who call themselves communists but are really just typical bourgeois politicians—operate. Laxmangarh politics is dominated by "The Great Socialist," whose quotes rise above the crumbling public hospital without doctors. When the landlords get mad over the amount of bribes they have to give to "The Great Socialist" they form their own political party: The All-India Social Progressive Front (Leninist Faction). Although Balram has never seen a ballot box he has voted in every Indian election. His birth date was made up by a school teacher in order to sell the vote. Even the oppressed can get caught up in the electoral excitement, "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra." Once in a while one will even get so carried away that he will try and vote, which can only lead to a savage beating and usually worse.
This area of India—"The Darkness"—is contrasted to "The Light"—the sophisticated urban destinations along the coast to which the narrator is headed.
"In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India," Balram writes. "These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up."
The Chicken Coop
Balram leaves Laxmangarh and becomes a driver to a rich man, the son of a landlord from the village. When he's in the village as a boy he imagines this is the best that life can get. He's going to become someone's servant, with a nice uniform, regular meals and a monthly salary. Now, in the town, and even more after accompanying his employer to a suburb of Delhi, Balram is confronted by things he could not even imagine in the countryside.
The further into "the light" Balram goes the darker things get. Here is a world where the poor huddle beside fires fed by plastic while "their masters" shop in glass enclosed malls that their servants are not allowed to enter. A world where beggars without a home share the streets with workers in call centers for U.S. corporations, where the apartment complexes of the rich have extensive underground quarters where the servants sleep in cramped and dirty dormitories. Where servants can be locked away for the crimes of the rich and powerful.
Bagram becomes aware that he is not part of the rich—that he is one of those being "eaten up." And he wants to become part of that world, and there's only one way to do that: eat up someone else.
Here Balram comes up against one the central metaphors of the book: the chicken coop. "Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” The chicken coop is a way to describe the social relations, the culture, the laws, courts, and ultimately the violence that binds the poor to an oppressive system.
Adiga does not pose a simple solution. He wants the reader to think.
In an essay published in The Independent, Adiga describes how he was attracted to African American literature while studying at Columbia University, reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin and others, which he cites as his major influences in writing The White Tiger. In particular, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man had a profound impact: "He was invisible, he said, simply because white people refused to see him. He was so angry at being invisible that once he hit a man. He hit the man again and again, and yet the man refused to see him."
Adiga concludes the essay saying, "I have left Harlem, but I am still surrounded, by Invisible Men. They are of my own race, their skin is the color of my skin, and yet I cannot see them. If you come to Delhi, I will tell you: ‘Everyone in this city eats late.’ Thousands of day laborers, rickshaw pullers and beggars, will lie, by the side of road, by nine o'clock, covered in blankets and driving past pavements clogged with the sleeping poor, I will reassure you, ‘I've never seen a person in Delhi in bed before midnight. This is a party city.’ And what is invisible to me will become invisible to you too. Until the day when the Invisible Man speaks to us with his fists, which will insist: ‘First you must see me.’"
With The White Tiger, Adiga is speaking for the invisible people and demanding to be seen.
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