[6 April 2009]
In the heavy, quixotic books and the dreamy films and the sweet cyclic songs that come out of the country and move westward, India is a canvas for religiosity. The soil floods and dries up according to the demands of a few million fickle deities; every evening, even in stories that unfold in the far South, rows of priests wave their fire before the river Ganga and release candles into the water. On the temple floor the fleshy landowner is a beggar before the Divine. Balram Halwai, the narrator of Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, spits on God.
Literally. He spits on God and on the inviolability of the Indian family and on his boss and on his coworkers and on his native village and on Mahatma Gandhi. “Isn’t it all wonderful? Isn’t it all grand? Aren’t you grateful to be my servant?” he hears the Almighty ask. And Balram answers. “I leaned out from the edge of the fort in the direction of my village—and then I did something too disgusting to describe to you. Well, actually, I spat. Again and again.” In The White Tiger divinity is covered in hot, angry saliva. The Ganges is a pit of thick black mud.
Adiga’s writing is not elegant. It is artless and rude. His words are Balram’s words, and Balram is the most bitter and discerning village boy of all the habituated denizens who crowd ‘The Darkness.’ Here, in the overcast rural recesses of India, brothers withdraw from school one after the other so that their sisters and female cousins can wed in impossibly expensive ceremonies. Rickshaw drivers argue about the impending elections “like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra.” Politicians lay down foundation stones for hospitals next to last year’s hospital foundation stones and never ask the rocks to support a thing. Balram (or Munna, Rajasthani for “boy,” the only name his parents ever gave him) watches his mother’s dead body burn and her charred bones slide into the river filth; he sees his father choke with tuberculosis.
Then he is hired as a rich man’s driver and murders his master in what he persuades us is a justifiable act of social even-handedness. And quickly he becomes rich himself. Seven triumphant letters composed over seven nights and addressed to the Chinese Prime Minister—who is scheduled to visit Bangalore—tell His Excellency Wen Jiabao how “modern entrepreneurs” like Balram are really made.
The epistles are as transfixing as they are confused. Balram’s voice is naïve and boyish, his prose scattered with the repetitions of a child. “The fully grown adults of the poorer class…never stop being children,” he says. But this small child is also a bold cynic, a critic who perceives even infant cousins as “little dirty brats born to one aunt or another whose names I did not want to know, whose hair I did not want to touch.”
The letter writer—Balram the capitalist, Balram the egoist—is sardonically charming and powerful. He has an office with a chandelier, he curses, he bribes the police, he calls the Prime Minister “Wen.” But in his past as Balram the chauffeur he cannot bear to see his boss massage his own feet in hot water and falls to his knees in front of the bucket. The servant’s relationship to his employer, Mr. Ashok, is desperately tangled. There is fascination and reverence and tenderness and also disgust and a callous kind of loathing, the aversion of a menial who has come to realize that even though he has escaped the village, he is not free.
Sometimes the driver is so needlessly loyal he seems an abject animal and sometimes he deceives like a practiced charlatan. He worries about blackmailing his master—“I really didn’t want him to think, even in the two or three minutes he had left to live, that I was that kind of driver”—even as he is about to slit the man’s throat. He finds Mr. Ashok and his white prostitute repulsive, but ties a lost strand of her blond hair around his wrist like a talisman. And often he feels like he is Ashok, that he turned corrupt the very day the boss went wrong.
(This little rectangular mirror inside the car, Mr. Jiabao—has no one ever noticed before how embarrassing it is? How, every now and then, when master and driver find each other’s eyes in this mirror, it swings open like a door into a changing room, and the two of them have suddenly caught each other naked?)...I swore not to look in the rearview mirror again that night. Now I understood why the city looked so different—why my beak was getting stiff as I was driving. Because he was horny. And inside that sealed car, master and driver had somehow become one body that night.
Balram wonders, we wonder, if it is love masked by hate or hate masked by love; “no servant can ever tell what the motives of his heart are.” So furiously do light and darkness, virtue and vice, intrude on each other in this story that the reader becomes a jet-lagged traveler who cannot be certain if it is morning out or night.
It was written quickly, it seems, with the hurry that a journalist brings to his work. The author was a correspondent for Time magazine and this first piece of fiction is a sour satire that eschews overstatements and excess. This is the type of narrative you consume with urgency. These are letters after all, scribbled down by Balram between the hours of 12 am and 3 am every morning, and they sound it. They are the raw, unromantic notes that someone might find and write into one of those heavy, quixotic books. And the reason for their vitality—Balram’s blatant and often comic inconsistencies—is also their greatest weakness. Balram is part Aravind Adiga. His incisive sense of awareness captivates, but it is very much the external awareness of a novelist who matured in a world a long way from ‘The Darkness.’
Every road in Delhi has a name, like Aurangazeb Road, or Humayun Road, or Archbishop Makarios Road. And no one, masters or servants, knows the name of the road. You ask someone, “Where’s Nikolai Copernicus Marg?” And he could be a man who lived on Nikolai Copernicus Marg his whole life, and he’ll open his mouth and say, “Hanh?” Or he’ll say, “Straight ahead, then turn left,” even though he has no idea.
As forceful as they are, Balram’s perceptions are contrived; his are the judgments of the tourist. While the subjects of his diatribes—wealthy men and village boys alike—are caught in a vague dimness, Balram somehow manages to clamber outside of his own culture and report from the irreligious margins. The Ganges may be “the river of emancipation,” but it is swamped with feces and seven sorts of industrial acids. Indian servants never pinch the handbag full of money resting on the back seat, never seize the opportunity to escape—much like roosters in a coop, Balram considers—because they fear for the lives of their family members.
The god Hanuman, half man half monkey, is a favorite deity in ‘The Darkness’ because he served Lord Rama with untiring fidelity. “These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us, Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.” Whose reflections are these? The dissatisfactions, it seems, of a Chennai-born author who went to Oxford spoken through the mouth of a character who, for all his wit and scepticism, could never have himself articulated them with such dispassionate perspective.
For all its distinctiveness, The White Tiger’s design is not so new. Adiga’s portrait of India may not be sacred or exotic, but he continues to clothe the country in binaries—if not stale ones, then divisions of his own. Gone is the miserable chronicle of the caste system, the relentless contrast of the priest who totes his own unpolluted drinking cup and the leather worker tanning hides. In its place, a different hierarchy based on cash and courage.
“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.” Or, “In this country we have two kinds of men: ‘Indian’ liquor men and ‘English’ liquor men.” Perhaps dichotomies are the only way to write about a subcontinent that still lacks a defined middle-class.
But novel or not, manufactured or not, Balram’s prose is disarming and fiercely persuasive. He provokes us until we are so incensed that we beg him to kill a faint-hearted master. Until we could not give a thought to the village family that will be put to death if Balram cheats. On that day that driver and master both become crooked, we all slip together. And it is nearly impossible to abandon the book without first finding out just how guilty we are.