A tale of who gets eaten and who gets to eat

November 26, 2008

The White Tiger exposes the underbelly of India's new global cities--but its author is more than a little contemptuous of its victims.

The history of the world, my love,
Is those down below serving those up above;
The history of the world my sweet,
Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat
--Bertolt Brecht

SINCE WINNING the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger has been lauded as a refreshing corrective to the oft-told story that India has benefited from global capitalism to become Asia's greatest democracy and land of opportunity.

An example of this mythmaking about the wonders of globalization appeared in a recent column in the New York Times about American-born Indians who have relocated to India. The author, who has himself returned to his parents' birthplace, writes:

India, having fruitlessly pursued command economics, tried something new: It liberalized, privatized, globalized. The economy boomed, and hope began to course through towns and villages shackled by fatalism and low expectations...

India's second-generation returnees have built boutiques that fuse Indian fabrics with Western cuts, founded companies that train a generation to work in Western companies, become dealmakers in investment firms that speak equally to Wall Street and Dalal Street, mixed albums that combine throbbing tabla with Western melodies.

White Tiger tells a rather different tale. Far from an affluent multicultural nation infused with new money and hope, the novel describes "two Indias": "The dark," that of the rural and urban poor; and "the light," that of the rich. The story is narrated by Balram Halwai, who "rises" from village penury to become chauffeur to one of India's business elite--the son of a landowner, who has recently returned from the U.S. to participate in the boom.

Even though it was written before the current global crisis, the novel presents the main achievement of capitalist expansion to be greater class inequality:

To sum up--in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. 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.

THIS DUALITY runs throughout the novel. The shiny new malls like Delhi's PVR Saket have every kind of upscale shop and eatery that conspicuous consumers could wish for. But while waiting for his "master," Balram experiences:

Review: Books

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger. Free Press, 2008, 304 pages, $14.

the second PVR--a line of stinking restaurants, tea stalls, and giant frying pans where bread was toasted in oil. The men who work in the cinemas, and who sweep them clean, come here to eat. The beggars have their homes here.

The rural poor face the brutality of caste oppression and the violence of landlords wielding virtually feudal power. When they escape to towns and cities, they confront cutthroat competition for demeaning service work:

Every day millions wake up at dawn--stand in dirty, crowded buses--get off at their masters' posh houses--and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet--all for a pittance.

Adiga captures the contrast between rich and poor in striking metaphors and vivid description, such as Balram's account of taking his father--a former rickshaw driver who is dying of tuberculosis--to a filthy and understaffed government hospital:

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 kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog's collar...cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.

While maintaining the demeanor of a loyal and happy servant, Balram's growing class resentment leads him to fantasize about murder in some of the most bitingly satirical passages in the book:

To have a madman with thoughts of blood and theft in his head, sitting just ten inches in front of you, and not to know it. Not to have a hint, even. What blindness you people are capable of. Here you are, sitting in glass buildings and talking on the phone night after night to Americans who are thousands of miles away, but you don't have the faintest idea what's happening to the man who's driving your car!

What is it, Balram?

Just this, sir--that I want to smash your skull open!

SUCH MOMENTS, along with vivid scenes of police brutality and political corruption, and pan shots of revolutionary discontent in the underbelly of the new global cities, warrant the critical acclaim of Adiga's first novel as a literary work of and about class warfare.

But it is hard to forget that the voice of Balram is actually that of a graduate of Oxford and Columbia Universities, who has written for Time magazine and the Financial Times. In fact, much about this character reinforces the condescending prejudices that are elsewhere parodied. Balram routinely expresses offensive religious, sexual and racial bigotry, and usually is quite willing to tread on anyone more vulnerable than himself.

And, much like the celebratory essay quoted above, the novel suggests that internalized oppression is the biggest obstacle for India's masses, who are trapped in the "The Great Indian Rooster Coop":

[N]ever before in human history have so few owed so much to so many...A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent--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 in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

The tone is reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul--whom many anti-colonial writers see as elitist and pro-empire--as is the repeated description of India as a "half-baked country," as though the problem were not global capitalism, but a Third World country's inadequate implementation of it.

I am not suggesting that the novel is flawed because the author is middle class, but rather that the imagined voice of Balram is never quite convincing, and the world of the novel seems circumscribed by stereotypes and preconceptions.

There is something contrived and irritating about the narrative frame, which is in the form of letters written by Balram to the Premier of Beijing (this is never explained). And while the satire can be acutely funny, at other times, it is cheap and exploitative: obsessive references to "buggery," and Balram's frequent desire to "dip his beak into" young women, for example. The humor at these points is more Borat than George Carlin.

Adiga has said in interview that The White Tiger was inspired by the "continuous murmur or growl beneath middle-class life in India...Balram is what you'd hear if one day the drains and faucets in your house started talking."

Before reading White Tiger, I wondered why Booker judge Michael Portillo--an infamous member of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's right-wing, union-busting government--would be enthusiastic about a novel of class warfare. Perhaps it is because while parodying those who get to eat in "new India," The White Tiger is more than a little cynical and contemptuous of those who are eaten.

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