About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

127 - The White Tiger

And then last night, after the guests had gone and the dishes were washed, I finished The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (New York: Free Press, 2008).

Jacket excerpt: "Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher, Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life -- having nothing but his own wits to help him along. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem -- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

"Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international sensation -- and a startling, provocative debut."

It's just been a night, and there've been a few other things going on lately (Christmas brunch for 25, anyone?), so I'm still trying to figure out what I think of this one. The novel is set in contemporary India, but not an India that will seem familiar to western readers or flattering to Indians themselves. As New York Times reviewer Akash Kapur describes it,
"[T]he background against which [Balram] operates is not just a resurgent economy and nation but a landscape of corruption, inequality and poverty. In some of the book’s more convincing passages, Balram describes his family’s life in 'the Darkness,' a region deep in the heartland marked by medieval hardship, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude and elections are routinely bought and sold.

"This grim world is far removed from the glossy images of Bollywood stars and technology entrepreneurs that have been displacing earlier (and equally clich├ęd) Indian stereotypes featuring yoga and spirituality. It is not a world that rich urban Indians like to see. Indeed, when Adiga’s book recently won the Man Booker Prize, some in India lambasted it as a Western conspiracy to deny the country’s economic progress. Yet Adiga isn’t impressed by such nationalistic fervor. In bare, unsentimental prose, he strips away the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point."

The stark brutality of the setting is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel, though I agree with Kapur's assessment about it getting monotonous after a while. Likewise, I'll grant that the protagonist, former Laxmangarh peasant cum driver cum Bangalore entrepreneur Balram Halwai, is complex and intriguing, but don't know if I'd go so far as to call him roguish or charismatic as other (real) reviewers have done. And the book's other characters -- weak, spineless Ashok, Balram's employer and eventual victim; the inscrutable Vijay, his first exposure to Indian-style entrepreneurship; and amoral, opportunistic fellow driver Vitiglio Lips, who shows him the way to get there (shady as it may be) -- are completely one-dimensional. If you read the novel as a parable, this makes some sense, but leaves you with an ultimately unsatisfying resolution to the complex questions it raises.

The novel is an epistolary of sorts: over the course of seven nights, Balram writes a long letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, ostensibly on the eve of a state visit by the latter to India, with the goal of "[telling him], free of charge, the truth about Bangalore. By telling [him] my life's story." As he explains rather circuitously in the first chapter,
"Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.

"My ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife, Pinky Madam, taught me one of these things, and at 11:32 p.m. today, which was about ten minutes ago, when the lady on All India Radio announced, 'Premier Jiabao is coming to Bangalore next week,' I said that thing at once.

"In fact, each time when great men like you visit our country I say it. Not that I have anything against great men. In my way, sir, I consider myself one of your kind. But whenever I see our prime minister and his distinguished sidekicks drive to the airport in black cars and get out and do namaste before you in front of a TV camera and tell you about how moral and saintly India is, I have to say that thing in English. ...

"You hope to learn how to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting. That made me feel good. But then it hit me that in keeping with international protocol, the prime minister and foreign minister of my country will meet you at the airport with garlands, small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi, and a booklet full of information about India's past, present, and future.

"That's when I had to say that thing in English, sir. Out loud.

"That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago.

"I don't just swear and curse. I'm a man of action and change. I decided right there and then to start dictating a letter to you. ...

"Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.

"By telling you my lifes story.

"See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window, while holding up a bootlegged copy of an American business book, wrapped carefully in cellophane and with a title like:




"Don't wast your money on those American books. They're so yesterday.

"I am tomorrow. ...

"Let us begin.

"Before we do that, sir, the phrase in English that I learned from my ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife Pinky Madam is:

"What a fucking joke."

By the end of "The First Night," the plot has been outlined for us: Balram has somehow risen above his humble, nameless beginnings as the son of a Laxmangarh rickshaw puller to become a successful Bangalore entrepreneur, and oh, yes, murdered the aforementioned "ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok" along the way. He spends the next six days filling Premier Wen in on the details of this journey.

But if the characters are a bit flat, the setting and supporting details are brilliantly rendered. A bit simplistic? Yes, but so are woodcuts and graphic novels, which is part and parcel of their artistry. As an allegory, The White Tiger is fascinating; if it's imperfect, well, perhaps that's where future books and authors should begin. Early on, Adiga offers a stark, micro-level description of the much-ballyhooed success stories of India's hi-tech sector ("The Light") and "The Darkness" that comprises Balram's world:
"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. ... The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen."
However dull and primitive their rich masters imagine them to be, the poor are not only aware that their lives of toil, indignity, and abuse are less than fully human, but fully capable of envisioning something better -- if not for themselves, then for their children. As Balram recalls his father, who has since died of TB and neglect in a filthy Laxmangarh hospital, saying: "'My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey. All I want is that one son of mine -- at least one -- should live like a man.'" At the time, he muses, "What it meant to live like a man was a mystery." Gradually, though, the answer dawns on him: what keeps the poor enslaved is their passivity:
"Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep the chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench -- the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. The do not try to get out of the coop.

"The very same thing is done with human beings in this country."
While Balram pays lip service to a poetic definition of freedom that fits with the "moral and saintly India" he derides ("Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave. ... If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India."), ultimately, it's not poetry, but sheer ruthlessness, that unlocks his shackles:
"Now what happens in your typical Murder Weekly story -- or Hindi film, for that matter? A poor man kills a rich man. Good. Then he takes the money. Good. But then he gets dreams in which the dead man pursues him with bloody fingers, saying Mur-der-er, mur-der-er.

"Doesn't happen like that in real life. Trust me. ...

"The real nightmare you get is the other kind. You toss about in the bed dreaming that you haven't done it -- that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away -- that you're still in Delhi, still the servant of another man, and then you wake up."

Later, reflecting on an accident in which one of his own employees kills a poor young man, he is defiantly unrepentant:
"And it was not his fault. Not mine either. Our outsourcing companies are so cheap that they force their taxi operators to promise them an impossible number of runs every night. To meet such schedules, we have to drive recklessly; we have to keep hitting and hurting people on the roads. It's a problem every taxi operator in this city faces. Don't blame me."
If that's not enough to make western captains of industry squirm in their leather office chairs, his final speech to Wen should more than do the trick:
"Am I not a part of all that is changing in this country? Haven't I succeeded in the struggle that every poor man here should be making -- the struggle not to take the lashes your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of Mother Ganga? True, there was the matter of murder -- which is a wrong thing to do, no question about it. It has darkened my soul. All the skin-whitening creams sold in the markets of India won't clean my hands again.

"But isn't it likely that everyone who counts in this world, including our prime minister (including you, Mr. Jiabao) has killed someone or other on their way to the top? Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi -- but that is glory, and not what I am after. All I wanted was the chance to be a man -- and for that, one murder was enough."

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