The White Tiger: A Retake On Servitude

The White Tiger on Servitude

Read Part 1

The White Tiger is a retake on servitude through the master-servant dialectics, the discourse being at the level of aspirations and experiences. It is the story of the suppressed sections of the Indian society epitomized in the uneducated son of a rickshaw puller who amazingly rises from village chai-wala to a successful entrepreneur in the alienated, post-industrial, post-modern call-centre hub of Bangalore. That is the end he had always dreamed of. But he reaches there only by turning a killer. He kills his master.

The landless farmers have been at the centre of narratives earlier also. Kamala Markandeya for instance wrote Rice and Monsoon and Handful of Rice. The farmers do not get their share of rice. They accept meager wages and bear cruel treatment without any resistance. A critic finds Adiga in the tradition of Mulk Raj Anand and others:

India‘s pioneer political activists right from Ranade, Naoroji, Gokhale, Tilak, Aurbindo, Gandhi and Nehru were conscious of the corresponding perils of socio-economic inequality, injustice and neglect. This plight of the poor has remained in focus in the writings of several Indian English writers in general and the novelists in particular. Mulk Raj Anand and Bhabani Bhattacharaya before the 1950s and Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga in the present times are good examples. (Randeep Rana 2011, 453)

Subalternity has variously formed the core of Indian Writing in English. Only, in this case the subaltern speaks rather roars, turning Gayati Chakravorty Spivak‘s theory upside down.

In the novel, the nation becomes the state. It annihilates the state, acquires its characters and takes its name. Balram Halwai kills Mr. Ashok, acquires all his characters, mannerism, and corrupt practices and adopts his name as well. Interesting! Is Aravind Adiga launching a course in entrepreneurship? Or, is he showing mirror to today’s ruling elite? We made the British quit India, acquired all the characters, rules and laws – even the 1935 Act via the Constitution, posts and palaces, and adopted the names as well e.g. the steel-frame Indian Civil Service became Indian Administrative Service. The newly independent society needed to be administered, not just civil serviced! In the name of fundamental changes rulers just rename institutions and cities. PM Modi and HM Shah have got these lessons only from the past. BJP tries just to ape the Grand Old Congress.

The novel is a first person narrative in the epistolary form. What we read is a seven-part letter from the chief protagonist Balram Halwai alias Ashok Sharma, a self-styled ‘Thinking Man / And an entrepreneur’[i]. The man from Laxamangarh, Bihar writes them to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao whose state visit to India is on the cards. The visit is purportedly to take lessons in business skills: why India is so good at producing entrepreneurs. The Dragon is out to learn from the Tiger. As it happens, the letters are never sent. We are reminded here of Salem’s diary in The Midnight’s Children. Salem wrote his episodes daily at night.

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen point out how the quality of democracy is often compromised by social inequality and inadequate political participation, even though democracy claims itself to be a powerful tool of elimination of social inequality.[ii] Adiga clearly sees a cause-and-effect relationship between economic chasm and socio-political tensions.

The causes are complex, but one common theme I find is the heightened tension within the country that’s caused by the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The flare-ups can often take the form of ethnic or regional protests, but the underlying grievances are often economic … … Fixing the economic disparities has to be part of any attempt to address India’s growing unrest.[iii]

Hegelian master-slave dialecticism as evinced in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is brought into play in the story. The servant kills his master to attain freedom. One political philosopher correctly foretold: Man is forced to be free. The Tiger follows the tradition of the three great Afro-American 20th-century novelists – Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright who all wrote about race and class. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – a book that was equally unpopular among the white and the blacks – is particularly noteworthy here. To Adiga, “Balram is my invisible man, made visible. This white tiger will break out of his cage.” Balram symbolizes all those poor Indians who are invisible as individuals made visible only as caste, class and religion to the Rath-seated managers of the Bank of Democracy, viz. the vote bank.[iv]

The narrator via Balram explains the reasons for entrepreneurial success:

My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.

So, is The White Tiger a lesson in entrepreneurship? Not really. Or, perhaps, may be. To climb the ladders of corporate success in India, you need to be opportunist, law-breaker or rather law-bender, hands-in-glove with the like-minded among the political class and amoral at your best. Adiga’s hero isn’t even a distant relation of Mani Ratnam’s Guru. Is the author impressed by popular belief regarding the rise of the mammoth business houses in the country? Don’t we even today find strange nexus between criminals-businessmen-politicians? And, isn’t it hard to identify who is what in the case of at least some of our representatives? Are not they sharing the same prisons? Ah! Anna was forced to go to the same jail. It is 2 strange a G(eneration)!

The White Tiger is the story of an irony that India today unfolds: a country booming with pride having ushered in the IT revolution, though only working in the peripheral, with all the credit going the West way. An India, malls and multiplexes are opening up where everywhere, even in the tier-II & III cities. An India in cities of which, residential property rates skyrocket in midst of skyscrapers fast emerging. An India of which – along with China, of course – even the US is in awe. They cast apprehensions every now and then. Sometimes they allege that the world food bill is rising as the Indians eat up too much and waste as well. At other times the superpower laments that by the next decade or so India will surpass them in terms of scientific knowhow.

But this India doesn’t present to us just one face. It is not simple dichotomy between India and Bharat. It has more faces than Ravan had. She can kill a person just for Rs. 27/-[v]. A retired army officer takes a life here just for trying to steal guavas. And, we let go incursions by the Chinese army! There is economic injustice. And what better way to fight this injustice than to erect your own statues all over, when you rise to the helms of power! How is the party with difference different from the BSP? The White Tiger is the story of India divided. Balram Halwai and Mr. Ashok represent the two poles of the economic divide. The economic gap has widened especially since 1991, the year of the ushering of neo-liberalization. It is a social criticism focusing on the poverty and misery of India and its religio-socio-political conflicts, encapsulated in humour and irony. It’s a divide like Berlin Wall:

To separate from the poor, the residences of the rich are surrounded by high and thick walls, with barbed wire, guards and sometimes dogs, just as the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berliners. The film Slumdog Millionaire and even more so the award winning novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga show what is needed to cross from one side of the wall to another – crime being one of the few options available. (Jean-Pierre Lehmann 2009, 2)

At once, the novel gives a lesson in political economy: “that trustworthiness of servants which is the basis of the entire Indian economy” (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 175). Another researcher also finds:

They are the workers that the lives of the middle classes are built on, yet they are the workers that no one wants to be. (Ray 26:3, 2000, 29)

The low rate of crime by domestic aids is really intriguing as they have reasons to feel bitter and frustrated. Below I elaborate the findings of a subject-specific study (Ray 26:3, 2000) as well as the observations of Adiga (A. P. Sebastian 2009) himself and a few of my own:

  • a servant is far poorer than the master – a servant has no possibility of ever catching up to the master
  • crime is easily possible as the servant has access to everything of the master including his physical person and family, and I would add, all this in the absence of the master because of the nature of the two’s duties
  • Except in newly-wed families and houses with young girls, male domestic workers are the preferred and costlier lot than their women counterparts.
  • Male domestic workers have to do menial jobs – more often those of women-folk like cooking, cleaning, sweeping, mopping and dusting. They do gardening extra.
  • They are forced to work for longer hours, often double, compared to the permanent or even contractual factory workers.
  • They are seldom unionized.
  • They hardly have free time of their own as they are constantly at the beck and call of their employers.
  • They hardly earn enough to support their family such that their wives need not go to work.
  • They cannot live with and be a protection to their family. They have no homes to which to return at the end of the day. They are materially and discursively constrained within a universe that is not of their own making.
  • They cease to be the resident patriarchs of their homes.
  • A male domestic worker belongs to and is a member of the family of his master. But in what sense, Balram finds out when Pinky madam kills a child in accident and when the one-rupee coin is lost. They are the use-and-throw lot.
  • Contrasted to factory or construction work, the domestic service fails profoundly in many criteria than one. The job of male domestic service-providers hurts their sense of masculinity.
  • Their physicality is also hurt as they have to forget the basic instincts and forgo the avenues of marital sex. They are masters nowhere and for no moment.

Still, the servants’ crime rate is low. The sociological explanation Adiga proposes is that a conscious ideology of resentment doesn’t exist in India:

…Indians are the world’s most honest people… The masters exploit the trustworthiness of the servants and they exploit them: …Masters trust their servants with diamond in this country!…why doesn’t that servant take the suitcase full of diamonds? He is no Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he’s in the rooster coop. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 175)

At least one academic study would agree:

Some argue that the humanity of servants develops in a distorted way because of both the nature and the conditions of this work. Servants are reduced to a state of “perpetual infantilism”, which leads to extreme hopelessness, and to a corresponding lack of resistance. Others have written movingly about the everyday ways in which domestic workers resist degradation. (Ray 26:3, 2000, 2)

Adiga has aptly used the striking metaphor of “rooster coop”. Why do the chicken in the coop don’t rebel even when they continuously see the killing of other chicken? Probably because being petty birds, they don’t realize their fate.

―The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they‘re the next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 173-74)

To continue – Part 3


[i] TWT, 2008, p. 3

[ii] Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. (2002).“Democratic Practice and Social Inequality in India.” Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, 6-37. Quoted by A.J. Sebastian, Ph.D. in Poor-Rich Divide in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. P.231

[iii] —–.(2008). “Aravind Adiga: You ask the Questions”. The Independent. November 10. aravind-adiga-youask-the-questions-1006643.html.

[iv] Several politicians, including Mr. Advani, the original one, have been on the yatra – the democratic voyage – to mobilize the individuals into vote bank. They seem to have taken the cue well from Gandhi’s Dandi Yatra!

[v] This unfortunate incident occurred in recent years in Gurgaon, the scene of story in The White Tiger.

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