Profoundly Indian

Print edition : November 07, 2008

Aravind Adigas Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel, The White Tiger, is the story of Indias underclass and its life.

IN June 2006, in an essay titled My Lost World published in Time magazine, Aravind Adiga wrote about a personal search he made in the Indian city where he grew up. That city was Mangalore, nestled alongside the Western Ghats on the Karnataka coast. Born in Madras (now Chennai) in pre-liberalisation India, Adiga spent his early childhood years in that city before moving with his family to Mangalore, where his father worked as a doctor.

In Mangalore, Adiga first attended Canara High School and then St. Aloysius High School. Despite the loss of his mother to cancer shortly before his secondary school leaving certificate examinations, he reportedly stood first in the State. He knew the importance of education. When I was growing up, he wrote in the Time essay, young men of all religions were united by shared values of hard work, enterprise and a desire to get out of Mangalore as quickly as possible. My brother left when he was 18. I left when I was 16. Many of those who got out never returned. There was no need to go back because the place never seemed to change.

Adiga left Mangalore in 1991 when his father moved to Australia. Returning to the city 15 years later as a journalist with Time, he found it vastly changed. The population had doubled. Shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings had reshaped the skyline. There were now five medical colleges, four dental colleges, 14 physiotherapy colleges and 350 schools, colleges and polytechnics.

The new affluence seemed to have come at a price, however, as Adiga wrote: I met neighbours, relatives and classmates, and each had done well in some way one had his own house, another a car. But each also had some sorrow we could hardly have imagined. A Catholic friends daughter had married a Hindu, and her family no longer spoke to her. A Hindu friends daughter had been divorced by her husband. Divorce, extramarital affairs, interreligious marriages, homosexual flings the doors of experience had swung open in Mangalore. The small city had grown up.

Looking around the transformed city, he also noticed a group of drifters and homeless men, some carrying rolled-up mattresses part of the underclass who seemed to have been left out of the story of Indias growth. Adiga was curious and troubled by the sight, and during his travels in India as a journalist, he wanted to find out more. The White Tiger, Adigas Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel, is the story of this underclass and its life begging for food, sleeping under concrete flyovers, defecating on the roadsides, shivering in the cold, struggling, in the 21st century, for its freedom. The White Tiger gives this underclass a voice: one that is intelligent, savagely funny and quite unforgettable. It is a voice that seeks out and understands the power of beauty: If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India. But it is also a voice of anger and protest, and it is almost completely unsentimental. I did my job with near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity and so the tea shop was a profoundly enriching experience.

The novel is structured as a series of letters written to the Chinese Premier by a former car driver from Bihar. Why the Chinese Premier? Because, the narrator Balram Halwai, now based in the city of Bangalore, writes, 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, mobile phone usage and drug abuse.

Balram explains, further, why he is writing in the language of the erstwhile master: Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English. Things like Balrams story of entrepreneurship. The Premier of the Freedom-Loving Nation of China is apparently interested in the story of Indian entrepreneurship; Balram, the narrator of the novel, is an entrepreneur based in the city of start-ups. His story, he assures his addressee, will not be found in the white-washed version or the cellophane-wrapped pirated copies of business bestsellers that are sold at traffic signals: Dont waste your money on those American books. Theyre so yesterday, he writes. I am tomorrow.

He is, furthermore, The White Tiger of the title: A Thinking Man/And an entrepreneur/Living in the worlds centre of technology and outsourcing Electronics City Phase 1 (just off Hosur Main Road), Bangalore, India. The India of that address is actually two countries in the novel: one of Light with access to education, health care, good roads, electricity, running water, as well as hope and justice; and the other of Darkness, where there is only deprivation and injustice. Balrams story is about how he clawed his way out of the Darkness into the Light.

Balram, or Munna as he was named by his parents in the Darkness where he was born, is the younger son of a rickshaw-puller, a human beast of burden, in Laxmangarh, a tiny village in Gaya on the banks of the river Ganga. One of Munnas first lessons in growing up comes when he follows his family members on his mothers funeral procession. My mothers body had been wrapped from head to toe in a saffron silk cloth, which was covered in rose petals and jasmine garlands. I dont think she had ever had such a fine thing to wear in her life. (Her death was so grand that I knew, all at once, that her life must have been miserable. My family was guilty about something.)

Refusing to call him Munna because that is not a name at all, the teacher at the local primary school gives him a new name. But Balram is not destined to remain in school for very long: there is a wedding in the family, they have the girl, and therefore, as Balram writes, they are screwed. The family has taken a loan to pay for the wedding and the dowry, and they must now work for the moneylender to pay off the loan. So Kishan, Munnas brother, takes him out of school and to the tea shop where they will spend their future working as human spiders, mopping the dirty floors or smashing chunks of coal against a brick.

Years later, while telling his story, the narrator reflects on this part of his life: Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and youll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

If we see the physicality of poverty (My fathers spine was a knotted rope cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist. The story of a poor mans life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.), we also see the carefully protected lifestyle of the ultra-rich: security guards, Alsatian dogs and, literally, bags of money.

The two worlds intersect within the strict bounds of the master-servant relationship. In Laxmangarh, the rich landlords are a pack of animals stork, buffalo, wild boar and raven who feed on the village until there is nothing left for anyone else, and the rest are forced to climb onto the packed buses that lead to the world outside Dhanbad, Calcutta (Kolkata), Delhi to find work.

In Delhi, the rich are driven around in air-conditioned cars, protected from the pollution that takes years off a mans life. But Balram, as he drives the rich around in their cars, will always be a member of the world outside a member of the servant class. The servant who washes his masters legs in a bucket of dirty water and massages them; the servant who pours out the drinks while keeping one hand on the steering wheel and an eye on the road; the servant who can be smilingly cajoled into taking the rap when his employer, in a drunken haze in the middle of the night, drives the car over a small, dark ragged shape that might have been some sort of small animal but actually turns out to be someones child.

Aravind Adiga with the 2008 Booker Prize, in London on October 14.-SHAUN CURRY/AFP

Even Balrams God is a master who demands gratitude for the scraps he gives him, as we read in one unforgettable scene. Once, returning to his village, Balram climbs to the top of a hill, to the black fort, and looks down at the view below him. Up in the blue skies, God spreads His palm over the plains below, showing this little man Laxmangarh, its little tributary of the Ganga, and all that lies beyond: a million such villages, a billion such people. And God asks this little man: Isnt it all wonderful? Isnt it all grand? Arent you grateful to be my servant?

Born in Chennai, brought up in Mangalore, writing about Delhi, and living in Mumbai, Adiga loves Tamil, speaks Kannada and writes in English. And in this language of the erstwhile master, without exoticism and without sentimentality, he has written a profoundly Indian story. It is not as if other writers have not written about the other, forgotten side of India.

For example, Amitav Ghosh, whose novel Sea of Poppies also appeared on the Man Booker shortlist for this year, has written memorably, with rich detail, compassion and wisdom, about those on the margins of history and geography as has Kiran Desai, in her Man Booker Prize-winning second novel, The Inheritance of Loss. Adigas prose is not quite so elegant, but the force of his writing comes from its savage humour and its strength of feeling.

The pages of the 34-year-old Adigas novel, however, are different, in their dark humour.

They are also incandescent with anger at the injustice, the futility, the sheer wrongness of a life such as the one from where a bright little boy called Munna, who was later called Balram Halwai in his school records, and then called the White Tiger of the jungle because of his good performance during a school inspection, was pulled out of school and told to smash coal for a tea shop. Where private armies roam about the fields, men and women live sad and stunted lives, and dreams are cut short even before they are fully formed.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the Indian Administrative Service. The views expressed in this article are personal.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor