I picked up Aravind Adiga's 'White Tiger' only recently. Definitely a late lateef purchase and no, not from the traffic signal. I hate badly printed books and do not pick up pirated copies as a matter of principle.
It's the least one author can do for another :)
Well, the first 40 pages of 'White Tiger' did not take my breath away.
a) I felt it was written for a foreign audience. The way journalists write about India in Time magazine. (Yes I know, the author was a reporter for that very same magazine not long ago!)
b) The idea of Balram Halwai, the driver from the heart of Darkness writing a letter to the Chinese Prime Minister in the Queen's English bugged me. I mean, really, it did not seem like his voice.
But 100 pages on I fell into the rhythm of the book and started enjoying it. And I was filled with sneaky admiration for what Aravind was trying to do.
The White Tiger addresses the issue that we live with each and every day and which shocks every White Man who visits this country. How can we as a nation exist skyscraper to slum, BMW to bullock cart, PVR to piss-on-the tracks and never quite blow up?
If the have nots outnumber the haves by so many millions why don't they simply rise up and finish us all off?
Well, the answer according to Aravind, lies in the 'greatest thing India has ever invented' which is the Rooster Coop.
Just like roosters who are caged and accept their fate at the hands of the butcher, so do human beings accept the cage they are bolted in. The poor have a station in life, which is to serve the rich, and theirs is not to question, or to rebel. As Balram aka White Tiger puts it:
"A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 % - 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."
Hmm. Dark thoughts but much of the book is laced with equally dark humour. Or so it appeared to me - one man's tragedy is another's comedy as they say!
Never before have people like me smelt the insides of a servant's quarters and visualised the nocturnal dancing of cockroaches. Thought about how icky it might be to massage hairy feet. Or realised the importance of caste, of religion, of 'background'. Even to get a lowly driver's job.
(Yes, we had 'Slumdog Millionaire' but that was more of a fairy tale)
I was also fascinated by some of side characters like Vitiligo Lips, Pinky madam and the idea of drivers passing their time reading Murder Weekly (is there really such a publication? Perhaps a spicier version of Manohar kahaniyan which I remember from summers spent at my native place!)
I wonder how much time Aravind actually spent observing Balram types, to be able to touch upon the hierarchy that exists even in a servant quarters. Like in college - "Main tera senior, zara bach ke rehna"!
For every blonde Ukrainian prostitute there is the fair skinned Indian with the dye job. Because everywhere, there are two Indias.
There's English liquor and country liquor.
There's penthouse and basement.
There's Light and there's Darkness.
We who type away at a computer connected to broadband in a language left behind by our former masters are in the 'light'.
But every day we brush shoulders with those in the darkness. Maids, cooks, ayahs, sweepers and of course, drivers.
I am surely a much kinder employer than the Mongoose or even the well meaning but ill fated Ashok (for context, refer book!) but when one Rajendra Yadav reports to work tomorrow... For a moment, I will be reminded of the White Tiger.
As long as the tigers - or the roosters, who form the majority - remain in their cages, life as we know it will go on. Naxal movements are wreaking havoc but are yet to touch the main cities. And so it that we have the occasional report of murder or dacoity but on the whole still feel 'safe'. And believe we will stay that way, for another generation.
But who can really say?
I sure hope our various social upliftment programs do some good because I really don't want to see more 'entrepreneurs' like Balram Halwai... angry and not so foolish ones! The kind who get their start up capital by slitting their employer's throats.
And then cross over to Our Side, melt into the neighbourhood and become 'high net worth' customers.
The White Tiger, Rs 395
P.S. Harper Collins, I hope you are coming out with a paperback edition soon coz the Balrams of the booktrade have been hawking it for months now!
Also read: my blog titled White Tigress