“Never 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 per cent 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.” So says Balram Halwai, the protagonist-narrator of The White Tiger, the debut novel by Aravind Adiga, for which he was awarded the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
The novel opens with Halwai relating his rags-to-riches story to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, in what he claims to be an attempt to educate the Chinese leader on the true concept of entrepreneurship in his country, India.
India, he says, is sustained by what he calls the “rooster coop”, a pervasive willingness amongst the nation’s poor to be enslaved to its handful of rich without any motivation to instigate change. He likens them to chickens in a coop that know they’re next to be under the slaughter knife. “Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out…”
In a wildly satirical narrative, Adiga charts his character’s dramatic journey from a poverty-stricken childhood through his early adult life as a servant-driver to his present success. Halwai calls himself a “social entrepreneur” who has broken out of the coop.
So, if one has to choose a theme that defines this book, it will have to be resistance to oppression, but more importantly, resistance to self-oppression.
Halwai is born and raised in what he calls the India of Darkness where the rural poor, marginalised by predatory landlords, struggle to feed their families.
Madras-born and now (after several sojourns in the West) Mumbai-based Adiga is very good at conjuring images of poverty and corruption: “Electricity poles — defunct; water tap — broken; children — too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India.”
At school, the teacher pilfers rather than teaches; at the hospital with neither doctor nor bed, Halwai’s father dies from tuberculosis. Then, elections are blatantly rigged in the village; and children are taken out of school to work and pay for dowries that girls in the family owe to their grooms.
It is against this backdrop that barely literate Halwai seeks to be trained as a driver, and wilfully begs his way into the employment of US-educated Mr Ashok – who despite appearing somewhat liberal-minded and sympathetic initially, turns out to be weak, supercilious, and just as unconscionable as others amongst the despotic rich — with whom Halwai moves to Delhi, (and so finally) to India of the Light.
If India’s Darkness consists of landlords and peasants, the country’s Light is a world of masters and servants. In juxtaposing the affluent and the impoverished, Adiga seems at times obsessed with contrasting the physical and the psychological existence between the haves and the have-nots — as if wealth is the single determinant that divides humanity — although at other times, the author also points out common underlying traits between the two: one day when Halwai has stopped the car at the lights,with Ashok in his usual back seat, a girl crosses the road, her breasts bobbing up and down, and master and servant’s eyes bob up and down with them. And they catch each other out.
As much as the novel is an excoriating investigation into India’s society at large, it is also a philosophical examination of the servant’s conflicting psyche. When Ashok despairs at the loss of his wife, Halwai observes, “It squeezed my heart to see him suffer like this — but where my genuine concern ended and where my self-interest began, I could not tell: no servant can ever tell what the motives of his heart are. We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.”
Although Adiga’s book involves all the elements of murder, betrayal, treachery, and intrigue, it is clear the author never intended for it to be read as a taut thriller: Halwai’s eventual killing of his employer is disclosed early in the novel, and his subversions of authority, along with relentless self-justifications, are amply littered along the way.
Instead, one suspects the tale of Halwai is intended to encapsulate the story of India’s rise, especially considering that the book was written in 2008, when the slogan “India is shining” was emblematic of the increasingly glorious nation.
“White men will be finished within my lifetime. My humble prediction: in twenty years’ time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the world. And God save everyone else.” Halwai tells the Premier.
Indeed, (like Halwai) India has resisted and triumphed over decades of self-oppression and emerged successful, prosperous, and swaggering beside the declining West.
Wryly, through this page-turning first novel, Adiga appears to ponder: India has well and truly broken out of the coop — never mind that moralities are ignored along the way, never mind that innocent lives are sacrificed, especially when they can be justified, “These days, there are just two castes…and only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up.”