Autumn 2008
A Review
by Anjana Basu

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The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga 
Harper Collins India. Rs 395/-

Drivers have a strange caste of their own. I should know, because my driver was one of the most unusual of the species: a compulsive drunkard who graduated from sleeping in a bank compound across the wall to the spare room in our garage. You could hear him raving up and down the alleyway terrorizing people or bullying the hawkers who set up shop across the mouth of the alley. He lived on the edge of being sacked and survived because my father and I kept pointing out to my mother that a live at-home driver for that salary would be hard to find and no advertising agency was going to provide me with a driver in a recession-driven time.

Holi and Bengali New Year were peak drinking times as far as he was concerned, but, to do him justice, no matter how much he raved and ranted and swore, he never crashed the car when drunk. Nor, unlike many of his fraternity, did he take it off on little trips of his own while waiting for me outside a club or an auditorium. The petrol stayed at reasonable, accountable levels.

There was one mystifying occasion when he brought a whole host of his hawker friends to assault our cook's helper. They shared the room together, and the helper insisted that something had been stolen from his trunk Insults were hurled up and down the galli and brickbats flourished - though nothing was actually thrown. My mother, like a cat on a tin roof, insisted that the man  had to go before he became more dangerous - why he might even egg on the hawkers to besiege our house!

What, you may ask, has all this talk of drivers to do with Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger? Everything, I think. Like Adiga's anti-hero or rags-to-riches
entrepreneur Balram Halwai, my driver came from what Adiga calls "the Darkness": a feudal state dominated by brutal landlords and overrun by Naxalites who were quietly trying to steal power away from them. A dog-eat-dog world with everyone on the take. A world that looks beautiful from a distance but is actually ugly and riddled with corruption

Balram Halwai started life as a nerd who wanted to study. He was terrified of large two-foot-long geckos with purple tongues, especially the one who
lurked in the school cupboard - here Adiga is obviously trying a little magical realism since this is a species strangely unfamiliar to the Indian subcontinent. Balram's name was given to him by a typical paan-spitting teacher, otherwise he was known as Munna, or 'little boy'. All set to become a scholar, since he was the only literate child in his class, Balram's life took a strange turn when his cousin was forced to take him out of school and put him into a teashop, where he had to work to repay a family debt.

There he observed that even the teashop owner was on the take, providing assorted thumbprints for the elections in exchange for money. The cops were certainly on the take, and the landlords were busy springing deals with the politician who rules the State, the Great Socialist. The same chance that took Balram into the tea shop took him out of the teashop, because he decided to become a driver. Getting his hands behind the wheel of a car, he thought, would put him on the road to freedom. He became the second driver of his landlord’s family.

Now, being a driver, as  I have had cause to learn, is probably less strenuous than many other jobs. Drivers spend most of their time waiting in cars for their masters or mistresses or comparing notes with others in a similar position. All those in service in India have more inside information about what goes on in the places they work than does anyone else – even more than family members sometimes. Some of them use that information to pass on for money or for their own devices. Drivers know where all their employers’ friends live and how long they will be at a certain place, or even why they are going there. They can steal petrol, use the car for impromptu taxi services and the air conditioner and the music systems at will. I found mine fast asleep with the air conditioner on and the engine running one evening and took to locking him out of the car for several weeks, thinking he gets a good salary and has a room to himself for which he pays no rent.

Part of The White Tiger boils down to the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the rich who employ and the poor who are forced to be employed. Balram describes the situation as a kind of rooster coop.  “Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” 

Adiga’s Balram is stuffed into the servants’ quarters of a multi-storied complex in Delhi where there is a warren of rooms and one common toilet. Bells ring from various flats to summon the servants as and when required, and in between driving Balram works in the kitchen and massages his master’s father’s feet. Most of the time he cannot rid himself of the feel of flaky old skin but labours on because he is getting three thousand five hundred a month whereas most people back in the Darkness scratch together less than it takes to feed a water buffalo in a day. In this way, servitude is ingrained in the Indian spirit. It’s part of the feudal way of life. 

“With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then, an egg will crack open - a woman's hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road - and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.” Again a brief, driverly word  here – driver’s fees vary by car and city, something that Adiga appears to be unaware of. The bigger the car and the city, the higher the wages. Delhi drivers have been known to get six thousand or more, especially if they’re driving a Honda with power, steering as Balram does. Three thousand five hundred is the current going rate for a driver who works a twelve-hour day in Calcutta with an hour or so off for lunch, though the twelve hours are quickly being whittled down to ten. Balram’s fellow driver, a Dickensian villain with a skin disease, offers to cut him a better deal if he can, but Balram is determined to be loyal to his master Ashok, who seems to treat him like a human being.

As a result of all these vicissitudes, Balram is a determined atheist. But he buys himself a shelf full of Hindu gods so he can compete with the first driver Ram Persaud in piety - only to discover that Ram Persaud is actually a Muslim who has donned Hindu identity in order to get himself a job. The Darkness has knocked all faith out of him. The heart of Darkness, according to Balram, is a river which chokes the life out of all those who live beside it. “I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.” 

Maybe my own driver is not a great example, but he periodically goes off to a spirit healer, some kind of shaman he has faith in. And before the car starts every morning he touches his fingers to his forehead. Most drivers on the road do that, and long-distance ones have gods and goddesses with blinking disco lights in their cabins in front of which they regularly burn incense. Faith is what equips India against all forms of darkness, with or without a capital D. Tribals in the hills invoke their totems for protection against industrialisation and other ills. Life is a matter of taking care of both body and soul, but Adiga’s Balram is soulless. What drives him is a determination to rise to the top of the chicken coop and crow.

Ashok is married to a Christian he met in the US who rejoices in the mundane name of Pinky. Pinky wears trousers and haunts shopping malls while quarrelling with her husband, who refuses to return with her to America. Gurgaon in Delhi is the best he can do in that respect. Realizing she is condemned to chaos and eternal traffic jams, Pinky takes to drunken driving, pushing Balram from behind the wheel. The result, not surprisingly, is a Great Gatsby kind of episode. This is where the book ends, you think, with Balram murdering his employer after he is asked to take the blame for the hit-and-run death of an anonymous child. But, no, the wheels of Adiga’s invention roll on. The murder is no secret – Balram confesses to it from the very first page in a series of letters to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao...“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, mobile phone usage and drug abuse”. His ostensible aim is to warn the premier against being taken in by what he will be told about the new India on his first official visit to the country. 

This is a surprising piece of naivety from the author, someone who should have known that the Chinese flock to Gaya – which runs side by side with the Darkness – on interminable pilgrimages, and that China and India have many things in common, including the fact that rickshaws were introduced to this country from India. Any driver knows that ‘Hindi Chinee bha bhai’, while Chinese goods flock Indian pavements. Balram sees the murder as the ultimate throw of the dice in entrepreneurship. He also looks on the Chinese as the ultimate entrepreneurs. So, he reaches out to the Chinese PM, as a  representative of one fast-growing economy to another. In the end, he thinks that whatever he does is justified because India is, after all, 'like this only'. Drivers, of course, are not politically clued in, but Balram is a driver who is aware that the world’s best poets are Muslim, and after the murder he rises to new heights of intellectual prowess. This man admires China, Afghanistan and Abyssinia for never having been ruled by a colonial power. From a man like this, ignorance about China’s age-old ties with India is not forgivable. 

"In the old days there were 1,000 castes in India. These days, there are just two: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies.” There are greater struggles in India than these, though, yes, at the bottom it is about how much money you can scrape together and who you know. However, a Dalit very rarely manages to rise above his caste, though drivers do manage to join the ranks of corporate houses and can conceivably own fleets of taxis. Mine may not – he’s too involved with his sadhu and arguments with the street-side shop owners he calls his friends. And he likes ruling the alley with his roar. He is also allergic to the word ‘servant’, preferring ‘employee’. Most domestics prefer that word nowadays, and many are finding their own escapes from the chicken coop of servitude. Paanwala’s sons join the IIMs, a dhobi’s son earns a ten-figure salary in a foreign bank and gifts Mercedes Benzes to those who adopted him. This is not quite life from Adiga’s point of view.

But India is an economy on the rise, as all journalists like Adiga know, and everyone has their own drivers, whether it is ambition, jealousy, fundamen- talism or any combination of these. So, this driver with his distinctive sadist’s voice may be believable at certain levels and will certainly appeal to readers outside India who are unaware of the many nuances to life in this country.  Certainly, for a debut, the book is a page-turner. 

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel,  Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her short fiction  has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Eclectica, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)