It’s probably safe to say you can’t go a week these days without reading at least one article talking about the economies of China or India. It seems there is someone in some business section of some newspaper always willing to write another breathless installment in the rise of the East as economic powers. The majority of the writers seem torn between their amazement that countries like India and China can actually have an economy, citing them as examples of how great the Free Market is.
What most of these articles fail to mention is the cost being paid for these great economic miracles. In China the majority of the labour being supplied to fuel the motor of the economy is as close to slave labour as you can get and still be paid for your work. People work long hours for little pay in conditions that would close plants in North America in a second. These are merely technicalities; nothing for us to worry about. It’s not like we live there.
India has become the call centre to the world it seems. Whenever you phone a company for technical support these days, no matter what country you’re calling from, you’re likely to end up talking to someone in Mumbai or Bangalore. Call centres and a burgeoning IT class doesn’t hide the inequities that still exist in Indian society or that huge numbers of people still live in poverty so abject that we wouldn’t even begin to comprehend its depth.
The only place you’re liable to read about the reality of life in India today is on the pages of one of the many books making their way out of India to the shelves of book stores in North America. Joining those ranks is The White Tiger, written by first time novelist Aravind Adiga, published by Simon & Schuster, and just recently released in North America. In his book, Adiga not only peels back the gloss of the economic miracle to expose the rot beneath, he instructs us in the means by which a small minority of the population are able to subjugate the majority.
A white tiger is the rarest creature in the jungle, only coming along once in every generation. When Balram Halwai was still able to attend the excuse for a school in his village, he was singled out by a school inspector as being the white tiger of his contemporaries for being able to read and write when nobody else could. The inspector promised that Balram would be given a scholarship to attend a proper school so he could fulfill his potential. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. His family were forced to pull him out of school to help pay off their debt to their landlord.
We learn Balram’s life story courtesy of letters he has taken upon himself to write to the premier of China. He wrote these letters to educate the premier so that he wouldn’t be fooled by any of the false pictures the politicians he meets might paint about life in India when he comes for his official state visit. Balram decides the best way for the premier to understand what life in India is like is by telling him the story of his, Balram’s, life.
The first lesson Balram has for us is the reality of rural life in India. In his small village everybody is beholden to one of four landlords. If you want to grow anything you have to pay money to one person. If you want to graze animals you have to pay money to another. If you want to use the roads to make money as a rickshaw driver, you pay 10% of everything you earn to a third. Finally, the fourth one owns the waters. If you want to fish or use the water to transport goods, you pay him.
It’s after Balram’s family is forced to borrow money from one of the landlords to pay for a cousin’s dowry that he has to leave school and start working in teahouses. Balram is destined for greater things, though, and his grandmother comes up with 600 rupees so he may learn to drive and get a job driving for a wealthy man. Through blind luck he happens to show up at his landlord’s compound on the day the youngest son has returned from America and needs his own driver. This begins his long climb out of the darkness of poverty.
Balram is not just a driver. It turns out he’s expected to cook, clean, and do whatever else his new master needs him to do. When his master moves to New Delhi, Balram moves with him and drives him around the capital as he greases the palms of all the various political fixers and parliamentarians that need greasing in order to ensure the family business survives. One hundred thousand rupees here, two hundred thousand there, and Balram sits in the front seat seeing nothing, but witnessing it all.
At one point Balram asks the premier why he thinks servants are so loyal to their masters. Why don’t they demand a cut or threaten them with the police, or at the very least stand up to the masters who they outnumber by at least a thousand to one? Balram calls it the Rooster Coop syndrome. In the markets in New Delhi, hens and roosters are stuffed into wire cages where they spend their days pecking and shitting on each other fighting just to breathe. According to Balram, it’s the same for the poor of India. They are so busy fighting among each other for the chance to breathe that they will never be able to escape their cages.
The threat of violence against their families if they misbehave is a factor as well. Balram recounts how a servant of one of the landlords in his home village did something wrong, and the landlord had his entire family killed in retaliation. Balram says it would take a unique individual, a White Tiger even, to be depraved enough to risk the lives of his entire family to steal the seven hundred thousand rupees his employer is carrying in a red leather bag to bribe a politician.
In The White Tiger we watch Balram suffer humiliation after humiliation and is expected to take it. His employer’s wife gets drunk one night and forces Balram to let her drive and she kills a child. They make him sign a confession saying he was driving just in case the police decide to press charges. It’s taken as matter of course that, as their servant, he would only be too glad to go to jail for them. After all, you can’t really expect them to go to jail, now can you?
Balram’s letter to the premier of China is like the confession of a Catholic penitent to his priest, save for one detail. He’s not seeking absolution for any crimes he has committed; he’s just using himself as an example to let the premier know the facts of life in modern day India. Bribery and corruption are what grease the wheels of the great economic miracle of India, wheels that are still being turned by slave labour. Underneath the statues of Gandhi and behind the pictures of the beautiful temples is corruption so ingrained that it’s taken for granted as being the way things are and always will be.
The picture Aravind Adiga paints of India in The White Tiger is of a nearly feudal society disguised as a democracy. If even a tenth of what Balram describes as normal operating business is actual, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, then India’s economic miracle is as much a lie as China’s. The country might have gained its independence from the British at the end of the 1940’s, but the majority of people in India are still trapped in servitude.
In the end, what makes the events in the book so believable is the character of Balram. He is the perfect servant. He worries whether his master is eating enough, takes pride in him when he behaves honourably, and is disappointed with him when he is weak. For all his protestations about the system, he is still as much a part of it as anybody else, and it takes an enormous amount of strength and luck for him to live up to his name of white tiger.
When he does, he shows he’s learned his lessons well and knows how to grease the wheels with the best of them. He’s not some reformer advocating change, although he dreams of opening a school where children get a real education so they too can be white tigers. There’s no room for mercy in the jungle that is Balram’s India, and the more tigers he has on his side the better.