As a kid, I thought of India as this country filled with majestic temples and marching elephants and women in sari dancing to that distinct Indian music. As a teenager, I thought of India as this country dense with heat and dust and traffic and the sour smell of perspiration coming off Indian bodies. Now, as a 20-something rank and file slave alternating between giving in to the demands of the corporate world and shutting out the same world to entertain fantasies of ruling it, I think of India as this country filled still with majestic temples dense with heat and dust and political turbulence spoken by that unmistakable Indian accent.
That same accent I heard in this novel, spoken by the once low-class driver, now middle-scale entrepreneur Balram. He pronounces pizza as pija, mall as maal. He describes the undersides of progressing India with harsh, irreverent eyes. He writes a series of letters to some Chinese official. He confesses to him a crime that he is proud to have committed.
The crime is no secret. He immediately lets us know that he is a murderer. Who and why he killed a man are two things that the reader would ask while going through the letters. The immediate answers are easily found. But how about the deeper ones?
When you’re in Delhi, repeat the story I’ve told you to some good, solid middle-class man of the city. Tell him you heard this wild extravagant, impossible story from some driver about being framed for a murder his master committed on the road. And watch as your good, solid middle-class friend’s face blanches. Watch how he swallows hard–how he turns away to the window–watch how he changes the topic at once.
The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters. We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse.
Yes, that’s right: we all live in the world’s greatest democracy.
What a fucking joke.
The White Tiger is at once a humorous tale of a man’s philosophies and confession, and a dark view of the Indian class wars and political system. Reading the novel makes me feel nauseous. I can almost taste that squalid bitterness rising at the back of my throat. Had I any outstanding travel plans to India, I might have canceled them after finishing the book.
The anti-hero tells us the India that he knows and the India that is concealed to us by travel agencies. However, I have a bit of a problem. Balram seems too Westernized in the way Filipino characters in the scant Filipino novels I have read are. It feels weirdly juxtaposed that he, a man born in a rural town where reliable transport, potable water, and good education are still issues to be addressed, would inject his sentences with that word: fucking. Although it’s something that he picked from the wife of his spineless but good-natured employer, it sounds like squeaking chalk when spoken by an Indian or Filipino or any Asian character.
The details in the novel seem so real probably because it is overdone at times. The depiction of India’s undeveloped lands sounds a little romanticized. It couldn’t be that bad, surely? Or it could be that I’m being naïve, acting like a solid middle-class worker sitting comfortably and typing with not a drop of sweat.
Actually, this novel could have taken place in our country. I recalled my call center days when I read this. Balham, after the murder, builds an empire of cabs, banking on call centers who need to fetch their agents and let them take or make calls at 3 AM. He describes the scenes with piercing accuracy that I could not help shuddering at the remembrance of dragging my frail, sleep-deprived body to go to work, not mentioning the dangers lurking at the unpeopled overpasses and dark streets.
We are in competition with India in the call center industry. In fact, we also work with India. I remember reporting to Indian bosses, transferring calls to Indian agents and supervisors, and learning to understand the way they speak (I almost failed an interview just because I got to understand “What are your future plans?” on the third repetition). The call center culture is also strikingly familiar (the pizza parties while on the phone, the rushed cigarette-smoking while on short breaks). So in a way, the novel is close to me.
And because of the familiarity it created, I am convinced that the real India is the one accounted to us by our anti-hero. Yes, it is chillingly ruthless. It is bordering on exaggerated ridicule, but on hindsight, there’s a lot of truth in it.
The poverty, injustice, and corruption that are too often mentioned are the ones that I’ve seen too often on local TV documentaries. We read about the poor made poorer thanks to a dispossession that forces them to the streets. We witness street children intentionally hit by speeding cars. We see how local officials try to put an attempt in solving such cases and slowly forget about them once money is stuffed in their pockets.
I cannot say much about India because I’ve never been there and I could only care so much for her. I have my own country to worry about. But yes, we are happy for India on her rise to globalization. But I guess she has to watch out for the sleeping tigers long kept in the dark. They may pounce her at the back if she forgets to turn the light for them.