Balram Halwai has murdered his employer, Mr. Ashok, and is now on the run. The White Tiger is both his story and the story of the faultlines in the “new India.” It won Adiga the 2008 Man Booker Prize. I spoke with Adiga in Mumbai after the book was shortlisted for the prize.
You hear a lot about the new India with its 8 percent growth rate. And also about the “real” India being left behind. Where does your main character Balram Halwai fit in?
First of all, both Indias are real. The past few years have created a spectacular amount of wealth in the middle class. But the other India of 400 million people is also real. Many people are trying to make the transition from the poor India to the shining India, and Balram Halwai, my protagonist, is one of them.
So what’s interesting about these two Indias, this successful India and the India of the darkness, are the people trying to make the jump from one to the other. You are leaping by yourself without any help from anyone else, from the 19th century to the 21st century.
In India, every pavement bookseller has a plethora of how-to-succeed books. Isn’t the country more entrepreneurial as a whole?
A basic requirement of the entrepreneur today is education and education in English. And if you don’t have this, as many of the poorer Indians don’t, you’ll find quickly enough there’s not a whole lot you can do. That’s the danger to me: that we have of the myth of entrepreneurial success being sent out to all India, but we haven’t provided the foundations to large numbers of Indians to make that dream into reality. What happens when these poor Indians realize it’s not that easy to succeed?
Well, hopefully you don’t kill your employer as Balram Halwai does. Given the yawning gap between classes, isn’t it surprising more servants have not killed their masters?
The book is called The White Tiger, which is meant to be a metaphor for an exceptional individual. My character keeps reflecting on the fact that more servants don’t kill their masters.
Middle class Indians are paranoid about crime, but South Africa with 40 million people has more crime than India with 1.1 billion. It’s extraordinary. So I got to thinking: what keeps servants honest? And is there any danger the system could break down?
Would you say there is an undercurrent of resentment that India’s new elite ignores at its own peril, like the French aristocrats from 200 years ago?
It’s not just an undercurrent. When I was a boy, there was a Maoist rebellion in India that seemed to be dying out. One of the surprising things was that in the mid-1990s, even as the great economic boom began, at a time when Communism vanished from most parts of the world, it took on a second birth in India and has been spreading ever since.
A new kind of resentment is being born in India that I felt as I traveled across the country (writing) for Time magazine. It’s a new, very primordial, class divide between people who feel they have and people who feel they have not.
Why have you said this book is indebted to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin?
Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man right after the second World War. It suggests the metaphor of invisibility as a way of understanding the African American experience of that time. The central character feels he is invisible just because the white people around him don’t see him as a human being.
When I came back to India after a long stint in the United States, I was struck by how many invisible men are around us in India. When you are in a car in New Delhi, there is invariably a chauffeur. The person who owns the car conducts a conversation with you in the backseat, and there is another man in the car, the servant, who can understand what is being said, but he’s almost not there. He’s part of the machinery.
There are three writers—Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—who dealt with race and class along with racial issues, and they form a template that can be moved onto India today. Our poor are almost invisible in a way that African Americans were invisible then. Also, a lot of rich Indians think of the poor as a distinct race in a sense. The poor in India tend to be darker, leaner. The difference between the haves and have nots is almost a physical, corporeal, racial difference in India.
Ashok, the master, is not a bad man. He is fairly liberal and has twinges of conscience.
I don’t think middle class Indians are fundamentally bad. But if you have seven or eight people who are prepared to work for you for $100 a month, why would you say no to that? The greatest luxury of all is to have human beings wait on you.
I didn’t want an evil master or a sentimental, exploited servant. The poor in India are increasingly taking their destiny into their own hands. They may be voting in the wrong politicians, such as supporting ultra-Communist rebellions. But they are increasingly agents of their own destiny.
When you ask servants what keeps them from taking their master’s money and running, one of the responses you get is “If I take the money, I’ll have to leave my family, and what kind of life would I have without my aunt and my uncle?” Their sense of self is still fixated on the family. As the sense of thinking of yourself as an individual grows, one of the things that is likely to increase is the temptation to crime. The idea of cutting yourself off from your past and starting again becomes feasible. And it means you can be an entrepreneur or a criminal.
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|