The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian?
The White Tiger's Stripes and Gripes
By Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, October 17/20, weekend edition
I was Pinky Madam. Almost. What saved me was empathy with the calloused hands that knocked on the car window, the meetings with the “half-baked Indian”. It is easy to be a Pinky Madam in any of India’s metros. You hold on to the arm of a foreign-returned hubby, slip in the backseat of the car to drive to a lunch with ladies in short dresses, sipping on strawberry daiquiris and nibbling on a meal that is arranged at the centre of the plate with the sauce extending like arms towards the edge. It is a visual treat.
Pinky Madams are. They avert their eyes, eyes you cannot see behind Gucci shades, and fish for lip balm in standard Louis Vuitton bags. Clones walk and talk as glitter glistens on tube-bronzed skin.
Is this the Darkness or is darkness in the being of the man behind the wheel?
They were dark eyes. Brahmdev was the driver when I was a could-have-been Pinky Madam. He was from a village in Bihar. He was the last one in a line-up of four who drove us, my ex-husband and me. They were all from distant villages in the northern hinterland.
Was he anything like Balram Halwai, the protagonist and in some ways the sutradhar (weaver of the chain of stories) in Aravind Adiga’s Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger? Yes and no.
The book is being lauded for not entirely the right reasons and I confess to speed-reading it. It is a fast-paced novel where the message and the massage work so much in tandem that one quite forgets the demarcation.
This is not the first time Indian literature in the English language has tackled what has been referred to as the underbelly. To smirk at stereotypes would be wrong because they constitute mass behaviour; neat stratifications are a part of every strata of society.
Balram has been described as “Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer.” Why is he any different? It is imperative to note the author’s understanding: “Even though the middle class—who often have three or four servants—are paranoid about crime, the reality is a master getting killed by his servant is rare.” This is not quite true. Murders by domestic helpers are on the rise. And using the generic term “middle class” is a fallacy.
The middle class is mall-centred and on the make; it does not have the luxury of several servants. The hub of Gurgaon, which is a village-turned-upwardly mobile sprawl outside Delhi, is for the nouveau riche. This is the huge segment that is obsessed with consumerism; it does not differentiate between an America or China made product; both are ‘foreign’ and hence sought-after. There are stores that market “Buy anything for Rs. 100” like the dollar/pound stores in the US and UK. Fake gizmos prevail to provide a feel-good factor in the factory of ennui.
There are no Pinky Madams here. If they do step in, it would be on the rare occasion where there is a boutique that displays Swarovski crystal. The Pinky Madams would constitute the upper class or the middle-class that has broken through the false ceiling to become entrepreneurs. These are the children of the License Permit Raj that gave way to Liberalisation.
India is still ruled by inherited money, old and new, or the corporate class of heads of multinationals. Page 3 glossies are where you spot them, paying in cash or kind to be seen on those pages, attending a breakfast, brunch, lunch, high tea, dinner, nightcap, premiere, walking the ramp for AIDS, throwing bashes to alleviate poverty. You see them make a mockery of themselves as they set out to mock the world, showing their backless backs in gowns that reach their kundalini, the point where you can manipulate desire to rise.
In these rarefied environs the class system is the caste system. It does not mean that caste disparities have ceased to exist. It is more obvious among those who have moved from the village to the city; years of conditioning have not forgotten it. Money talks for the poor too, but they cannot hush the prejudices in champagne flutes.
Therefore, is it prudent to romanticise the Balrams? Is India really about “Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies”? I think this is a misnomer. Things have changed. Big bellies can be the hideous protrusions on the bodies of dehydrated children; and a flat stomach is the dream of those who can afford to suck out fat or sweat it out in Zen-like health clubs.
The “growl” of the poor does not emanate from under mosquito nets. Brahmdev lived in a tenement with eight others from the same village. When he realised I was not the prototype Pinky Madam, he talked politics. He wore a red mark on his forehead and folded his hands whenever we passed a temple, but he was cynical about clay gods. Gods we elect, he elected. Therefore, is the public obsession with elections “like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra’’? This is so wrong. Technically, the sexual potential of eunuchs has been tapped, interestingly enough by the likes of the protagonist. Besides, people at the ground level know their politics; they are the beneficiaries of the rigging; they are the ones who fill the trucks to go and cast their votes.
They are no different than the rich who are bought in different ways. The barter system prevails both ways. The author says, “If you were a poor man you’d have to pick China over India any day because your kids have a better chance of being nourished if you’re poor. Your wife is more likely to survive childbirth. You’re likely to live longer. There are so many ways in which India’s system fails horribly.”
Many of us have written about Indian democracy being a farce, but this is a simplistic analysis. The poor man is not interested in China. Neither is the rich man. Except as a metaphor for doing an America on America, China remains the powerful man’s Tibet in the popular imagination –a refugee from the dregs of Communism.
The poor Indians are not all that confused by the superficial strides India is making.
Gurcharan Das in Unbinding India had used a similar character of Raju who worked in a roadside eatery in a Tamil Nadu village. I had asked Das if this was his idea of heroism. He said, “What I marveled at is that it was his summertime job, an urban and rather western concept. He earned Rs. 450 a month, which he spent on computer lessons. His dream was to run a computer company. I asked him where he got the idea from and he said he saw it on TV, about someone who he called Bill Gay.”
Is Raju the dreamer here, or Das? If you asked the writer, his riposte would be, “Just as we had midnight’s children, there will be the children of 1991.” For him life began after the liberalisation of the economy. How, then, would he define the industrial giants of old in terms of Indian capitalism? “One cannot admire them in those terms because the bottomline is that we did not create the Industrial Revolution. It bypassed us. Those business houses got their capitalism in a bureaucrat’s office, not in the market. Which is why I am interested in the conflict between old money and new money and the difference between, say, Rahul Bajaj and Narayan Murthy. There are only two countries where democracy preceded capitalism – America and India, which became truly capitalist only in 1991. Yet I think India will be the white elephant, unlike Korea and China which went and capitalised the bazaars and farms.”
Balram, the white tiger, rejects the white man and believes that the brown and yellow will prevail. It is perhaps his creator’s belief. That is the reason the chauffeur kills his master and becomes an entrepreneur - apparently, a person in command. Instead, he turns into a squealer to expose India – from the quick-fix business books to the farce of welcoming visiting dignitaries. (Incidentally, no one offers foreign guests “sandalwood statues of Gandhi”; they give away deities.)
The device of using this little man turned big man to write letters to the visiting Chinese premier and thus wiping off the sheen seems a bit stagey. The avowed purpose of shunning the exotic is made redundant when you read a passage such as this:
“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power.
I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god's arse.
Which god's arse, though? There are so many choices.
See, the Muslims have one god.
The Christians have three gods.
And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.
Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from.”
This is puerile. The latent intent, besides of course making us seem like a bunch of religious fools, is to also show communal harmony. In this Adiga is quite politically correct; he has shown the world the ‘real India’ mirror, but played safe to give the right position on the right issues.
Servants’ quarters are cramped; they gossip; they quietly take a swig of drink. These are all realities. They listen to conversations. But you know they may just turn against you.
They know where their priorities lie. Brahmdev would greet me even when I was to ‘unbecome’ the Madam. As the months passed and he knew I was out of the house and that life, he would barely acknowledge me.
I can see him transform into a Balram writing frustrated notes about his little life. To give him an epic role to show India as it is, “a mainstream” reality, is really to throw up your hands and say, “Don’t shoot me, the dog did it.”
Whether we make him into a hero or a harlot’s keep, the man outside remains at the edge of the precipice with polished shoes in which the sky can shine. It could be India; it could be the hole in his roof.
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For those who have not read the book, this piece is more about the portrayal of India and not a review. However, here is a brief description:
Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw puller in Bihar, works part time in a tea shop. He gets employment with the son of a rich man, Ashok. The wife is a Pinky Madam. Balram one day kills Ashok; he later becomes an entrepreneur. That is when he writes the letters to the Chinese premier who is to visit India talking about the wrong impression we give foreigners about India Shining.