Saturday, August 29, 2009

This tiger needs cat food: What Aravind Adiga can learn from District 9

Fear the other. And the natural extension of that fear will be the fear of becoming the other.The fear of becoming not human. One way of understanding cannibalism is to see it as an exercise in exorcising this horror. Eat the inhuman other to conquer your fear of becoming the inhuman other. Another possibility is write your way into that horror, then write your way out. That is, write your way into a novel where the protagonist is you but trapped in the body of the other, now write your protagonist out of that horror. You will successfully digest the other, and retain your untroubled self.

I finally read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Lovely title, but an unlovely book. Others have taken the book apart for its pedestrian prose. I trust still others have not failed to point out the strong storytelling. I don’t need to cover these points. I want to talk instead about Adiga’s ideas in this book, particularly his ideas around how one becomes human, or as he puts it cutely, an entrepreneur.

To begin with—Adiga's use of the lone protagonist. And true, the novel as a form lends itself to the use of a lone protagonist. But when Adiga seems to be telling us his car driver, Balram Halwai, is part of a dehumanised class, confined to "the chicken coop", to then see the same Balram set apart from his class, is problematic. Balram alone desires to sit in a lotus position and meditate, to give up paan and spitting, to give up groin scratching, to set himself apart even to the extend of taking a room apart from his compatriots. In the last instance he would rather sleep with cockroaches than his fellow human beings. He alone is possessed of fury. They, the other drivers, are content to spit on the seats of the men they drive, and to gouge their “masters” at every opportunity, siphoning petrol, or selling their whiskey empties on the black market. Our Balram is alone in the scale of his fury and in the scale of his disquiet over that fury. Should he or should he not kill his master?

We know from the first pages that he does in fact kill his master. Nothing is lost in this upfront revelation; this is not a whodunit, it is a howdunit—how does one kill, fly the coop, become human? And Adiga’s story-telling abilities carry us along, arousing our interest in how the murder will be carried out. The Landlord class is portrayed as living in fear of being killed off by those they abuse. Because we, the readers, know Mr Ashok will be killed, we are in thrall to a horror similar to the one the landlord class lives with. How and when will it happen? What will the weapon of choice be? Will it be bloody? Merciful? An act undercut by remorse or one that is vindictive?

This book is not confused about the heinous nature of the landlord class. The landlords are capable of holding the families of their servants (toddlers and grandmothers) hostage, trusting the proximity of these family members—their availability for torture, rape and maiming—will act as deterrence to their own end at the hands of the abused servant. Interestingly this is where reference is made to another kind of organized anger that does exist in India – the Naxals, we are told, did kidnap and kill one of the landlord babies. But this is a book about the anger of our lone hero, not the anger of a class of people, so this reference to the Naxals is a passing one.

Adiga is a master at getting the reader to identify with the perspective of his characters. So much so that there is no critical distance between the reader’s eye, Adiga’s eye and the character’s eye. Fused into one, the reader sees as Balram does the villainy of landlords who in drunken fits drive their car over little children and then don’t hesitate to bribe and manipulate their way out of the situation. But what happens when this close identification has the reader observing the world of the working poor through landlord eyes? What happens when what the landlord believes about the servant is always borne out by what the servant does? The servant will lie. He does.The servant will steal. He does. The servant will kill. He does.

The Indian middle/upper class reader, and possibly the one abroad, will flinch in responsive horror when Balram, interrupted mid-piss on the roadside by a loudspeaker announcement to return his master's car to the hotel entrance, hastily turns away from the task at hand, wiping wet fingers on his pants. Who has not flinched at the implications for their own health in dealing with a class of people denied access to the bathroom? How does one eat a gol gappe from a street vendor’s hand or turn one’s baby over to an ayah without engaging for a split second with that horror? The instinct behind the horror is a self-preserving one. In life, this initial instinct to protect one’s own stomach, one’s own baby, not the stomachs and babies of the working poor, can eventually open the way to an engagement that is broader than the self. In this novel, however, the instinct remains confined to self-preservation.

If Balram is the human Adiga purports to present him as, then where does Adiga work to create that disquiet in the reader necessary to seeing the real horror of the picture—that Balram is without a bathroom. One senses Adiga is channelling his own horror at the possibility of Balram’s piss-wet finger’s coming for him. A different and crucial horror is entirely passed over.

To return to the suspense and wondering around how and when the deed will occur, and who to root for—this is obfuscation. It lends no clarity to the larger question posed by the best literature: who gets to be human? Whether Balram kills on page 50 or page 285, whether with a tyre iron or a bottle with a broken neck, the deed alone does nothing establish or disestablish his humanity. In Adiga’s book, humanity belongs to the one who acts alone. Humanity is conferred neither on the blood-thirsty landlords, who are portrayed doing their share of repellent paan chewing, nor even on their groin scratching servants. Balram is human because he, unlike everyone else in his class, is willing to kill to break out of the coop.

Throughout the book, mention is made of Balram’s apartness as predicated somewhat on his mother’s apartness and to a lesser degree his father’s and even lesser degree his brother, Kishan’s. Beyond these three members of his family is a clan which bears an eerie resemblance in its boorishness to the groin scratching Delhi drivers. The grandmother is presented as a rather sinister arm scratcher, scratching away as she plots to trap Blaram in the same coop of marriage and familial obligation that she has trapped all of the other family members in.

Kishan, however, recognizes Balram’s apartness as something to be valued, telling him the last time they see each other, “Life has become hell here…we’re so happy you’re out of this mess.” To this, Balram responds with the thought, Kishan "had become, all of a sudden, my father." It’s already been established that Balram’s father is yet one step closer to human in Adiga’s eyes. Like the brother, the father will sacrifice anything for his Balram to make it. Anything, that is, save his dignity—although the plot, in the end, does not call on him to prove this.The man,like his wife before him, dies quietly. The father’s refusal to squat like the other rikshaw pullers he shares his profession with, is a sign to Balram of what he must do—set himself apart from the car drivers with whom he shares his profession.

Ultimate humanity however is reserved for Balram’s dead mother who I imagine must never have scratched any part of her body. The book portrays her quite besotted with a fort she wanders off to stand and stare at, a fort unappreciated by the cretinous locals—landlords and peasants alike. We infer her gift to her son, the penchant for staring at the fort, is passed on through her genes since she herself dies early in his life—there is no are no instance of her escorting her little boy to the fort, instructing him into her insights on beauty and art. Without instruction from her, he grows up drawn to beauty. All those around him, grandmother chief among them, recognize Balram’s apartness as his mother’s bequest. And there is much baffled head shaking over this gift. Truth be told, I too did some head shaking. An odd idea this—humanity carried in a genome sequence Adiga is keen on mapping for the reader.

The readers of this book should be quite satisfied at its conclusion that they, like Balram, would not fail to notice the beauty of forts if by chance they found themselves on the wrong side of the class divide.

At minimum there is the quietening of any fears of being trapped in the coop. The coop it seems recognizes when the wrong person gets caught in it. Balram muses in the last pages of The White Tiger thus:
“…the Rooster Coop needs people like me to break out of it. It needs masters like Mr Ashok…not much of a master…to be weeded out.”
This is an old idea: water seeks its own level. It is an idea many have worked to topple in the past. Adiga gives it a new lease on life. The injustice of an entire class still cooped matters little. The argument wasn’t, as it turns out with the coop, it was with getting caught in one. Once our hero is out, the mood is strangely one of equanimity. Adiga leaves us with an image of his creation, Balram, ensconced in a cosy set up, chandelier overhead, a mac laptop in front of him, no doubts in his mind about where he belongs—back on the human side of the class divide.

Contrast this treatment of self and other, the human and the in-human, with the handling of the same subject in the film, District 9. The human protagonist in this film cries out to be recognized as…human. But by the end, he has yet to break out of the coop; he awaits redemption atop a pile of garbage. Redemption which can come only of at the hands of the in-human. This hero cannot go it alone. He needs the other.


  1. hey susan,
    i enjoyed reading this, thanks... i haven't read the book or seen the film, so can't comment very knowledgeably but the idea of a "different and crucial kind of horror [being] entirely passed over" -- true enough, in art as in life, often.

  2. You know I really liked this book when I read it, because you so rarely get to read a book containing so much rage about class in India. I still think the book is worth reading, but I will understand it in a new light after reading this post.

  3. Are your stories as muddled as this review?