The White Tiger and Urban Life in India The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga
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It is very common these days to see an article in the paper or documentary on television about India on a weekly basis. Many people seem amazed at how a third world country like India can almost become an economic power or even have an economy to begin with. Many credit this to the greatness of the Free Market.
Today, India seems to have become the call center for the world. It seems that every time one makes a call to a major company for support, they are greeted by someone in India, particularly in Mumbai or Bangalore. However, even with this increase of dependency on workers in India, there are still major inequalities that are present in Indian society.
In his book The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga, we learn that although India may have gained independence in the 1940s from the British, many still live in servitude and poverty today. We also learn about the conditions that many of India’s working class live in, including the slums, the lack of running water, electricity and a working sewage system. We learn that the majority of people work servant jobs or jobs that in first world countries don’t even exist. In the novel, Balram, the main character starts with the story of how his father who worked as a rickshaw puller and his whole family lived in poverty paying part of what they made through hard labour to a landlord who controlled what they did and the land they lived on. Many of the young boys are not educated or are enrolled in school for two or three years until they are forced into the workforce in order to make enough money to help support their families.
We learn of Balram’s life story through seven letters that he writes to the Chinese premiere who is scheduled to make a visit to India. Balram’s story is one of hardship, poverty and servitude. He goes from working in a teashop as a “human spider” mopping floors and cleaning after customers, to becoming a driver and servant for a rich family. He pays hard earned money in order to learn how to drive, only to learn that a job as a driver to a rich family does not stop there. He has to play many roles such as cook, housekeeper, and whatever else the family asks of him. Balram learns a key lesson when he finds himself blackmailing other servants he works with in order to be picked as the driver who will move with his master to the city and ultimately gain a pay raise. Once in the city, Balram’s eyes are opened to the reality of life in India and that to make it as anybody in society, you need to grease and bribe many hands.
Throughout the story, Balram is the perfect servant, obeying his master and being loyal to his master’s every wish. The reader is forced to watch and endure as Balram faces one humiliation after another and takes it because he is loyal to his master. He also describes a syndrome which he names the ‘Rooster Coop Syndrome’ where the poor never breakout and rebel, demanding fair treatment or even threatening to go to the police with many of the illegal actions that their masters participate in. Balram states that the poor endure what they are put through because all of them are too busy fighting each other for the chance to breathe that they will never be able to break out of their invisible cages. Many are also afraid of the threat that rebelling is associated with. Balram shares a story in which a servant stepped out of line and his masters beat and killed his family in retaliation.
Balram however, being the White Tiger, a rare species that is only born once in every generation in the wild, can only take so much, and after witnessing his master, Mr. Ashok, spiral out of control, he turns against him and slits his throat by the side of the road, leaving him to die and running away with a large sum of money that his master was taking to bribe a minister with. With that money, Balram travels to Bangalore where he opens his own taxi service company catering to the hundreds of thousands who work night shifts at the call centers. He becomes a master himself with people who work for him. We learn from this story that in order to take himself out of the generations of servants in his family, Balram had to become a murderer, a cheat and a thief. What he hated in his master, he realizes that he must do in order to maintain his new status in society, bribing and using his wealth to get out of situations that people without the resources he has would not be able to do.
In the book, Balram, the main character states that “For this land, India, has never been free. First the Muslims, then the British bossed us around. In 1947 the British left, but only a moron would think that we became free” (Adiga, 2008, 18). With this statement, Balram is highlighting the lives of millions of people who live in poverty in India and need to make their living by serving others, mainly the rich minority. It has been seen in many reviews of “alternate cities” that globalization plays a big role in increasing the social division between people ultimately making the rich richer and the poor poorer and constantly eliminating the middle class (Simon and Hambelton, 2007, 3). This is clearly seen in the book where many people from the rural areas flock to the city to become cooks, housekeepers and drivers for the rich who live in the cities with urbanized, western style lifestyles.
Balram also explains how “everything in the city, it seemed came down to one thing. Outsourcing. Which meant doing things in India for Americans over the phone” (Adiga, 2008, 255). This relates to globalization all over the world today, where the global south can only strive, if they are in some way benefitting the global north. Many people in Bangalore and Mumbai today work at call centers and outsourcing companies answering phones and making transactions for people across the world. Although this is a better way to make a living for many rather than cleaning houses or driving people around, it confuses the dynamic of traditional family life that Indian people are accustomed to.
Belram explains that due to the time difference between India and America, “men and women in Bangalore live like animals in a forest do. Sleep in the day and the work all night, until two, three, four, five o’clock…” (Adiga, 2008, 255). This is causing a change in many traditional roles that many honour but find themselves letting go of because of necessity. Beall (2002) defines this as a form of social exclusion. Due to rising prices within the global market and the urbanization of many cities, families are realizing that they need to send as many of their family members into the workforce as they can in order to make ends meet.
In the novel, Adiga (2008) speaks a lot about poverty. He speaks about urban poverty and the lives of those who live in it. He speaks about the slums and the conditions within them. He describes the lack of running water, electricity, proper sewage systems and proper shelter. In one instance he describes how Belram stumbles upon a slum where men are lined up in rows defecating. Belram states that “these people were building homes for the rich, but they lived in tents covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, and partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage” (Adiga, 2008, 222). This highlights a very common issue in many countries in the global south. While the poor live in such conditions, they take jobs such as construction, building homes and shopping malls and office buildings to further increase the urbanization of their cities while receiving the short end of the stick themselves and diving constantly deeper into poverty. Many work their whole lives but still can barely make ends meet and very few end up leaving the life of the slums. Many realize that without bribery and corruption, they will not make it far.
It is important here to highlight the relationship between poverty and the structural causes of poverty. In the novel, Belram describes the corruption of the government. He tells of how ministers and politicians have to constantly be bribed in order to allow companies and industries to go on functioning. He states that although politicians make promises to the poor like eliminating malaria, malnutrition, creating better access to education and empowering the poor, these promises are never met and politicians keep being re-elected through corruption. He also describes how people are forced to vote for certain political parties during elections and how politicians take advantage of the uneducated poor to collect votes. This is a picture of the vulnerabilities that many of the poor of India face. It also shows how the livelihood of many is compromised on a regular basis. Livelihood is defined as the things needed to maintain a means of living such as assets, capabilities and resources available for people. This can be both material and social resources (Class Lecture, Jan. 21, 2009).
When faced with situations which produce stress, a sustainable livelihood should be able to recover. Unfortunately in many areas of the global south, the resources are not provided by the government for people, therefore leading to a lack in sustainable livelihood. In some cases these resources may be available but not to everyone and access to them is only granted to a select few. This can be called “network apartheid” where governments may provide to some and not to others as a means of control (Class Lecture, Feb. 25, 2009). It is also important to acknowledge that benefits and assets that may be important to some may not have the same value to others. Furthermore, the expanding of the cities and the continuous building of large development projects has severe affects on many of the poor who live in the slums of urban cities. Many are being displaced to locations that are very distant from their jobs. Moreover due to the rising prices of land, many have resulted to seeking housing in distant areas that are not serviced by utilities such as water and electricity causing them to live in very meagre circumstances (Solomon, 2000).
In the novel, Belram talks about how in his village, there were four landlords who controlled everything. One controlled the waters, one controlled the land, one controlled the roads and the last controlled the hillsides. If people wanted to use any of those resources, they had to pay a tax to the landlord who owned them (Adiga, 2008, 20-21). This can be seen as a metaphor for the privatization of resources in many cities today. There has been significant proof that privatization has greatly harmed the poor. Private firms are most often concerned with profit and finding ways to make the most money. This happens at the expense of the poor who can no longer afford the prices of privatized resources such as water and electricity. This excludes many from access to necessities. This often also creates a loss of employment which leads to loss of income for many. Private firms often tend to be selective with their operations and the costumers that they take on. In many third world countries where poverty is prevalent, private firms will only cater to customers who will guarantee revenue.
Often, because privatization comes with big investments, private firms tend to increase their prices in order to make profit. This creates prices that many cannot afford. Firms will often also not service areas of poverty. For example a private water company may not install meters in areas such as the slums of Bangalore because it is occupied by poor people (Bayliss, 2002)With privatization, comes the need for regulation. Often when resources are privatized, it is necessary for government to ensure regulation so that the poor are properly represented. However in many countries, the state is weak and is not a good regulator. This causes further neglect of the lower class. Furthermore, when there is no regulation by the state, there is a trend for more privatization to take place creating a regulator out of the competition between companies (Bayliss, 2002).
Throughout the novel, Balram speaks about inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor. He also describes the way the rich view and treat the poor. This highlights the lack of human dignity and rights that the poor have in India. It can be seen like a food chain where the richer you are the more power you have to humiliate others who are poorer than yourself. Belram describes how the only person who was respectful of him was his master who had lived in the United States and had just returned to India. His master had a western mentality, where people are equal and he had a hard time treating poorer people like animals like the rest of his family did. This sheds a light on the lack of regulation towards human rights in many third world countries, where humans have very little value unless they are wealthy. This picture is further strengthened in the novel when a beggar child is run over by the wife of Belram’s master and the issue is dismissed and the child is left dead in the road. This again happens later in the story when another child is run over and the family’s silence is bought with money and an employment offer for the child’s brother.
This book is a very powerful construction of life for many in India. After reading the novel and reviewing lectures and readings from class, I was able to make many connections between fiction and real life. The novel examines the realities and truths of urban life in the cities of India and highlights the struggles that many of the poor suffer. However, a weakness that I felt was in the book was a lack of description of the slums that inhibit a lot of the urban cities of India. Although they were touched on, it was very brief. I feel that a greater description would have been better; however I realize that it may not tie into the story as smoothly. Therefore a weakness that I feel fiction stories have is a lack in touching on areas that do not necessarily tie into the story but would give a greater overview and background of the lives of small characters. In all, the book was very well written and had a lot of key aspects about life in India for low income families and the relation of globalization to urbanization in the global south. Through the book, I gained a greater understanding of the consequences and benefits that urbanization in global cities has on people living in them.
Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. New York: Free Press.
Bayliss, Kate. 2002. “Privatization and poverty: the distributional impact of utilityprivatisation” Annals of Public and Comparative Economics, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp.
Beall, Jo. 2002. “Globalization and social exclusion in cities: framing the debate withlessons from Africa and Asia” Environment & Urbanization, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp.
Benjamin, Solomon. 2000. “Governance, economic settings, and poverty in Bangalore”Environment & Urbanization, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 35-56.
Hambleton, Robin and Jill Simone Gross (eds.). 2007. Governing Cities in aGlobal Era. Urban innovation, competition and democratic reform. New York:Palgrave.