an open letter to aravind adiga
dear aravind adiga
an ostrich was whisked away from its homeland when it was very young. abroad, it was taught many rich things of wonder and beauty. it came back home one day after many years, very posh, bisleri in hand. when its shiny feathers were ruffled by some red dust raised by a few ostriches passing by, it clucked and stomped about in anger: bloody countryfellows! haven’t you been taught how not to drag your feet when you walk!?
i finally finished reading the white tiger, and as i closed the book on the train last night, i felt nothing but a sense of deep relief, and regret. relief, that i had survived reading your book. regret, that one more english-educated indian has learnt what was not part of the syllabus: shouting at the rooftops about how dark and dirty the country is. and look! they even awarded you £50,000 for doing that. well done!
alright. i needed to get that out of my head. now on to the white tiger.
you wrote a work of fiction, as your disclaimer says within the first few leafs of your book. balram halwai is a fictional servant. his master is fiction. and all that happens in between the master and the servant is imaginary as well. this part is good, something different, almost bollywoodish, and funny as well. but then – and here’s my problem with you – why did you, in your moment of glory, dedicate your story to the so-called dark reality of india? why do your interviews read like typical bbc news-reports:
Well, this is the reality for a lot of Indian people and it’s important that it gets written about, rather than just hearing about the 5% of people in my country who are doing well. In somewhere like Bihar there will be no doctors in the hospital. In northern India politics is so corrupt that it makes a mockery of democracy. This is a country where the poor fear tuberculosis, which kills 1,000 Indians a day, but people like me – middle-class people with access to health services that are probably better than England’s – don’t fear it at all. It’s an unglamorous disease, like so much of the things that the poor of India endure.
aww. how considerate. a rocket shoots up to the moon from a country called india, and suddenly there are concerns about millions below the poverty line, sitting outside their roofless houses and scanning the night sky. and my heart almost melted when you said:
If we were in India now, there would be servants standing in the corners of this room and I wouldn’t notice them… That is what my society is like, that is what the divide is like.
tch, tch, poor mr adiga. this is all you see in india. fortunately for you, the poor of india will not get their hands on your award-winning book. except of course, in the raddi shop, where it might fetch them an extra rupee or two, for the hardbound version. but i sincerely doubt if they’ll open and read it. isn’t that why you chose balram halwai as your protagonist? if you are so taken aback by the corruption in the country, you might have also felt, somewhere in your big heart, that perhaps the true darthvaders of india are some of its politicians. why didn’t you pick on them? they wouldn’t read your book either. why a servant, who you would not even notice, standing in the same room as you?
my dear mr adiga, the servitude in india, is not its dark side. it is in fact, for the servile, a potential way out of it. i am not a social service or human rights worker to argue with you over this, but considering that we were born the same year, and that i lived in india for 14 years more than you did, let me try.
india is a vast country. it has one of the oldest civilisations. one of the strongest systems of tradition and prayer. we have the caste system. we have always had kings and a multitude of their servants. now we have the rich and the poor. neither can do without the other. i have been a faithful reader of the time magazine ever since i can remember; i read stories about india on the bbc. but i know in my heart that neither time, or the bbc, will understand that strange balance.
back to your book.
i stop thinking about balram halwai. i think of tarabai, of pandu, sobha, sharda, ravi, heera…all of these who i met at some point during my childhood (i haven’t changed their names; their identity has been threatened already, thanks to you). the servants who scuttled in and out of the houses in our 13-apartment building. i think of laxman, swapnil, auto-drivers from my school and tuition classes, one of who was also a part-time servant at an advertising agency where i briefly used to work. and who often let me travel for free.
i try to imagine an alternate life for them, and i realise how they come with their own class divisions.
the illiterate rich
i recall the times when my mother insisted sharda’s eight-year-old daughter should at least learn to read and write. for no charge or cut in her salary, sharda’s daughter began to come to our house every afternoon. books, pencils and charts were all provided by my mother, and so was the education. about three weeks later, her daughter stopped coming to our home. the parents didn’t want to educate their girl-child. “her father doesn’t like it,” sharda reasoned, “after all she has to also work in some or the other house one day.” my mother used to take tailoring classes at the time, and offered to teach her, without a fee. sharda simply wasn’t interested.
you were right in observing that they are “witty, acerbic, verbally skilled and utterly without illusions about their rulers.” sharda definitely knew her space. as the only maid-servant at a colony of bungalows in lonavala, she earns over rs 2000 a day. they are richer than you think, mr adiga. they are comfortable. and they know what they’re doing. besides, not only are servants paid well in india, they are also given their dues for any extra chores they might have had to do during a wedding or festival for instance, and presented new clothes and baksheesh at the end of the day, from the ‘masters’ who can afford it. (er, you don’t happen to read amitabh bachchan’s blog, do you? i thought so.)
and then there are the rickshaw-wallahs in mumbai. did you, in your travels for time magazine, come across a few who have their own investment brokers and share market advisors? no? i guessed that as well.
as i write this, my mother is teaching heera’s son at home. the tuition master asked for rs 400 and heera
couldnt didn’t want to afford it. my mother teaches him for free. and i am sure she is not the only person doing this social service. the servants don’t publish recruitment ads for teachers. that does not mean they cannot find a way out.
sobha was young, very fast in her work. needless to say she was efficient. it was around the time i was getting married and a lot of guests were visiting us at home. one day, my sister discovered rs 500 was missing from her knapsack. there had been no one in the room that morning except for sobha when she went in to sweep and mop the floor. poor sobha. she thought the bag was a visitor’s and no one would notice. when my mother confronted her she admitted she was the thief. it was her first crime, she sobbed, she felt tempted to steal. five hundred rupees would fetch her a lot of things. but our house was in the midst of a marriage preparation. we couldn’t take any risks. my mother gave sobha the salary that was due, and sadly, had to ask her to leave.
pandu was a child when my masi adopted him. she and her family lived in a farmhouse and had two very young children of their own. pandu would gel in, she said. she fed him the same (freshly-cooked) food that she gave her children, new clothes for every festival, and my cousins gave him the books from school. he managed to learn a little. they shared their love for their pet dogs and the cows behind their house. they lived happily for about 10-12 years. when pandu was 16, he disappeared. my masi was shattered, not because pandu had stolen their valuables or money. he had crushed her faith in him. eventually, pandu was caught and the money retrieved. my masi did next what anyone else would. she slapped him. it was the only punishment he ever received from her.
tarabai was a great cook; she cleaned and mopped floors, and washed the dishes at peoples’ homes. her husband drank and used up all her money. she managed to save the rest for her son and daughter who she wanted to educate. one day some illicit liquor killed her husband and many others like him (i’m sure you would have heard or even written about these cases too). she used whatever money she had to set up a makeshift extension outside the kitchen that faced the road. she cooked and cooked. her vadapavs were popular all over thane. her children got the education she had always dreamed of. her son today owns at least a dozen superstalls, and eateries in the city. her daughter was married with pomp. after all, they are now part of the Indian middle class.
one other thing. when you talk about the india rising to be a superpower, with supermalls, and supersalaries for call-centre staff and the IT and the construction and the film industries all doing well, do you think the domestic staff working in people’s homes don’t get a hike? perhaps you must hire one to find out his or her monthly wage? even the veta advertisements in india show the bai to be english-educated and singing an english lullaby if you remember!
this is what the real colour of india is, mr adiga. it is not dark. it is not white. it has millions of shades. balram halwai is but one of them. but for the sake of those 36,000,05 gods, please don’t use him as a representative of india’s servitude class.
you are a good feature writer mr adiga. i remember reading some of your articles in time. but this time, i’m sad to say, the white tiger seems like one long fleeting feature about india from the eyes of an outsider. for the eyes of an outsider. and by deriding the country standing there on the booker podium, you only made it worse.
i hope your next book is a lot brighter, and i hope you find a good servant.
ps: you should read shantaram by gregory david roberts. the author practically lived in dharavi for twelve years. there were murders and poverty and prostitution in his story as well, but it certainly didn’t feel dark. on the contrary, every word in shantaram reeks of hope and optimism. roberts is not even indian, but, unlike yours, his story reads like it is from the heart.