The White Tiger, regardless of the opinion one might have regarding its award-winning status, is first of all about movement.  And yet, this is too simplistic an assessment.  Rather, the novel itself becomes a vehicle for thought, reanimating  and reimagining the heterotopic spaces and disjointed times of the postcolonial city.  The novel won the prestigious Booker Prize for best work of fiction in 2008 (other notable South Asian writers to receive this reward include Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy).  As a result of this international recognition, perhaps, and for the dark, clearly sartorial portrait of modern Indian society it conjures before an ostensibly global audience, the book has sharply divided supporters and critics, the latter of whom have questioned the literary status of The White Tiger, which was Adiga’s debut as a novelist.

Most critics point to the problem of representation that is in some ways central to narrative structure of The White Tiger.  Adiga, writing in English, puts forth the perspective of a poor man, a subaltern from a small rural village in India.  Balram Halwai was born the son of a rickshaw puller.  He ultimately escapes his poverty, through equal parts cunning and sheer luck.  And yet the means of this escape, far from affirming a narrative of progress and social justice in urban India, reveals, rather, a much darker image.  We see close up the injustice and violence of an extremely hierarchical society undergoing radical socio-spatial transformation. 

When I was in north India undertaking my dissertation research in the fall and winter of 2008, the White Tiger was causing a bit of a stir in the English-language media.   One day, I was discussing the book with Sheela, a middle aged mother who lived in Park View City in Gurgaon. 

Sheela had a copy of the book on a coffee table in her living room, where we happened to be sitting.  The room was colored in heavy, earthy tones, deep greens and muted reds, plush and darkcarpets and roundish off-white furniture, the clothe on the pillows of the couch was as soft as the shiny marble floor tiles were hard.  Sheela's daughter was reading the book, she informed me.  Sheela did not approve.  Her concern was that a novel like Adiga’s, with all the international attention it was getting, would paint an overly negative picture of India in her daughter’s head.  It would lead people like her daughter and others in the world to “see only India’s poverty and inequality, and not the progress and development that has changed the country over the past ten-twenty years.”

This critique differed slightly from that espoused by Khushwant Singh, the great Delhi writer, but the spirit is largely the same.  In a review he wrote that was published in the Tribune, the writer praised Adiga’s novel as well written and “highly readable,” but “also infinitely depressing; it is a dark, one-sided picture of India I have ever read [sic]. I don’t mind reading harsh criticism of my countrymen, but I find half-truths unpalatable.”

For both Sheela and Singh, the central issue was the way Adiga represented India, and particularly Delhi.  As Singh rather sardonically noted:

Adiga now says he wants to dedicate his prize winning novel to the people of Delhi. However, it is not the Delhi of which Dilliwalas are proud of — a city of marble palaces, mosques and temples, of ancient forts and mausolea, — all this escapes the author’s eyes. What draws him are slums, stench of drains filled with human concrete, pigs rummaging in garbage dumps, pimps and prostitutes. We, who belong to this city, have nothing to thank him for. But bless him. Though full of half-truths, he writes well. His black humour and biting satire persuades the reader to forgive him.

Is there an ethical responsibility on the part of the author to depict particular life-worlds in “truthful” ways?  Does it matter when the work in question is a piece of fiction?

Such questions, while interesting to think about, are beyond my present concern.  They belong to larger philosophical and literary questions of representation, authenticity, and authorial intentionality.  Rather than intentionality, I want to focus on intelligibility, and namely, the following questions with regard to The White Tiger: what does this novel make intelligible that was unintelligible before?  And what is the politics of the lines that divide the intelligible from the unintelligible?  For whom do these un/intelligibilities exist? 

My argument is that the novel itself becomes intelligible through the movements of its protagonist, the driver Balram Halwai.  It is through his narrative that we are immersed into the contradictory life-worlds and spaces that Balram uniquely has access to as the chauffer of a wealthy couple newly settled in Delhi.  As far as intentionality is concerned, we might say that for Adiga, Balram himself is a vehicle with which to explore the contrasts and contradictions of contemporary urban space.  But what Balram’s movements make intelligible for us are far more interesting to me than Adiga’s unknowable intentions. 

Balram’s narrative is as stark and biting as it is sharp and witty.  The book, for all its supposed negativity and depressing context, is funny and fast-paced, and as Khustwant Singh himself notes, an immensely enjoyable read.  As a character, Balram’s often times simplistic conceptualizations of Indian society find resonance in the reflections they provoke in the reader, allowing for a further extrapolation that need not itself be limited to the vocabulary of Balram.  For me, this is the essence of art (and progressive politics), to make intelligible new worlds and forms of experiences such that our own realities can be rethought and understood differently.

For Balram, India is divided into two countries: “an India of Light, and an India of Darkness” (2008, 14).  As we will see, these two Indias are not so much geographically distinct spaces, as they are the products of imaginary belonging and social exclusion along the steep hierarchical lines of class and mobility.

The India of darkness includes Balram’s childhood village, which is replete with failed schools that lack teachers, failed hospitals that lack doctors, and corrupt politicians who use electoral politics to further their cynical ends.  Opposed to this darkness is the India of Light, of future aspirations and the hope for upward class mobility.  At the broadest level, Balram’s movement in the novel is from Darkness to Light.  And yet this movement is undermined by various modes of confinement.  Balram, who is physically mobilized as the driver of his rich employer’s car, is still excluded from the spaces that he takes them, such as shopping malls, luxury condominiums, government offices, and the like.  In this sense, confinement is not opposed to mobility. 

And so Darkness even permeates the Light that Balram chases after escaping from his village.  But this Darkness remains obscured for Balram’s employer, who belongs to Delhi’s elite, a small group that increasingly seems to live amongst, but not really with, its poorer fellow citizens.  As Balram drives his rich employers around the city, he finds that “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open—a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road—and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed” (134).

And so Darkness even permeates the Light that Balram chases after escaping from his village.  But this Darkness remains obscured for Balram’s employer, who belongs to Delhi’s elite, a small group that increasingly seems to live amongst, but not really with, its poorer fellow citizens.  As Balram drives his rich employers around the city, he finds that “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open—a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road—and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed” (134).

Balram, never weary of grand-theorizing, eventually conceptualizes the basic mode of confinement that simultaneously keeps the majority of the country oppressed in their place, while also ensuring that the violence which produces this oppression never comes back to seriously challenge the social and cultural hierarchy at the center of Indian society.   As Balram theorizes it, for the vast majority of India, the poor and confined, their misery is both inherited and of their own making.  They are trapped in what he cleverly calls the “Rooster’s Coop.”   Roosters, even when they see that they are about to get slaughtered next, “do not try to get out of the coop.  The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” (175) 

And why does the majority of the country not revolt and overthrow the small minority that confines them?  “Because Indians are the world’s most honest people? No. It’s because 99.9 per cent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market…Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police.  That’s because we have the coop.” (175).  “The coop is guarded from the inside” (194), Balram tell us, as we begin to conceptualize a veritable postcolonial society of control in which different classes, though variously mobilized in neoliberal spaces and times, remain confined within their respective worlds: the rich in their sealed eggs, condos, and shopping malls, and poor in the Darkness of discipline, inhibition, and the tyranny of culture and tradition. “A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse” (176).

So how does Balram manage to escape his confinement and cross into the Light? “I was destined not to stay a slave” (41), Balram tells us early on.  But it is only later in the story that we discover the stakes involved in plotting one’s escape from the Darkness of contemporary India: “only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed—hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters—can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.  It would, in fact, take a White Tiger.  You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur, sir” (177).

Balram’s break comes when he savagely kills his master in cold blood, even though he knows that if he manages to escape arrest, his family will surely be found by the rich and powerful relatives of the deceased, who will see to it that they pay the price for Barlam’s crime.

But for Balram, the desire to kill his own master, who is presented as a relatively benevolent employer, never demeaning or violent (in contrast to other employers who are shown as much more ruthless with their servants), was not what made him unique: “a billion servants are secretly fantasizing about strangling their bosses” (125).  But the difference is that Balram decides to act upon a rage that slowly builds up inside of him, anger at the deprivation he was consigned to for no other reason than being born in the Darkness.  To those still stuck in the coop, Balram is unequivocal: “I have woken up, and the rest of you are still sleeping, and that is the only difference between us” (315).  And to the horrified elite classes of India, who after reading his narrative might begin to have second thoughts about how they treat their own servants, who cook their food, clean their floors, and drive them everywhere all day everyday, Balram is unapologetic: “I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant” (321).

After the murder, Balram absconds to Bangalore, where he starts up his own business with the money he stole from his master: a taxi service that shuttles young workers to and from call centers.  In the end, Balram imagines himself as an integrated member of Bangalore’s urban society, a part of the dynamic “new” India that is mobilized both across geographical space as well as up hierarchical social space.  Far from feeling guilt for his crime, Balram sets himself to describing his new environs: “There is construction everywhere. Piles of mud everywhere. Piles of stones. Piles of bricks. The entire city is masked in smoke, smog, powder, cement dust. It is under a veil. When the veil is lifted, what will Bangalore be like?” (317).

“Maybe it will be a disaster: slums, sewage, shopping malls, traffic jams, policemen. But you never know. It may turn out to be a decent city…A new Bangalore for a new India” (318).

Adiga’s novel, which is about the movements made possible in (and which, in turn, make possible) the “new”/neoliberal India, begs us to question the forms of exclusion that result from social and spatial mobility.  If Balram’s escape from Darkness to Light is performed through an act of violence, and that violence then serves as a means for inclusion into India’s unjust and steep social hierarchy, then what does this say about the mechanisms and lines that divide inclusion and exclusion?  How is mobility itself a form of exclusion?  These questions seem increasingly relevant as India’s cities seem ever ready to construct wider roadways, newer flyovers, by-passes and expressways for privatized automobiles.  As the Nano post from last week argued, private transport is seen as an entitlement in urban India, not a luxury or privilege.  If such modes of privatized transport are productive of new experiences of space and time, then Balram’s story serves to remind us that what is also produced is a radical alterity, an exclusion that is violent and deplorable.  This is what Adiga’s novel makes intelligible for us.