The Black Sider

Dear Aravind (or should I say Mr.Adiga).

I decided to address this letter to you in your style of addressing letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in your award-winning book The White Tiger. Though, I have to admit, I was blunt enough not to understand the rationale behind dragging the poor chap into your story. I mean, why not address it to Obama, or even better, Osama? When there are more potent (on the verge of being omnipotent) people in the world, why wake up the sexagenarian Premier to read your story?

Well, the two good things about your book are – it was easy to read and it made me think. I should compliment you for the simplicity of language. “Great” writers of our generation (OK, I’ll take names – I’m literally falling asleep on Mr.Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It’s much ado about nothing), in their pursuit of greatness and utter lack of plot, seem to be of the opinion that the contortion and complication of the English language warrants a recognition of their greatness from their readers and critics. I’m happy you didn’t fall prey to the lure. I finished your book in 3 hours straight (and I’m a slow reader!), so that’s something!

Well, also, your book made me think, which is a good thing too! I should say it called up a lot of empathy for the class of people your protagonist belongs to. I could absolutely identify with the treatment meted out to them by the higher-ups. We all have a dozen such people surrounding us in everyday life (especially in India) – our domestic helpers, drivers, plumbers, carpenters, the person who irons the clothes of the locality (yes, we outsource that too!). It is true that there is rarely any recognition of their services or respect involved in dealing with them by most households. I would pat your back (if you were around) for having talked about this and I’m sure your readers would have pondered on how they behave with their helpers after reading your book.

Now the tougher part! It’s not easy to critique someone’s creation, especially when it has been awarded one of the highest literary prizes we have around and I have no creation of my own to set a benchmark. But there were things in your book, Sir, that I cannot help not bringing up to tell you how disappointed I was!

I am an Indian to my very core and I know that only an Indian is capable of comprehending the vast problems of the country. An outsider can only look up to some things and look down upon most things, but we Indians can have both reactions to the same thing. I am very aware of India’s poverty, of the utter lack of facilities in villages, of corruption and hegemony of the political class, of the squalor in our cities (leave alone smaller towns), of the abject conditions of most of our people and much more. I don’t hold it against you for graphically depicting all this in your book. But I do hold it against you for making this the only picture of India. And now that the entire world is reading the book, how I wish you would’ve written about the other side as well. Yes, we are corrupt, but we are still the most populous democracy of the world. Yes, we are under-nourished and poor, but we still haven’t ended up like Somalia and Kenya. Yes, we are illiterate, but we are still one of the fastest-growing economies of the world. There is always a silver lining to every cloud, Sir, and every silver lining always runs the risk of being covered by a cloud anytime. We are a country of more than a billion people, but at least we don’t face the bane of an ageing population like Europe does. We have absolutely wicked politicians running our country, but at least our press and people have the freedom to talk about anything at all, quite unlike your Premier Jiabao’s country. We are religious and superstitious and classist, but at least we have had the broad-mindedness to not invade upon the sovereignty of other nations and bring terrorism to their lands, unlike the biggest superpower of this world. All I am saying, Sir, is that India is a gray picture, just like any other country of this world is. It is far from perfect, but then no country is either black or white. We live in a gray world, so let’s not single out our motherland and scream BLACK about it to the world.

Time to switch to my second objection, Sir. When I started reading your book, and you threw in hints of your protagonist, Balram Halwai, becoming an entrepreneur by the end of the story, I thought THIS (finally) was a book saluting the millions of spirited entrepreneurs India has created over the years – people who have fought against families, classes, systems, lack of facilities and money and much more to reach where they are today. So you can imagine how betrayed I felt when Balram had to murder his boss to get hold of the 7 crore rupees (or howmuchever it was) and escape to Bangalore to become a successful businessman. I mean, come ON!!! Balram didn’t HAVE TO do that – you MADE HIM DO THAT!! You made the entire entrepreneurial class of India drive knives into the moneyed class to justify their newfound affluence. So unfair, so untrue! Did Dhirubhai Ambani or Jamshedji Tata or Narayana Murthy have to murder people to be founders of corporations India will forever be proud of? OK, let’s talk about humbler examples. The domestic helper at my home (yes let me take her name too – Mithoo) walked out on her husband because, in her own words, he used to “kick her around like a football”. Note – she was just in her mid-twenties then and a mother of three daughters! She made her way to Calcutta from her village, toiled day and night and today, she sends one of her daughters to school, pays for her private tuitions, has remarried – this time, an understanding and loving person, has a bank account and has earned the love and support of the entire neighborhood. Another one – our plumber (his name – Nidhiram), came to Calcutta as a frightened youth from a nondescript village in Orissa (quite like your Balram Halwai). Today, he has a house of his own, runs a network of plumbers, spent thousands to fight his wife’s cancer, educates his children in schools and will, I’m sure, very soon buy a car. Sir, as much as you may try, I will not let these people and the millions of other entrepreneurs be defamed by your fancy of a chaotic India speeding towards self-annihilation. After all, these are the “white tigers” – the chosen ones of this generation, as you put it in your book, and NOT the character you have opted to glorify.

Lastly, the “rooster coop”. Yes the “rooster coop” that Balram Halwai spots in the markets of Old Delhi and thinks of the similar coop he is in, where chicken are jammed in side-by-side, knowing they’re all going to be slaughtered sooner than later and yet, can’t do a thing about it. Well, Sir, it’s not just Balram Halwai or the poor or the trodden-over or the underprivileged who are in the rooster coop. We are ALL in our own rooster coops. You are in yours and I am in mine. I’m sure, Barack Obama will soon see the walls of his coop as well! We’re all bound in many ways, we’re all limited, we’re all “claustracized”. Trust me, there is no dearth of hurdles that one has to face in life – doesn’t matter if he/she has a silver or gold or bronze or plastic spoon in his/her mouth. It is how we break the walls of our coops and emerge victorious at every stage, it is how we are human and different from the roosters, it is how we step out into freedom of our own choice and yet not pay the price by committing murder – that’s the stuff “heroes” are made of and books are written about. Not some escapist cowardly person you have chosen to make your protagonist.

And yeah, that thing about Balram being asked by his masters to own up for a hit-and-run he had not done, happens everywhere. Not just Delhi. The rich and the powerful control and dictate the people below them all across the world. I don’t think there was any need to write to Premier Jiabao and the entire world about such a ubiquitous phenomenon.

You could say you were just telling us a story. There was no portrayal of India in it (though there is enough evidence in the book pointing to it) and it was just a personal tale. Then, Sir, I have to tell you that it is a rather unimpressive lackadaisical unremarkable uninspiring story I wouldn’t even have cared to remember had you not won the Booker. And if you say you don’t carry the responsibility of painting the brighter side of India and humankind to the world, well then… I don’t have anything else to say and I’ll leave you to your pessimism.

Congratulations on the win! Try finding some color in the world, Sir. It hasn’t yet turned all gray and black.

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4 thoughts on “The Black Sider

  1. Pothik Chatterjee says:

    Great post! I agree with a lot of your views…very creative way of presenting…I didn’t like the book too much, was dissapointed with the writing…

  2. Tissa says:

    Well, I am not an Indian, so as you have said above, I might fall into your category as “I can only look up to some things and look down upon most things.” But anyway, I would still pour down my opinion… if you don’t mind 🙂

    Though I am not an Indian, I am an Indonesian. And you mostly know, how the world see Indonesia and we, Indonesian, are also aware…. very corrupt, poor, messy, and so on and so forth.

    For me, reading the The White Tiger is like facing a mirror. Yes, we are corrupt, we are poor, but what really all this about? For me, the book is just merely presenting the fact that we are trapped in our own system. A system that was installed from long time back, in my case, from the aristocracy kingdoms to the Dutch ruler, which until date we pretty much still “nourish”.

    The book indeed makes me think. Especially coming from middle-economy class, I might have neglected the effect of the system, because we are quite comfortable and warm inside the system. I would never really think how the poor thinks, what is their mentality, how they have been treated by the system all these times.

    I kinda remember a phrase in the book saying, “All we want is road, clean water, school, and hospital.” That make me think, how about in my country? Yes, we do have that. But if my city, Jakarta, Surabaya, and all other big cities in Indonesia has it, how about other regions? And even in the cities, do all the people benefit from that? Or only people who have money, could enjoy all the facilities?

    I don’t feel poor, but my country is still struggling with poverty. How? There are lots and tons of intelligent smart Indonesian, there are lots of rich business men, but where all these resources gone?

    Are there still illiterate people in my country? How much is the percentage of people who finish their primary education? Do goverment or the rulling party really support these people? Do the people have the mentality to “go forward” , to develop themselves?

    Yes, for me, turned-out, I hadn’t been really aware that majority of people in my country are at Balram’s level. Half cooked, the book says. I am also a part of it. It is not like we don’t have the potential. We are just flowing inside the system. We do protest, but do we really do something to change that “rooster coop”. How many people are aware that they are poor and uneducated, and then try to break-free from their condition? Infact, some people choose to stay poor and uneducated…… well, apart from the fact that the system does keep them poor & uneducated.

    The “servant” mentality…. how true?! That is one of the reasons we are lacking of innovation and will to find new approach, to craft creative solutions. The scar of the past has somehow marked in our culture; we are waiting people to telling us what to do, to lead the way, and then we can follow.

    I too get dissapointed that Balram killed his master. But maybe the author wants to potray how flashing of money could blind anyone. Anyone, I am not going to defend the author or anything.

    Anyway… for me, The White Tiger is not painting India black or gray. It just merely tries to be honest. More on personal level… some sort of a wake-up call…

  3. Nitin says:

    Very well written letter! I got a gist of the book without even having read it. I cannot specifically refer to the White Tiger for the same reason, but I do know how India is portrayed. It indeed is very unfortunate this picture screams Poor, Corrupt, Tough Life.

    That’s partly the belief which people have. To challenge this belief would take tons, whereas to reinforce it is easy. Which is why, you’re gonna dismiss me if I tell you apple seeds contain cyanide, or that Sri Lanka had a higher GDP per capita than India (at least around 2004).

    Talking about such articles, they are quite often directed at getting more eyeballs. The ones that are not are classified as documentaries. People notice such portrayals because they appeal to them. They appeal to their feeling of sympathy.

    To take something mainstream would require giving the audience something new. The glory of IT revolution in India and all associated development finds a place in the papers. People live this life, and this is the same set of people who can read these books. To them, something new would be an ‘insight’ into the ‘other world’, that of those who do not have access to three meals a day. Just like how the ‘other world’ would one day dream of working at a sweatshop for what is in their eyes a handsome pay.

    Or you could give them something new by writing e a spectacular good-of-India story, which I believe is an alternative, but is even harder to write. Some Indian guy using his tact dealing with Indian authorities and day to day problems to buy up a state in the US?

    It sure is regrettable somebody hasn’t managed to highlight our skills in an interesting way. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t place the blame completely on The White Tiger, as its author is just another person looking to satisfy his inward desires. Actions are driven by self interest, something directed toward financial, emotional, physical or psychological satisfaction.

    I think the best way to correct this is not to throw money at people, or to reserve seats out of step with their proportion of the population. It could rather lie in creating a system that satisfies ones self interest as well as benefits the the poor, corrupt or the ones living a hard life. Grameen bank is something that comes to my head immediately.

    And Mr. Adiga could write for the Indian equivalent of Grameen Bank. Or someone else could. That would hopefully reduce the ills of the society as well as boost up image overseas.

    But thats for another discussion topic, my laptop is burning through my pants and is proving to be a lap top.

  4. Nitin says:

    And I have to vent my frustration of retyping more than half of this. Internet Explorer is stupid – it just vanishes all of a sudden. GRRR… Google Chrome, on the other hand, sometimes remembers what you even typed before you closed the browser. That’s presence of mind.

    Wish there was more space to develop thought process and creativity and less of the crunch deadlines we face daily. Sigh.

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