The White Tiger: Moral ambiguities for one Spartacus of the Ganges

The White Tiger: Moral ambiguities for one Spartacus of the Ganges

To exist in perpetual servitude is a profoundly unjust human experience shared by billions of people throughout millennia and is seemingly impervious to the dazzling kaleidoscope of political systems. History never sleeps: uprisings of Spartacus, Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, the storming of the Bastille, 1848 Springtime of the Peoples, Decembrists, Gandhi, Selma to Montgomery marches, the Singing Revolution of the Baltics, the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, Arab Spring, “We Are The 99%,” Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Hong Kong, BLM… The full tally of every resounding “enough” to oppression is bedazzling enough to overshine the Milky Way. And yet here we are, having come so far from the muscular hominids roaming the steppes of Pangea, all the way to the inertly masticating digi-tech addicts, doom-scrolling from one tragedy to another. Hadron collider and horoscopes, butt implants and child trafficking, all has its place under the sun in our world, in a crazy leap through logic and progress. Ours is an age of contrasts, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in The White Tiger’s India, the India of Light and the India of Darkness, the India of fiberoptic magic in the outsourcing-capital-of-the-world Bangalore, and the India of street urchins, tuberculosis, and Balram.

“A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”

Balram the servant, Balram the beaten, Balram the survivor. Fate has snubbed him and cast him straight into one of the two remaining post-industrial castes, the caste of Men with Small Bellies (spoiler alert – the Big Bellies club is not an impenetrable fortress, after all). His identity is branded into Balram’s very corporeal understanding of the world, from the moment he watches his dead mother’s toes curl up, defiantly resisting the voraciousness of the Ganges, to the time he traces his father’s poverty on his body:

Fate hasn’t been entirely unkind to this proletarian superhero, for it has given him a sage-like understanding of this world and how it works. Balram may be happy to serve a spineless ponce and taxi him around Delhi in an air-conditioned Honda, but there is no fog of oblivion in his eyes when it comes to the noose of corruption and nepotism that wraps itself around democracy’s fragile neck. Balram may be from the Darkness, but he’s not Rousseau’s Noble Savage by any account. He knows what’s up, cobbling together a very sober study of the social condition:

“Me, and thousands of others in this country, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a pen-light, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks, which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news, bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep.”

Balram, contrary to The White Tiger’s readers’ biggest hopes, is hardly a revolutionary of the caliber requisite to lead the masses to storm government offices and overthrow governments. He is more of a prototype. A Work-In-Progress. A first draft, in which freeing oneself and filling one’s belly takes precedence over extending a helping hand to one’s brethren. For now though, the giant slumbers:

“An Indian revolution? No, sir. It won’t happen. People in this country are still waiting for the war of their freedom to come from somewhere else – from the jungles, from the mountains, from China, from Pakistan. That will never happen. The book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian. Crap it out, and read. Instead of which, they’re all sitting in front of color TVs and watching cricket and shampoo advertisements.”

Balram’s revolt materialized in a violent way that striped away any romanticized notions of a smooth and harmonious social change. No matter the era, bloodless revolutions are far and few in between. Far too many secret killing fields emerge once the pathos slows down and the smoke clears. And yet, in all the grit and pragmatism of survival among the likes of Balram the world over, there is space for poetry, art, and beauty:

“The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India.”

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