In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals - the creature that comes along only once in a generation? I thought about it and said: The white tiger.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga was first published in 2008 and won the Man Booker Prize for that year. Narrated by Balram, it is funny and satirical, peppered with occasional choice language, and grim. As Adam Lively wrote in the Sunday Times:
At first, this novel seems like a straightforward pulled-up-by-your-bootstraps tale, albeit given a dazzling twist by the narrator’s sharp and satirical eye for the realities of life for India’s poor…But as the narrative draws the reader further in, and darkens, it becomes clear that Adiga is playing a bigger game…
Over the course of one week, Balram writes a letter to the Chinese premier, telling his life story and explaining how he made the leap from servant to self-taught entrepreneur. The White Tiger though is far more than an amusing tale as Adiga clearly depicts the corruption and societal pressures that keep much of India’s population uneducated, oppressed and living in abject poverty.
India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India – the black river…whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud… full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.
In Balram’s village the electricity poles are defunct, the one single water tap is broken and the children suffer from malnutrition. Many people leave the villages every year to find work in the cities, but even there, they “live on the sides of the road” or “under the huge bridges and overpasses…while the cars roar past them.” Some get jobs “building homes for the rich, (while) they lived in tents…partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage.” The air in the slums is polluted with the overpowering “stench of industrial sewage” and children play in the open sewer.
Despite India’s proud boast of parliamentary democracy and the values of equality and freedom that espouses, Adiga depicts India as a savage, lawless jungle. Animal imagery is everywhere, from the names of the “landlords” to the pitiful “human spiders” working in the tea shops who “go crawling in between and under the tables.” All his life, Balram’s father had “been treated like a donkey.” His one hope was “that one son of mine – at least one – should live like a man.”
Balram uses the rooster coop as a metaphor to explain how the poor are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness. In the markets the chickens are “stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…pecking each other…jostling just for breathing space…they see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel…The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
From the start, Balram realises he has been bred for servitude. It had been “hammered into my skull (and) poured into my blood.” He wonders what keeps them there, what keeps them from fleeing the coop, from aspiring something more? It is family and corruption. “…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.”
The corruption Adiga depicts in Indian society is truly shocking and depressing. Bribery seems to be the way of business in all levels of politics and the participation of the poor in democratic elections was in name only. As Balram recounts, “there was an election coming up, and the tea shop owner had already sold us. He had sold our fingerprints – the inky fingerprints which the illiterate person makes on the ballot paper to indicate his vote…this was supposed to be a close election; he had got a good price for each one of us.”
The absence of any form of conscience in the rich masters of the poor was quite disgusting. Balram ends up getting a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Driver is really a pretty loose label because he was also expected to cook, clean and do anything else his masters demanded. Even signing his life away. The consequences of a drink driving accident when his master’s wife was at the wheel could have landed him in jail.
The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid, middle-class masters. We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse….the judges…take their bribe…and life goes on.
Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many.
It is a sad truth that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and that most of the wealth generated by workers ends up in the hands of a few. This is actually one of the major concerns of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), who note that inequality and exclusion are actually on the rise, and is also the focus of the World Day of Social Justice. The ILO defines social justice as the aspiration that “every working man and woman can claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity their fair share of wealth they have helped to generate.”
This year the theme for the World Day of Social Justice is: A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy. Since the advent of Covid 19, working remotely has become the norm. We have been working, learning and socialising via zoom and other digital platforms. While this has been great for many, it has also exposed the digital divide between the haves and the have nots, and in particular the divide between the developed and the developing countries.
Sometimes I wonder if the international and world days achieve anything. I wonder if I am wasting my time trying to draw attention to issues such as disability, the environment and social justice. When I look around at the world, I wonder if anything will ever change. Will we ever see a world which is fair, peaceful and just? And then I found this on the UN website today.
Why do we mark international days?
“International days are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilise political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool.” (UN)
The White Tiger has been on my book shelf for a little while but I deliberately chose to read it in the lead up for today, the World Day of Social Justice. We can not always visit every place or experience every social context in person, but we can do it vicariously through literature. The White Tiger was at times a gritty and grim read but it depicted quite clearly the kind of corruption and oppression that exists in many places and it can help us understand why the work of organisations such as the United Nations and the ILO are so important.
In The White Tiger, Balram wonders why “the rich always get the best things in life, and all that we get is their leftovers.” Against all odds, Balram does escape the rooster coop but at a very high price. He is the White Tiger and the law of the jungle is eat or be eaten.
If we truly desire a more equitable, civilised, peaceful and just world, then shouldn’t we ensure that nobody gets left behind?