Express In Conversation
India: A View from Below Aravind Adiga with Hirsh Sawhney
The homes of middle class and wealthy Indians are staffed by teams of servants who cater to their employers’ every need. Born in poor states like Bihar or countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, these live-in drivers, cooks and cleaners often work twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks. Despite the economic upswing that has enabled their bosses to decorate their homes with plasma televisions and purchase European cars, the lifestyles of domestic workers have only improved marginally in recent years. Their working conditions remain unregulated, and as India’s population continues to grow at exponential rates, their wages remain low, from fifty to one-hundred and fifty dollars a month.
One such domestic worker, a driver named Balram Halwai, is the narrator and protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s hard-hitting debut novel, The White Tiger, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Balram’s beginnings epitomize a common Indian story. Born a poor villager, witty, pensive Balram ends up a driver for a corrupt businessman in Gurgaon, a Delhi satellite city studded with malls and IT offices. His employer offers him false gestures of kindness and hope but doesn’t hesitate to frame this innocent for a crime that his wife actually commits. With no prospects of enjoying a slice of the new Indian dream, the driver attempts to alter his fate by unusual, heinous means. He murders his boss and makes away with money that was meant for a government bribe. After starting a successful business that provides transportation to call center workers in Bangalore, Balram writes a letter of confession to none other than the Premier of another Asian economic success story, China.
This incisive, engrossing book attacks poverty and disparity without being sentimental or condescending, and for this reason it is a groundbreaking Indian novel. I met with Adiga, a former Brooklyn resident, while the author was visiting New York last July.
Rail: Tell us about the India your book is set in.
Adiga: The book deals with an India smack in the middle of “the boom,” and it challenges a lot of comfortable assumptions about Indian democracy and economics. I want to challenge this idea that India is the world’s greatest democracy. It may be so in an objective sense, but on the ground, the poor have such little power.
Rail: What are some of the starker things you learned about India during this era of hype and optimism, when you were working as a reporter for Time?
Adiga: The fact that a lot of Indians have very little political freedom, especially in the north of India. That elections are rigged in large parts of the north Indian state of Bihar, and they’re also accompanied by violence. There’s like thirty-five killings during every election. If you were a poor man you’d have to pick China over India any day because your kids have a better chance of being nourished if you’re poor. Your wife is more likely to survive childbirth. You’re likely to live longer. There are so many ways in which India’s system fails horribly.
Rail: How are these disturbing aspects of the country woven into your novel?
Adiga: Balram’s father, for example, dies of tuberculosis. tb kills a thousand Indians a day—poor people. It’s a disease that the middle class doesn’t even know about. There’s a whole set of diseases in India that only afflict the poor.
Rail: To describe the Indian hinterlands in which poor people try to make ends meet, your narrator uses this eerie generic term, “the darkness.” How did you come up with that?
Adiga: I wanted something that would provoke and annoy people. I was trying to capture this gulf in the country. When I was in Calcutta, I spent the night with people who pulled hand-rickshaws. (People in Bombay, by the way, don’t believe me when I tell them that there are hand-rickshaws in Calcutta, because it seems incredibly primitive to them.) A lot of these hand-rickshaw drivers were Muslims from Bihar, and I asked them, “Why do you do this? Why don’t you work in the fields? Even that has to be better than this.” One man pointed to the shed in which they were staying and said, “This may seem to you like a dirty dark place, but for us, this is a city of light. Back home is the darkness.”
Rail: Allow me to read a passage: “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, bodies, souls, and arse. Yes, that’s right: we all live in one of the world’s greatest democracies. What a fucking joke.” Is Balram implying that servants are like bonded labor or slaves?
Adiga: At points it does get like that. But this is the servant’s perspective. It is his subjective views, which are pretty depressing. There are also two crimes that he commits: he robs, and he kills, and by no means do I expect a reader to sympathize with both the crimes. He’s not meant to be a figure whose views you should accept entirely. There’s evidence within the novel that the system is more flexible than Balram suggests, and it is breaking down faster than he claims. And within the story I hope that there’s evidence of servants cheating the masters systematically...to suggest a person’s capacity for evil or vice is to grant them respect—is to acknowledge their capacity for volition and freedom of choice.
Rail: For someone like Balram, is the only hope for success or social mobility crime?
Adiga: If you don’t have English, an education, or healthcare, then how are you going to do something to transform your life? A poor man in India making 4,000 rupees a month is never going to transform things. The only transformation possible is crime for someone like Balram, otherwise he’s going to be surrounded by fantasies, dreams, and not make it out…Often life is so tough you just have to be brutal.
Rail: Has India’s rich-poor divide actually led to an outbreak of crime between servants and masters?
Adiga: The servant-master system implies two things: One is that the servants are far poorer than the rich—a servant has no possibility of ever catching up to the master. And secondly, he has access to the master—the master’s money, the master’s physical person. Yet crime rates in India are very low. Even though the middle class—who often have three or four servants—are paranoid about crime, the reality is a master getting killed by his servant is rare. But it’s on its way… What is stopping a poor man from taking to the crime that occurs in Venezuela or South Africa?
Rail: Why don’t India’s class divides lead to the crime rates that occur in other Third World countries?
Adiga: You need two things [for crime to occur]—a divide and a conscious ideology of resentment. We don’t have resentment in India. The poor just assume that the rich are a fact of life. For them, getting angry at the rich is like getting angry at the heat…But I think we’re seeing what I believe is a class-based resentment for the first time.
Rail: But on the surface the class divide seems to be shrinking. The media tells us things like call centers and outsourcing are not only threatening the American economy but also revolutionizing Indian society.
Adiga: I wanted to problematize the depiction of outsourcing within India and outside. In the long run it’s not a particularly good thing for the country. It doesn’t create real jobs. It doesn’t actually give employees any skills. It’s kind of like a shot of sugar—it’s great at first, but it actually has no nutrition. Anyone who thinks outsourcing is going to fix India’s economic problems is deluding himself. Outsourcing counts for less than 1% of the economy. 99% of Indians have problems that are entirely separate: water, agriculture, irrigation, electricity. I wanted to show that this is a very small, weird part of the Indian economy and the bulk of life is way outside this.
Rail: Speaking of water, Balram says, “There is no water in our taps, and what do you people in Delhi give us? You give us cell phones.” In fact, India has more than 240 million cell phone users.
Adiga: The cell phone is fascinating because it has always held up in India as a sign of progress. Even the poor have cell phones now. But access to drinking water has deteriorated in the past ten years. And most development economists will tell you that a lack of access to drinking water—to clean water—is the single biggest cause of poverty. Say a construction worker gets typhoid and can’t go to work for two weeks. He loses his job and there’s no insurance. He’s living in poverty and is going to stay in poverty. Throughout India you see the water table seems to be falling, crop yields are declining, people are having greater trouble finding access to water. It’s one of the clearest class divides in India: if you have access to regular water in India, you’re rich; if you have no access to water, you’re poor. Technology is one aspect of progress; it is not progress in itself. Progress is holistic—it’s water and cell phones.