Two recent fiction books set in and depicting life in India that have become internationally acclaimed are Shantaram and The White Tiger. Shantaram, written by Gregory David Roberts, is a semi-autobiographical fiction book based upon some of Roberts’ real life experiences as a fugitive from an Australian prison who flees to Bombay in the 80’s and has a wide range of experiences there including living in a Bombay slum and a small rural village, joining the Indian mafia, fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians, and acting in Bollywood movies. The White Tiger was written by journalist, Aravind Adiga, and tells a fictional story of a driver in modern day India who serves an upper class businessman and ultimately becomes a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore after escaping what he calls life in the Darkness through, what most would say, the worst way possible.
Both of these books are well written, very entertaining reads that provide a glimpse of Indian life through a different lens than the typical middle class or happy villager vantage point in most books. In Shantaram, the protagonist Lin is a foreigner, an Australian, learning about India and the reader learns more about Indlian life through Lin as he becomes immersed within a unique life in India. In The White Tiger, the main character, Balram, is the son of a rickshaw-puller who has secured what most in India for his family status would consider a plum opportunity as a full time driver to the rich and powerful Mr. Ashok. However, Balram considers his life to still be one in the middle of the Darkness, the other side of Indian life as he says which is characterized with little hope and in essence, little freedom, and he offers to the reader a view into the Darkness through his interactions with Mr. Ashok and his family.
When reading these two books, I’m struck by the different feelings one gets about the goodness in people and life in India. In Shantaram, in many ways, Lin is falling in love with life in India and realizing he belongs there. In a previous blog posting, I wrote about the Indian head wiggle and Lin’s appreciation for the Indian gesture and its meaning—a feel good description of a quintessential Indian characteristic. He also waxes prophetic about Prabakar, a taxi driver who has befriended Lin, and taken him to his own village and was his initial navigator through the maze that was Bombay in the 80’s. Prabakar is a lower class taxi driver who lives in a slum in Bombay, one who would likely be considered living in the Darkness that Adiga’s character Balram describes in The White Tiger, yet Prabakar is portrayed throughout as one who loves life, trying to lead the best life possible, but still having to overcome many challenges that only those living in these conditions, Darkness type conditions, would have to deal with. Here is a passage used to describe Prabakar by Lin during a confrontation Lin had with others while Prabakar and Lin’s lady friend Karla were off to the side:
“One moment from that evening, one heartbeat’s length of time as the crazed man had charged at us with a sword, was stretched in my memory. At the precise instant when I took that step backwards and raised my hands in a boxing stance to fight, Prabaker took a step to the side, and stood in front of Karla. He wasn’t in love with her, and he wasn’t a fighter. Yet his first instinct was to step sideways and protect Karla by shielding her with his body”
Roberts goes on to write through Lin’s eyes “I’d grown to like Prabaker. I’d learned to admire his unshakeable optimism. I’d come to depend on the comforting warmth his great smile provided”.
The key take away for me here is the way Prabaker is portrayed in this book. Full of optimism and life, depicted as the epitome of goodness who would protect an acquaintance as if she was family during danger, all the while struggling to make it day to day while living in slum conditions. The honesty and goodness of the Indian people is celebrated in Shantaram.
Now, contrast that with The White Tiger. Balram is from a small village without a full education but catches a break by being chosen to be a driver for Mr. Ashok, who has recently returned from New York and will continue the lucrative family landlord and property business in India. While initially excited about the opportunity and the money, Balram increasingly feels repressed, not free, and part of the unending cycle of servitude to the haves while he remains a part of the have nots. Adiga has written this book and portrayed the struggling poor Indian in a much more dire light; without optimism, without hope. Furthermore, he depicts the more prosperous Indian such as Mr. Ashok also in a dismal light; bound through bribery and corruption to serve powerful government figures to get ahead or maintain expectations of comfort that they have of themselves. This book depicts the internal struggle within India of Darkness and Lightness to be a much more powerful dichotomy than the external struggles of Indians with the British for example— those external struggles led to change; the internal struggles of class and society can’t change. Even when Balram exits his situation of service to Mr. Ashok (for those who haven’t read the book, I won’t indicate how it actually happens), for him to became a legitimate entrepreneur participating in the tidal wave of opportunity in the IT space, requires Balram to grease the hands of the local commissioner. While he was railing at the unfair setup of society when he was Mr. Ashok’s driver, as soon as he got a chance to get out of the Darkness, he needed to play the game of servitude to get a chance to exit the Darkness. Now interestingly, Adiga, talks about the trustworthiness of the Indian as the reason that this cycle of servitude works and can work in India
From The White Tiger
“No, it’s because 99.9 per cent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop….The Rooster Coop doesn’t always work with miniscule sums of money. Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two—he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny. Try it: leave a black bag with a million dollars in a Mumbai taxi. The taxi driver will call the police and return the money by the day’s end. I guarantee it (Whether the police will give it to you or not its another story, sir!). Masters trust their servants with diamonds in this country! It’s true. Every evening on the train out of Surat, where they run the world’s biggest diamond-cutting and –polishing business, the servants of diamond merchants are carrying suitcases full of cut diamonds that they have to give to someone in Mumbai. Why doesn’t that servant take the suitcase full of diamonds? He’s no Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he’s in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.
Later he writes, “A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent- as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every other 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.”
The key take away for me from Adiga’s The White Tiger is the focus on the struggle of life in India. While in Shantaram, there is optimism and much happiness portrayed, that is absent in The White Tiger. Now, the differing backgrounds of the two authors could be important reasons for the differing vantage points—Roberts being a new resident of India, hasn’t seen the struggle for multiple generations, even though he did live in a slum, while Adiga as a journalist in India and abroad, may had more opportunity to see, feel and hear over multiple generations the struggle.
Ultimately as a reader, I think it’s important to read about both vantage points. The reality is that both Roberts’ and Adiga’s themes are present in life in India. Adiga’s views are controversial and not often written but creating a more out in the open dialogue is a good thing for India.