Diary

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Anyone who has read the inside pages of Indian newspapers over the past few decades will be familiar with the recurring stories of violent urban crime. Some concern ‘crimes of passion’ and use a peculiar Indian English journalistic vocabulary, involving such terms as ‘eve-teasing’, ‘absconding’ and ‘paramour’. Some of the stories have to do with incest or close family relationships – say, between father-in-law and daughter-in-law – while others are tales of paedophilia and ‘child molestation’. Another popular subject of which Delhi residents will be well aware are the crimes committed by the ‘criminal castes’, often linked in the neocolonial imagination of the city’s bourgeoisie to the villages and smallholdings that are gradually being asphyxiated by Delhi’s expansion. It’s been an urban legend since the 1990s that people are being bludgeoned to death in their houses with blunt instruments even though they haven’t resisted; and that the intruders show their contempt for their victims by defecating in their living-rooms. Class elements are present in the reporting of crimes of passion, which the elite naturally associate with slum-dwellers and squatters: the second type of crime involves something approaching class warfare.

But the dominant topic of past decades has been domestic servants, an indispensable part of life but also a source of endless paranoia in metropolitan households. These domestic servants come in various guises. Some commute to work by public transport, perform tasks in several households, and return home at the end of the day. Many others are children, or barely adolescent, and sleep in the house where they work (though they aren’t usually allowed to use the same bathrooms and toilets as their employers). They may be poor relatives; or they may be adults from outside the family. They have no fixed hours, though in some cases they are given a day off every week or every fortnight. The government recognises their existence by providing every state employee who attains ‘officer’ status with a flat or house that has ‘servants’ quarters’ attached to it. Here, in the alleys at the back of government residential areas, a world exists in parallel to that of the houses and flats that look out onto the streets and gardens. It is a curious form of what the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, in his discussion of the relationship between plantation owners and their slaves, called casa grande e senzala; sometimes the children of the masters and those of the servants can be found spinning tops or flying kites together.

Servants are naturally a favourite topic of conversation. ‘They are so difficult to get and so hard to keep.’ ‘They don’t know their station any more.’ ‘It’s not like it was in the good old days when they were so loyal that they were really members of the family.’ And so on. The paranoia resurfaces every time there is a story in the papers about an elderly couple found murdered and robbed by their resident servant; and the paranoia increases when the police, as they usually do, place advertisements in the papers advising employers to run ‘background checks’ on potential employees. Attempts are made from time to time to introduce identity cards for servants, and urban Indians wistfully say how much better arrangements are in Singapore, where servants are strictly regulated by the state, have just one day off a month, and women are kicked out if they get pregnant. A bourgeois household may have washing-machines, vacuum cleaners, microwaves and other domestic aids, but who can live without one servant, or several? Every American, European or Japanese who lives in an Indian city succumbs soon enough to the Servant Raj.

Some time in the 1980s, a friend of mine had a lavish wedding in one of the cities. Though he lived and worked in India, his family was spread across the West and they turned up in large numbers, accompanied by Western friends who were not above a bit of freeloading. The wedding was an extended affair and what began cordially enough soon deteriorated into squabbling. Some of it was the usual friction resulting from familial proximity, but there was another, more peculiar cause. Some of the relatives from abroad announced that they were appalled by class relations in India. They didn’t just mean the rickshaw-pullers on the streets: what troubled them was the position and treatment of domestic servants, who had been mobilised in large numbers for the wedding. They were there to clean up after parties that ended in the early hours of the morning, and yet had to be up to make masala omelettes for the honoured guests when they rolled out of bed. All this smacked of a dreadful feudalism to those whose parents had lived in India a bare generation before, surrounded in all probability by even larger numbers of servants. It seemed archaic and primitive, unworthy of a democracy, an affront to liberal principles. Eventually, many of those who had come from abroad stormed off with their moral superiority intact, leaving their Indian relatives bemused.

Social scientists reflecting on India tend to discuss class in its rural version (relations between landlords, peasants and wage labourers), or in its classic urban incarnation of the factory and shop floor, or in terms of what has been termed ‘footloose labour’ – which is to say, the labour used on construction sites or for contract work on piece rates or for a wage. Even the broad intellectual grouping known as Subaltern Studies hasn’t taken domestic work into account, save for the occasional moment when a conversation with a servant provides the researcher with an anecdote or factoid to motivate an essay on some profound question or other. It is very hard to define or measure class in a country where data on personal income and assets are extremely hard to come by. It is even harder to know for certain what has happened in the past two decades since economic liberalisation was proclaimed. But there are clearly very rich people in the cities now with fancy imported cars, expensive watches and clothes, and showy lifestyles, and they live side by side with slum-dwellers and those who sleep on pavements. There are urban and suburban developments that boast such names as Malibu Towers, Beverly Hills Residence and Bel-Air Estate. This is growth all right, but of a sort that can induce vertigo. It is what Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger is ostensibly about.[*]

The book purports to tell the story of a murder committed by its narrator, Balram Halwai (also known as ‘White Tiger’), from the eastern Indian state of Bihar, who moves first to the prosperous suburb of Gurgaon near Delhi to work for Mr Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, and then to the booming city of Bangalore in South India, which together with Hyderabad is associated in clichés with the country’s recent economic transformation. We learn the fact of this murder some thirty pages into the book, at the end of the first chapter: ‘Eight months later, I slit Mr Ashok’s throat.’ The plot has no twists and turns, no real surprises; there is no sleight of hand. The novel just rolls on like an Indian Railways train, from one stop to another, over seven chapters that are notionally recounted over seven nights.

Why Bihar? It is a state that has some of the lowest economic and developmental indicators in modern India, and is also part of a large swathe of territory where Naxalite (or Maoist) groups operate with impunity. Urban Indians, especially from the great metropolitan centres, love to sneer at Bihar, as the worst part of the so-called Cow Belt, a place where banditry, caste warfare and feudalism are rampant and where one of the leading politicians is Laloo Prasad Yadav, who provides much hilarity in the salons of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore (and who has a role even in this novel). Balram refers to Bihar as the world of ‘Darkness’, a term that appears repeatedly in the book in opposition to ‘Light’ – i.e. the sophisticated urban destinations to which the narrator is headed. People like him don’t speak the increasingly standard Hindi of northern India, but rather its eastern Indian versions, such as Maithili and Bhojpuri, the dialects spoken by 19th-century working-class migrants to Calcutta, Fiji, Mauritius and Guyana. Even now, they are mocked as rustics because of it.

Balram hates Bihar and hates his ancestral village of Laxmangarh, which is apparently only a few miles from Bodh Gaya, the pilgrimage site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment: ‘I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh – some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it – as fast as he could – and got to the other side – and never looked back!’ Balram is cynical about the Hindu religion, which he views in an entirely instrumental manner. He despises the holy river Ganges, which for him is no more than a large open drain. His village is a place ‘split into two’ by ‘a bright strip of sewage’, and where there are ‘three more or less identical shops selling more or less identically adulterated and stale items of rice, cooking oil, kerosene, biscuits, cigarettes and jaggery’. It is this background, the anything but bucolic world of Laxmangarh, that propels him to seek employment in the provincial city and mining centre of Dhanbad.

Here, after a bit of instruction from a local taxi driver, he finds work as a driver with a powerful family that controls large parts of his native region. The next sections of the book trace Balram’s rise through the household of this master, where, after first being obliged to drive the humble Indo-Japanese Maruti Suzuki, he reaches a triumphant position behind the wheel of the family’s chief car, the luxurious Honda City. Balram has had to exercise his ruthlessness to get there, developing the skills he honed while working in a teashop, doing his job ‘with near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity’. His rise involves betraying and blackmailing another driver, a secret Muslim, pretending to be a Hindu called Ram Persad. By stages, Balram is elevated to serve the family at a far higher salary, in Delhi and Gurgaon, where it has sent its sons so that they can live out of harm’s way (further away from the Naxalites) and closer to the centres of political power. A hundred pages into the novel, we have migrated from Darkness into Light, from the feudal world of Bihar into the suburban and metropolitan one of Gurgaon and Delhi.

Adiga’s may be the first novel in English to attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Gurgaon. It is, to put it mildly, a curious place. A quarter of a century ago, it was an agrarian region in the state of Haryana on the fringes of Delhi, inhabited by Jat agriculturists and Gujjar pastoralists and farmers. As Delhi expanded southwards, it became a place of opportunity, with the state of Haryana offering incentives for entrepreneurs to invest. In the late 1980s, I remember the first condominiums going on sale there, and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) buying into them. The car firm Maruti Suzuki, one of whose products Balram drives in Dhanbad, opened a factory. Money began to flow in, often in obscene quantities. I recall visiting a bank in Gurgaon in the mid-1990s in order to make a safe deposit withdrawal on behalf of a friend; the manager proudly pointed to a large and freshly cemented patch in the roof where armed robbers had broken in one night a couple of weeks before and fought a pitched gun battle with local police. My friend’s deposit was still intact.

There are now enormous malls and glass towers housing firms such as Alcatel and Siemens. But it is an insecure world, where employees walk to collect their cars with what I gather is an understandable nervousness. Muggings are frequent, as are kidnapping and carjacking. Last year IBM apparently issued a memo to its staff advising them to take a long list of precautions. The following story from the Hindustan Times of 2 September gives a flavour of the situation (and of Indian journalese):

Yet another incident of carjacking was reported from Gurgaon on Monday. Two armed youths reportedly snatched the keys of a Scorpio (HR 26 AH 8100) that was parked in DLF Cyber City from its driver and drove away with the driver still inside. The incident occurred at 11.15 p.m. when hundreds of other vehicles were parked in the area. The SUV belongs to a businessman who lives in Sushant Lok, Phase I. Ashok Kumar, station head officer of DLF City police station said driver Rajeshwar Mandal was sitting in the vehicle and the owner, Vikram Veer, had gone to a restaurant at Infinity Towers.

‘Two youths armed with pistols entered into an altercation with the driver saying he had hit their car. The youths then pushed the driver inside and drove the car away,’ Kumar said. The robbers snatched Mandal’s mobile phone and other belongings and stripped him before dumping him near Palam Vihar.

In June this year, the Gurgaon police had issued a word of caution to people driving their cars at odd hours. It had cautioned a motorcycle-borne gang of carjackers was on the prowl in Gurgaon and was snatching cars at gunpoint. In August also, Gurgaon police commissioner Mohinder Lal had said a gang of professional auto-lifters from neighbouring towns as well as from Bihar and West Bengal were active in Gurgaon. As many as 1100 auto theft cases have been reported till date in Gurgaon as against 950 cases in the corresponding period last year.

In this Wild West atmosphere, which Gurgaon shares to an extent with other prosperous Delhi suburbs such as NOIDA and Faridabad, nothing is quite what it seems. There are shoot-outs in courtrooms. There are swanky clinics with five-star decor and marble floors where medical attention borders on the criminally negligent. Gurgaon is fragile, but many NRIs are happy to buy into it because they want to believe in the illusions it seems to support: the illusion of security, of the safety of gated communities, the illusion that one is not living in India because one is surrounded by Benetton, Nike, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday. But these are illusions that can be sustained only because the drivers and domestics, the cleaners and sweepers, not to speak of the armed security guards, are all in place. I imagine that large numbers of executives fly into New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport in business class, and return to Paris or Düsseldorf three days later without having set foot in any part of India other than Gurgaon.

It is this world that Adiga sets out to dissect in the most ambitious part of the book. Balram lives in the servants’ apartments in Buckingham Towers B Block. It is, as he describes it, part of a ‘warren of interconnected rooms where all the drivers, cooks, sweepers, maids and chefs of the apartment block can rest, sleep and wait’. Balram’s master and mistress, Mr Ashok and Pinky Madam, the son and daughter-in-law of his feudal Dhanbad employer, live on the 13th floor of the apartment block in a flat that their driver finds cramped after the Dhanbad house. Mr Ashok, it turns out, is a wishy-washy liberal who was educated in the US, unlike his brother Mukesh, a more rooted and vicious representative of the Bihari landlord class. He has, however, had the courage to oppose his family in marrying Pinky, presented less as an NRI than an ABCD (American-Born Confused Deshi), an Indian-American who is also a Christian. Balram lusts after Pinky, her fancy perfumes, skirts and low-cut tops, through the rear-view mirror. Pinky, for her part, sneers at Balram and his crude English and his habit of scratching his crotch while working in the kitchen.

In an improbable moment, a drunken Pinky insists on taking the wheel and accidentally runs over the child of a pavement-dweller. There is an attempt to persuade Balram to take the rap and he signs a statement falsely admitting his guilt. But this is unnecessary: the poor have no rights and no one has registered the hit-and-run accident. Still, a disgusted and somewhat remorseful Pinky departs for America and asks for a divorce. Mr Ashok falls into despair, drinking and puking his way through the next few pages. He begins to frequent former girlfriends and the odd blonde Ukrainian prostitute in seedy hotels. Balram is torn between a certain sympathy for his misery and a contempt for his lack of gumption. Contempt triumphs and he begins to contemplate his employer’s murder. One rainy night when Mr Ashok is in possession of a large sum in cash, he draws him out of the car, claiming that a tyre needs repair, and kills him with an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, smashing his head in and then cutting his throat. Accompanied by a young nephew, he decamps for Bangalore. Of course, Balram knows that his employer’s family will visit vengeance on his. But he doesn’t care. His brothers and their children may be slaughtered, the women of the family may be raped, but he is indifferent. Adiga wants us to see all this as emblematic of the new Indian tough guy, the murderous entrepreneur who will step over any number of dead bodies to get his way.

The idea of a resentful, oppressed protagonist murdering his employer and getting away with it in pursuit of his ideal of social mobility is not much of a novelty. Any innovation must therefore be sought in the novel’s narrative voice. But there is also a framing device that should be mentioned: each chapter consists of a message sent by Balram to Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of the People’s Republic of China, who is about to visit Bangalore. This adds nothing to the novel beyond permitting Balram to present himself as a Third World rather than a merely Indian racist. Consciously or not, it also imitates far funnier and more successful examples, such as John Barth’s ‘Petition’ from Lost in the Funhouse, addressed to the King of Siam.

The novel is not, contrary to confused assertions in the Indian press, another attempt at a form of Indian magical realism in the wake of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. No one has telepathic or supernatural powers here; time is broadly Newtonian in its flow. This is a novel that wants to be realistic, even if the realism is meant to be understood as tinged with black comedy. There may even be some moralising intention, with Adiga denouncing the greed and corruption of the New Indian Society. But the merit of the book must eventually rest on the credibility and verisimilitude of the voice of Balram Halwai.

As it turns out, the Halwais are an upper-middling caste of sweetmeat-makers, resident across large swathes of northern India and often using the caste name of Gupta. Balram is presented in the novel as impoverished but with some education, even if it doesn’t give him access to English. ‘Neither you nor I speak English,’ he writes to Wen Jiabao at the outset of the novel, and yet the novel is written in English. We are meant to believe – even within the conventions of the realist novel – that a person who must really function in Maithili or Bhojpuri can express his thoughts seamlessly in a language that he doesn’t speak.

This is a problem that takes us back to the roots of the Indian novel in English and its two broad categories. One type deals with Indian characters who speak English because they have had a Western education (as in the work of Vikram Seth), and often involves middle-class angst, urban lust and loss, or satirical views on post-colonial pretension. Some of these novels describe more or less ironically the tragic fate of anglicised members of India’s elite colleges, rotting away in the 1980s in the wilds of places like Dhanbad while dreaming of Fleetwood Mac or Supertramp. At its most genteel, this attitude may be found in an Indian-American writer such as Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work would never embrace the subjectivity of a crass chauffeur from Bihar who smashes his employer’s head in with a whisky bottle in Dhaula Kuan while chewing betel-leaf.

The other – more common – type of novel tries to represent in English dialogue spoken in another language. Some writers, like Raja Rao, adopt an elaborate sing-song tone supposedly intended to correspond to the rhythms not merely of the various Indian vernaculars but of Indian life itself. Others, including Rushdie, have tried the macaronic solution, sprinkling their English with Hindi or Urdu words or even inventing words. Still others, such as Lee Siegel (who navigates between Indology and fiction writing), have attempted for comic effect to have Indians speak in a drolly exaggerated way, through the use of odd vowels and diphthongs. None of these solutions really works; what they bring to mind are the SS officers in World War Two films speaking English among themselves with a strong Mitteleuropean accent. Rushdie’s characters sound like no known Indian, but this is not meant to matter because his novels are not realistic. None of these writers has the ethnographic ambitions of a Zola, attempting to capture, notebook in hand, the vocal nuances of the Other.

What of Balram Halwai? What does he sound like? Despite the odd namaste, daal, paan and ghat, his vocabulary is not sprinkled with North Indian vernacular terms. His sentences are mostly short and crudely constructed, apparently a reflection of the fact that we’re dealing with a member of the ‘subaltern’ classes. He doesn’t engage in Rushdian word-play. But he does use a series of expressions that simply don’t add up. He describes his office as a ‘hole in the wall’. He refers to ‘kissing some god’s arse’, an idiomatic expression that doesn’t exist in any North Indian language. ‘Half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas’ and the Chinese prime minister is advised never to ‘let that blasphemous idea into your yellow skull’. On another matter, he sneers: ‘They’re so yesterday.’ A clever little phrase appears: ‘A statutory warning – as they say on cigarette packs – before we begin.’ Dogs are referred to as ‘mutts’. Yet whose vocabulary and whose expressions are these? On page after page, one is brought up short by the jangling dissonance of the language and the falsity of the expressions. This is a posh English-educated voice trying to talk dirty, without being able to pull it off. This is not Salinger speaking as Holden Caulfield, or Joyce speaking as Molly Bloom. It is certainly not Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, whom Adiga has claimed as his models in speaking for the underdog. What we are dealing with is someone with no sense of the texture of Indian vernaculars, yet claiming to have produced a realistic text.

Imagine recording the speech of your interlocutor – a driver encountered in a car park in Gurgaon, say – in an Indian language and trying to render it not literally, but credibly, and with some effort at verisimilitude, into English. This is no easy task. The translator always faces dilemmas, of course, and can never get it quite right. But we also know what it is to get it disastrously wrong. It is when the ‘autobiography’ of an Indian untouchable woman appears in French using expressions from Victor Hugo. The falsity in The White Tiger goes much further. It means having a character who cannot read Urdu, and certainly has no notion of Persian, tell us that his favourite poets include Jalaluddin Rumi and Mirza Ghalib. It means having someone who can’t read English being able to recall a conversation in which his interlocutor speaks of books by James Hadley Chase, Kahlil Gibran, Adolf Hitler and Desmond Bagley. Try that lot out on a Hindi speaker who knows no English next time you are in India.

Adiga gets the tone right only when he writes of the world of the bourgeois. Some of this is quite funny and rings partly true.

‘Ashok,’ she said. ‘Now hear this. Balram, what is it we’re eating?’
I knew it was a trap, but what could I do? – I answered. The two of them burst into giggles.
‘Say it again, Balram.’
They laughed again.
‘It’s not piJJA. It’s piZZa. Say it properly.’
‘Wait – you’re mispronouncing it too. There’s a T in the middle. Peet. Zah.’
‘Don’t correct my English, Ashok. There’s no T in pizza. Look at the box.’

Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.

[*] Atlantic, 321 pp., £12.99, April, 978 1 84354 720 4.