When I Re-read The White Tiger
I saw the trailer of Netflix’s White Tiger introducing Adarsh Gourav and starring Priyanka Chopra and Rajkumar Rao. While visiting the trailer, I remembered that I had read the original book and tried recollecting it. I didn’t remember much, but I did remember that it was an easy and quick read. At that time, I failed to understand why the book had won a man-booker prize as this was like any other humorous book I had read; this was way back in 2016 when I was in my second year in college and was still trying to figure things out.
I recently visited Mumbai, where I got a hold of the book and decided to reread it so that I will be able to watch the film with better insights. My second reading of this book was phenomenally different. I realised the book was a savage allegory of the Indian societal ethos. We all know that India, at large, remains a poor country with around 20–30% of the population in extreme poverty. The latest World Economic Forum (WEF) report says that the most impoverished Indian will require seven generations of income to meet India’s average mean income.
The book presents a worldview from one such gentleman who was born amongst the poorest places in India. When I read it for the first time, I may have been aware of caste discrimination and existing poverty. But I could not understand the intensity of the pain felt by these people. The second reading covered all of that, and the realisation of the depravity was starking. What makes the book brilliant is that it captures a poor Indian’s imagination even when an elite person reads it. The idea that anyone can pick up this book and understand the people’s emotions in it is truly remarkable.
Balram, the book’s protagonist, could be anyone. He could be the person who serves tea in a local chai shop; he could be the street vendor that makes biryani for construction workers or be one amongst the construction workers himself.
Balram is amongst the lucky ones. He was the crab that got out of the bucket and did well for himself. He managed to get out of his village and move to Delhi to serve his master. Balram being the White Tiger, an animal born once in a generation, was able to realise how deprived he was. How badly he wanted to come out of the darkness (the terrible village life), the mentality of being a servant of not just his master but of the broken system. He has to fight his way to reach the top: get upgraded to the Honda city driver by replacing him in a crooked manner. He often mentions that it is his fundamental duty to serve his master and his wife.
The term White Tiger indicates that Balram is a person who can see the bigger picture beyond himself and have an all-encompassing view of the world. He realises his surroundings better than his peers and can decide what is better for himself. Despite being a White Tiger, Balram had to struggle for a long time and had to take tough decisions to liberate himself truly.
The book is more than an allegory of Indian society. Four years ago, I could sense the exciting part of the story. Upon re-reading the same novel, I have realised that the book is not exclusively restricted to Balram, but most of India’s population speaks through the same book. They share a similar story: escaping from the darkness and struggling your way through. But just like Balram, only a few people succeed.
Arvind Adiga wrote the book in 2008, much before India’s digital revolution. I was assuming that things would be different now, considering 560 million Indians have internet and would be able to understand how the world works and would be able to realise the surroundings around them. I thought they would have a chance to get out of the darkness too. To some extent, this is right; the digital revolution has created new aspirations to be better than their previous generations. Youtube and TikTok have unleashed the hidden potential of many Indians out there, and they have not been afraid to express their views and thoughts. However, this is where the buck stops.
The 750 million are still living in the darkness and are continuing to live like Balram, without having the qualities of the White Tiger. Many of them wonder if they will have two square meals a day or will have a brighter future.
The Pandemic has pushed many people back into the darkness, and many of them will have to begin their journey again to achieve where they were before the COVID crisis. Many people have called the US a divided country; I find it funny that they have the luxury of being politically divided. The real divide lies here in India, and it is of the darkness and lightness. Our cities are empowering to many because our villages continue to be dens of ignorance (Ambedkar’s words). This is why countless migrants flock to tier one and two cities. Despite all the hardship and pain, they know that this is the only way where they have a crack at success and better opportunities.
The book has resonated with a lot of elite audiences. It would resonate even more with people who have either escaped from the darkness or continue to live in it. However, our lives are full of irony as the movie based on the book is a Netflix special. With the cheapest subscription being ₹199 a month, it remains inaccessible to the people it represents. Hope piracy and Telegram make this movie a huge success throughout the darkness.