Aravind Adiga’s novel ‘The White Tiger’ (2008) has just appeared on Netflix as a film. This raises questions afresh about feudalism and entrepreneurship in India, not least because the novel won the Man Booker prize, implying that its vision of India was convincing to outsiders.
The novel came when India was going through a boom and it presented a pessimistic picture of what was behind the boom. For instance, India was being compared to China as an economic powerhouse, a comparison no longer being made. More importantly, Bengaluru was an emblem in the novel for the new economic order, as against Bihar, the old feudal one.
Migration to Bengaluru was emblematic of India moving from its old ways into a new era. The fact that the protagonist sets up business in Bengaluru after killing his employer and stealing slush money indicates that the new is tainted at birth. The fact that the city takes a back seat in the film suggests that in the 12 years between 2008 and now, it is the old that has strengthened, rather than the new bearing fruit.
There are many things that Aravind Adiga does not get quite right in the novel, but the film tries to follow the book faithfully. The story is written as a confessional letter to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Such confessions are normally made to moral exemplars and China is perhaps too opaque a milieu to be regarded as an exemplar.
In his letter, Balram Halwai, tells his life story from the time he was a gifted student in a village school in Lakshmangarh, Bihar. The economic interests in his village are controlled by a coal tycoon (‘The Stork’) and his older son (‘The Mongoose’) and Balram’s father dies unable to get out of debt. Balram therefore teaches himself driving and manipulates his way into becoming the driver of the better younger son Ashok, just back in Dhanbad from the US with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). In order to get a foothold in Delhi, Ashok and Pinky move there and Balram goes with them, assisting in delivering bags of money to politicians and bureaucrats. Ashok and Pinky are nice to him but, one day, the drunken Pinky takes the wheels of the car, hits a boy, and apparently kills him.
Balram helps them out of this hit-and-run episode in the dead of night, but the family forces a written confession out of him, admitting falsely to the crime. They are anxious to get rid of him and it culminates in the disgusted Pinky leaving without telling Ashok. She is the ‘moral centre’ of the story but she has also killed the child. There is no irony here and one wonders what to make of it.
When Balram finds his employers not treating him well, he starts stealing from them, ultimately killing Ashok and stealing a bagful of cash, which he takes to Bangalore to set up a taxi service under an assumed name. The story offers an exposé of feudal India through the story of Balram and his employers but it misses the fact that loyalty is the currency most cherished in the feudal setup, making the system stable. Servants rarely aspire to replace their masters, and when sacrifices are demanded, as it is of Balram, servants are duly taken care of. Balram’s betrayal by his employers after he has signed his forced confession would not be typical of the feudal set-up, or the system would not have perpetuated itself.
Then there is the issue of Balram’s migration to Bengaluru, his transition from servant to entrepreneur as representing a transition from feudal dependency to capitalist independence. The story is evidently the creation of someone with little knowledge of how a corrupt system works, since simply handing over a bag of cash to someone ensures nothing. What keeps the relationship going is the promise of it being lucrative over the long term, but I still find the subdued sense of Bengaluru more significant. Whatever the failings in the portrayal, Bihari feudalism emerges as more credible in the film than entrepreneurship in Bengaluru. The city is still the hub of the new economy but it is no longer the emblem it once was, and the failure is seen as the city’s rather than the nation’s.
Adiga’s novel was perhaps a debunking of India’s transition myth that was current at the time, although one cannot be sure. Balram, in his Bengaluru avatar, is shown to be more caring of his employees than his former employers were of him, but it is unconvincing. The owner of a taxi service cannot take loud responsibility for the fatal accidents caused by his drivers and things have to be smoothed over quietly. Slush money would be the lubricant used to ensure the quietness. What the film ‘The White Tiger’ is saying is uncertain but it is implying the failure of a promise, that of the ‘new.’ ‘Eternal India’ has stifled the earlier promise of Bengaluru, it would seem from the film.
(The author is a well-known film critic)