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Driving Pinky Madam
 
 
 
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning début novel, skewers voice to the new India’s underclass

By Eric McHenry

Two years ago, not long after quitting his job as a New Delhi correspondent for Time magazine, Aravind Adiga ’97CC cleared his calendar and in about 40 days wrote The White Tiger — a radical revision of a novel he had abandoned the year before. He suspected he had “something special” on his hands, and with good reason. By January 2008 the book would be in print, and 10 months later it would receive England’s largest and most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize. Adiga, born in 1974, is the second-youngest winner in the prize’s history (and, remarkably, the second Indian-born novice novelist with a Columbia degree to win it in three years — Kiran Desai ’99SOA captured the 2006 Booker with The Inheritance of Loss). The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, a young chauffeur from the bottom of India’s social order who, through ambition, intelligence, unscrupulousness, and violence, masters the brutal world that made him. Adiga recently answered some questions about the book from his home in Mumbai, where he is working on his second novel. –Eric McHenry

I love your book’s first sentence: “Neither you nor I speaks English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.” But I think it prepared me for a more self-referential book than I found The White Tiger to be. Why did you decide to begin that way? 
On the one hand, English is the primary language of many millions of more affluent Indians (like me); on the other hand, it’s a language not spoken by most poorer Indians. They would love to speak English, too, but usually lack the financial means to learn the language. Nevertheless, a little English has crept into the speech of just about every Indian. So English is neither truly a language of poorer Indians, nor is it truly alien to them. Once I decided to write in English, and write about a member of the Indian underclass — in his own voice — I wanted to establish one thing right away: a narrator like the one I’ve chosen would not be speaking in English or thinking in English — but I, as a writer, assert that I can capture the range and flavor of his thoughts and ideas, the full texture of his personality, in my book. He will not be speaking in pidgin or broken or lower-class English; he will be speaking in a language with all the majesty and power that the spoken word has throughout India.

My sense is that many young writers of literary fiction go in fear of politics. But The White Tiger strikes me as a very political book. Were you motivated in part by a desire to raise awareness of poverty and corruption and social injustice in India?
I was motivated by the desire to capture a particular voice — the voice of the Indian underclass, which is perhaps 400 million strong, and which is largely invisible in Indian literature and cinema. Where they are represented, it’s in stereotypical ways: as weak, ultrareligious, humorless figures who beg for the middle-class reader’s pity and protection. I’ve noticed that a sense of humor and the capacity for vice are privileges accorded only to the middle class in literature and cinema from this country. I wanted to challenge that mode of representation of the poor — and of India (since India is still substantially made up of poorer people). The White Tiger isn’t a polemic; it’s a novel, told by a narrator with plenty of flaws. You are not asked to accept Balram Halwai’s story, and indeed I believe there is internal evidence within the novel to challenge some of Balram’s more extreme views on Indian society. But you are asked to hear his voice — the humor, insolence, agnosticism, cynical intelligence, and above all, his power to enter your middle-class world (even if, perhaps, you live in the U.S.A. or Europe or China) and disrupt it.

The book is full of memorable images — the president’s house being blotted out by the smog cloud, the buffalo pulling the cart of buffalo skulls. Are these all things you’ve seen yourself? If so, did you immediately know that they belonged in this novel, or in a novel?
India is full of striking images — and not the clichéd ones you see in films that focus on spirituality and the Ganges. Life is vibrant, harsh, and poetic here. Everything in this novel comes out of my observations and notes. I knew that the images were too much for my work as a journalist — I was a correspondent for Time magazine — and that they belonged to another genre. In a sense, the images called for a novel to be written around them; and the novel followed like a suitcase in which to put these things, charged with political and poetic significance, that I’d seen. 

How did Balram change as you wrote the novel, or did he?
The book was first written in the third person; and in the original ending, which owed a lot to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Balram fled New Delhi after his crime and was caught by the police in a train station. I left the novel aside for a year, and then, in late 2006, rewrote it in the first person; and when Balram told his own story, and freed the story of the middle-class morality that had shackled it earlier, he changed the ending. In the new ending, the police become Balram’s best buddies in Bangalore, which is exactly what would happen in real life. Obviously, Balram knows more about life in India than I do, and I’m glad he rewrote the ending.

How has the book been received in India?
The book sold well in India from the day of its release; and since the Booker, its sales have been astounding. My publishers in India expect to sell 100,000 copies or more of the novel, and these are exceptional numbers for the country. Not everyone likes it, obviously. I meant for this book to be controversial — it’s a book that would work only if some of my middle-class readers got very upset by it. This has happened; while a majority of the reviews here have been positive, some have been very negative — and some hysterically so. One reviewer said she would prosecute me in court if she could. That’s my favorite review of all: this shows me that the book is working. When a country like India has all the problems that it does — terrorism, a growing class divide, religious tension, poverty — one thing is for sure: any book that is published here to universal acclaim is, by definition, of little value. Either no one has read it, or no one was offended by it; in either case, the writer hasn’t done his job, which is to get Indians to change the way they think about India.

Is winning a prize as big as the Booker somewhat awkward for a first-time novelist, because of the pressure it might put on you or on your second book?
Well, I live in Mumbai, which is probably the least literary big city on Earth. No one really cares here about the Booker Prize. Sixty percent of the people around me live in slums or on the pavement; and their concerns are how they will survive the days to come. I can never forget what’s important in life, and what’s important to me as a writer: to tell the stories of those whose stories are not being told.

Often, when reading a novel, I think of what a challenge a filmmaker would have in adapting it. But The White Tiger had, for me, a cinematic quality. Are there plans to make a movie of it? Is that something you’d like?
I’ve had a few offers; I pass them on to my agent. I wouldn’t mind a film being made of this novel — more people will read the book, more will think about what Balram has to say, and with any luck a few will leave the cinema howling for my blood.

From The White Tiger

Balram Halwai, the book’s narrator, is working as a chauffeur for Mr. Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, a nouveau-riche Indian couple staying in Delhi. The Mongoose is Ashok’s brother.

 
 

It was freezing cold when I returned to the car. All the other drivers had left. Still no sign of my masters. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what I had had for dinner.

A nice hot curry with juicy chunks of dark meat. Big puddles of red oil in the gravy.

Nice.

They woke me up by banging on my window. I scrambled out and opened the doors for them. Both were loud and happy, and reeked of some English liquor: whatever it was, I hadn’t yet tried it at the shop.

I tell you, they were going at it like animals as I drove them out of Connaught Place. He was pushing his hand up and down her thigh, and she was giggling. I watched one second too long. He caught me in the mirror.

I felt like a child that had been watching his parents through a slit in their bedroom door. My heart began to sweat — I half expected him to catch me by the collar, and fling me to the ground, and stamp me with his boots, the way his father used to do to fishermen in Laxmangarh.

But this man, as I’ve told you, was different — he was capable of becoming someone better than his father. My eyes had touched his conscience; he nudged Pinky Madam and said, “We’re not alone, you know.”

She became grumpy at once, and turned her face to the side. Five minutes passed in silence. Reeking of English liquor, she leaned toward me.

“Give me the steering wheel.”

“No, Pinky, don’t, you’re drunk, let him — ”

“What a fucking joke! Everyone in India drinks and drives. But you won’t let me do it?”

“Oh, I hate this.” He slumped on his seat. “Balram, remember never to marry.”

“Is he stopping at the traffic signal? Balram, why are you stopping? Just drive!”

“It is a traffic signal, Pinky. Let him stop. Balram, obey the traffic rules. I command you.”

“I command you to drive, Balram! Drive!”

Completely confused by this time, I compromised — I took the car five feet in front of the white line, and then came to a stop.

“Did you see what he did?” Mr. Ashok said. “That was pretty clever.”

“Yes, Ashok. He’s a fucking genius.”

The timer next to the red light said that there were still thirty seconds to go before the light changed to green. I was watching the timer when the giant Buddha materialized on my right. A beggar child had come up to the Honda City holding up a beautiful plaster-of-paris statue of the Buddha. Every night in Delhi, beggars are always selling something by the roadside, books or statues or strawberries in boxes — but for some reason, perhaps because my nerves were in such a bad state, I gazed at this Buddha longer than I should have.

. . . it was just a tilt of my head, just a thing that happened for half a second, but she caught me out.
“Balram appreciates the statue,” she said.

Mr. Ashok chuckled.

“Sure, he’s a connoisseur of fine art.”

She cracked the egg open — she lowered the window and said, “Let’s see it,” to the beggar child.
He — or she, you can never tell with beggar children — pushed the Buddha into the Honda.

“Do you want to buy the sculpture, driver?”

“No, madam. I’m sorry.”

“Balram Halwai, maker of sweets, driver of cars, connoisseur of sculpture.”

“I’m sorry, madam.”

The more I apologized, the more amused the two of them got. At last, putting an end to my agony, the light changed to green, and I drove away from the wretched Buddha as fast as I could.

She reached over and squeezed my shoulder. “Balram, stop the car.” I looked at Mr. Ashok’s reflection — he said nothing.

I stopped the car.

“Balram, get out. We’re leaving you to spend the night with your Buddha. The maharaja and the Buddha, together for the night.”

She got into the driver’s seat, started the car, and drove away, while Mr. Ashok, dead drunk, giggled and waved goodbye at me. If he hadn’t been drunk, he never would have allowed her to treat me like this — I’m sure of that. People were always taking advantage of him. If it were just me and him in that car, nothing bad would ever have happened to either of us.

There was a traffic island separating the two sides of the road, and trees had been planted in the island. I sat down under a tree.

The road was dead — then two cars went by, one behind the other, their headlights making a continuous ripple on the leaves, like you see on the branches of trees that grow by a lake. How many thousands of such beautiful things there must be to see in Delhi. If you were just free to go wherever you wanted, and do whatever you wanted.

A car was coming straight toward me, flashing its headlights on and off and sounding its horns. The Honda City had done a U-turn — an illegal U-turn, mind you — down the road, and was charging right at me, as if to plow me over. Behind the wheel I saw Pinky Madam, grinning and howling, while Mr. Ashok, next to her, was smiling.

Did I see a wrinkle of worry for my fate on his forehead — did I see his hand reach across and steady the steering wheel so that the car wouldn’t hit me?

I like to think so.

The car stopped half a foot in front of me, with a screech of burning rubber. I cringed: how my poor tires had suffered, because of this woman.

Pinky Madam opened the door and popped her grinning face out.

“Thought I had really left you behind, Mr. Maharaja?”

“No, madam.”

“You’re not angry, are you?”

“Not at all.” And then I added, to make it more believable, “Employers are like mother and father. How can one be angry with them?”

I got into the backseat. They did another U-turn across the middle of the avenue, and then drove off at top speed, racing through one red light after the other. The two of them were shrieking, and pinching each other, and making giggling noises, and, helpless to do anything, I was just watching the show from the backseat, when the small black thing jumped into our path, and we hit it and knocked it over and rolled the wheels of the car over it.

From the way the wheels crunched it completely, and from how there was no noise when she stopped the car, not even a whimper or a barking, I knew at once what had happened to the thing we had hit.

She was too drunk to brake at once — by the time she had, we had hurtled on another two or three hundred yards, and then we came to a complete stop. In the middle of the road. She had kept her hands on the wheel; her mouth was open.

“A dog?” Mr. Ashok asked me. “It was a dog, wasn’t it?”

I nodded. The streetlights were too dim, and the object — a large black lump — was too far behind us already to be seen clearly. There was no other car in sight. No other living human being in sight.
As if in slow motion, her hands moved back from the wheel and covered her ears.

“It wasn’t a dog! It wasn’t a — ”

Without a word between us, Mr. Ashok and I acted as a team. He grabbed her, put a hand on her mouth, and pulled her out of the driver’s seat; I rushed out of the back. We slammed the doors together; I turned the ignition key and drove the car at full speed all the way back to Gurgaon.

Halfway through she quieted down, but then, as we got closer to the apartment block, she started up again. She said, “We have to go back.”

“Don’t be crazy, Pinky. Balram will get us back to the apartment block in a few minutes. It’s all over.”

“We hit something, Ashoky.” She spoke in the softest of voices. “We have to take that thing to the hospital.”

“No.”

Her mouth opened again — she was going to scream again in a second. Before she could do that, Mr. Ashok gagged her with his palm — he reached for the box of facial tissues and stuffed the tissues into her mouth; while she tried to spit them out, he tore the scarf from around her neck, tied it tightly around her mouth, and shoved her face into his lap and held it down there.

When we got to the apartment, he dragged her to the elevator with the scarf still around her mouth.

I got a bucket and washed the car. I wiped it down thoroughly, and scrubbed out every bit of blood and flesh — there was a bit of both around the wheels.

When he came down, I was washing the tires for the fourth time.

“Well?”

I showed him a piece of bloodied green fabric that had got stuck to the wheel.

“It’s cheap stuff, sir, this green cloth,” I said, rubbing the rough material between my fingers. “It’s what they put on children.”

“And do you think the child . . .” He couldn’t say the word.

“There was no sound at all, sir. No sound at all. And the body didn’t move even a bit.”

“God, Balram, what will we do now — what will we — ” He slapped his hand to his thigh. “What are these children doing, walking about Delhi at one in the morning, with no one to look after them?”

When he had said this, his eyes lit up.

“Oh, she was one of those people.”

“Who live under the flyovers and bridges, sir. That’s my guess too.”

“In that case, will anyone miss her . . . ?”

“I don’t think so, sir. You know how those people in the Darkness are: they have eight, nine, ten children — sometimes they don’t know the names of their own children. Her parents — if they’re even here in Delhi, if they even know where she is tonight — won’t go to the police.”

He put a hand on my shoulder, the way he had been touching Pinky Madam’s shoulder earlier in the night.

Then he put a finger on his lips.

I nodded. “Of course, sir. Now sleep well — it’s been a difficult night for you and Pinky Madam.”

I removed the maharaja tunic, and then I went to sleep. I was tired as hell — but on my lips there was the big, contented smile that comes to one who has done his duty by his master even in the most difficult of moments.

The next morning, I wiped the seats of the car as usual — I wiped the stickers with the face of the goddess — I wiped the ogre — and then I lit up the incense stick and put it inside so that the seats would smell nice and holy. I washed the wheels one more time, to make sure there was not a spot of blood I had missed in the night.

Then I went back to my room and waited. In the evening one of the other drivers brought a message that I was wanted in the lobby — without the car. The Mongoose was waiting for me up there. I don’t know how he got to Delhi this fast — he must have rented a car and driven all night. He gave me a big smile and patted me on the shoulder. We went up to the apartment in the elevator.

He sat down on the table, and said, “Sit, sit, make yourself comfortable, Balram. You’re part of the family.”

My heart filled up with pride. I crouched on the floor, happy as a dog, and waited for him to say it again. He smoked a cigarette. I had never before seen him do that. He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“Now, it’s important that you stay here in Buckingham Towers B Block and not go anywhere else — not even to A Block — for a few days. And not say a word to anyone about what happened.”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked at me for a while, smoking. Then he said again, “You’re part of the family, Balram.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now go downstairs to the servants’ quarters and wait there.”

“Yes, sir.”

An hour passed, and then I got called upstairs again.

This time there was a man in a black coat sitting at the dinner table next to the Mongoose. He was looking over a printed piece of paper and reading it silently with his lips, which were stained red with paan. Mr. Ashok was on the phone in his room; I heard his voice through the closed door. The door to Pinky Madam’s room was closed too. The whole house had been handed over to the Mongoose.

“Sit down, Balram. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Yes, sir.”

I squatted and made myself uncomfortable again.

“Would you like some paan, Balram?” the Mongoose asked.

“No, sir.”

He smiled. “Don’t be shy, Balram. You chew paan, don’t you?” He turned to the man
in the black coat. “Give him something to chew, please.”

The man in the black coat reached into his pocket and held out a small green paan. I stuck my palm out. He dropped it into my palm without touching me.

“Put it in your mouth, Balram. It’s for you.”

“Yes, sir. It’s very good. Chewy. Thank you.”

“Let’s go over all this slowly and clearly, okay?” the man in the black suit said. The red juice almost dripped out of his mouth as he spoke.

“All right.”

“The judge has been taken care of. If your man does what he is to do, we’ll have nothing to worry about.”

“My man will do what he is to do, no worries about that. He’s part of the family. He’s a good boy.”

“Good, good.”

The man in the black coat looked at me and held out a piece of paper.

“Can you read, fellow?”

“Yes, sir.” I took the paper from his hand and read:

 
   

To whomsoever it may concern,

I, Balram Halwai, son of Vikram Halwai, of Laxmangarh Village in the District of Gaya, do make the following statement of my own free will and intention:

That I drove the car that hit an unidentified person, or persons, or person and objects, on the night of January 23rd this year. That I then panicked and refused to fulfill my obligations to the injured party or parties by taking them to the nearest hospital emergency ward. That there were no other occupants of the car at the time of the accident. That I was alone in the car, and alone responsible for all that happened.

I swear by Almighty God that I make this statement under no duress and under instruction from no one.

Signature or thumbprint:

(Balram Halwai)

Statement made in the presence of the following witnesses.

Kusum Halwai, of Laxmangarh Village, Gaya District
Chamandas Varma, Advocate, Delhi High Court

Smiling affectionately at me, the Mongoose said, “We’ve already told your family about it. Your granny, what’s her name?”

“. . . .”

“I didn’t hear that.”

“ . . . m.”

“Yes, that’s it. Kusum. I drove down to Laxmangarh — it’s a bad road, isn’t it? — and explained everything to her personally. She’s quite a woman.”

He rubbed his forearms and made a big grin, so I knew he was telling the truth.

“She says she’s so proud of you for doing this. She’s agreed to be a witness to the confession as well. That’s her thumbprint on the page, Balram. Just below the spot where you’re going to sign.”

“If he’s illiterate, he can press his thumb,” the man in the black coat said. “Like this.” He pressed his thumb against the air.

“He’s literate. His grandmother told me he was the first in the family to read and write. She said you always were a smart boy, Balram.”

I looked at the paper, pretending to read it again, and it began to shake in my hands.


From The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Copyright © 2008 by Aravind Adiga. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

 

 
 
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