Breaking Barriers with money
Ratna Raman Delhi
The cleaning woman who worked for us for over 30 years died two months ago. For 30 years, almost five to six days a week, between 8am and 8.30 am in the morning, she would ring the doorbell and announce: "Bibi,kooda dey dey."
Someone would hurtle towards the door, give her the kooda and once the transaction was over and the dustbin had been retrieved, the door would be shut. Occasionally she might ask for water to drink, or if there was a birthday or a festival, she would be given some sweets for the occasion. "Tu jiye, terey bacchey jiyen" she would mouth, as she trudged her way to the next house. She was a lanky handsome woman, who lived far away from the Safdarjang neighbourhood where she travelled daily to collect garbage. The day after Holi and Diwali she came to collect mithai and baksheesh and sets of old clothes and sheets, which donors assured her had years of wear and tear left in them.
Her husband was ill for many years, after a severe attack of paralysis and her daughter, a pretty feckless girl, married and moved into her husband's, often returning home between bouts of domestic violence and reconciliations. Her good-looking young son was ideal movie material except no talent scouts intervened to make a difference to his life.
Although he did accompany his grandmother while she tried to train him to take over her work, it didn't work out. When she became too old to collect the garbage, she eventually leased it out to two young men who were reconciled to the work and the money it brought in. It was one of them who informed me of her death.
Each month she would come by to collect her wages, which rose from the initial Rs 10 to Rs 60 a month in the last couple of years. Of late, ill health had deterred her from arriving every month to collect the monthly dues, so I had simply lost sight of the fact that two months had gone by. She belonged to the hidden and rarely mentioned part of our lives, albeit providing a vital service. Her death, like her life, was subsumed in anonymity and ignominy.
Perhaps, she too belonged to the darkness that frames the origins of the protagonist of The White Tiger. In her case, the darkness eventually engulfed her. Balram Halwai proves to be more fortunate. Despite grinding poverty in Laxmangarh, a tubercular rickshaw pulling father who dies a pitiable and horrendous death, a marriageable sister who causes him to be pulled out of a promising academic life to repay the dues of debt-ridden natal families, Balram Halwai finds employment in a tea shop, and graduates to a job as a driver through the efforts of his family. This is a popular enough pattern of economic mobility and Balram is soon employed by one of the hated landlords. He learns the ropes, manages to oust control from the other household helps (one of them non-Hindu) and makes himself indispensable to his masters.
From the darkness of the ancestral village, he moves to Gurgaon, a city of wealth and psychedelic lights, with a foreign-returned master and a wife who yearns to return to foreign shores and does so. She demonstrates her distance from traditional mores by attiring herself in short skirts and clothes that invariably jerkstart Balram's libido. Running down an unidentified child while returning drunk after having dined in Delhi's hotspots, and accepting the decision to implicate Balram, a distraught Pinky flees to the safer American shores from whence she came. Her husband Ashok is the weakest link in the otherwise oppressive patriarchal landowning class (allegorised variously as the Buffalo, the Stork, the Wild Boar and the Raven) and demonstrates a lack of masculinity, by being unlike his rapacious ancestors and relatives. Without doubt, such aberrant scions invariably marry unsuitable women from outside the community.
Balram's metamorphoses into valet, cook, errand boy and driver, aids his master in both drinking and womanising. Watching him overpowered by whisky and vagrant women, (remember, he was born to great wealth), Balram confesses reluctantly that this decadent lifestyle drove him to kill his master. So from a scheming survivor, Balram Halwai catapults into a new avatar, that of self-appointed judge and executor. With the jagged edge of an imported whisky bottle, he pulverises the Lamb and decamps to Bangalore, thoughtfully taking with him all the lakhs in the suitcase that was intended to keep the state machine well-oiled in Delhi's squalid political circuit.
He moves to Bangalore, buys himself a chandelier and a 150-square feet office to shut out the darkness. He evades the police, insulating himself with the wealth and his free run endorses old stereotypes of an incompetent and corrupt police force. He buys out the city cops, runs a taxi service, providing pickups and drop backs to the inhabitants of the Electronics city and luxuriates in paying off people and sorting out bad deals, even deaths by paying in cash.
Balram feels little connection with his own history and is quick to repudiate it. He has no links with his family once he reaches the mega city and will do little to further their interests or bail any of them out. His inscrutable benevolence extends only to the silent nephew, Dharam, whom he had initially brutalised when the latter turned up at Gurgaon, looking for possible employment.
In this narrative, one half of the human race, namely women have very little agency. Nameless women form part of cheap racy narratives or occupy discreet brothels. They merely provide sexual or culinary services or function as kinswomen who are either ineffectual, rapacious, or form lines of undulating piety. The rich are vilified, members of other communities are quickly marginalised and Balram Halwai, along with other successful members of his tribe such as Vijay the bus-conductor, is gradually demonised. The novel, despite its forays into irreverent humour and an easy readability, only provides a dismal and bleak perspective.
Several myths, both cultural and social from the past are effectively punctured. Yet this skewered reading of history is not replaced with anything very noteworthy or remarkable. Balram Halwai's life demonstrates that there is only one indispensable ingredient to living and that is ready money. Everything else is really insignificant. Once you have the money, your life need not be a poor imitation of the upper class. You can replicate the same life, which simply put, is that of the wealthy colonised subject, replacing the colonial master and adopting his modus operandi and embarking upon a personal journey of exploitation and profit.
The other mystery that needs to be solved is Balram's finding himself an unlikely confessor in the Chinese premier, in the century of the yellow and the brown man. Two titles that Balram gives himself are a thinking man, and the white tiger.
There is very little evidence of Balram as a thinking man that a reading of the novel uncovers. Even the White Tiger, on which he models himself (apparently revered in local Chinese traditions as the God of the West) is not the rare extraordinary beast it is made out to be in popular folklore. Its pale colour is actually the result of two copies of recessive genes. Arguably, Balram suffers perhaps from the disease that actually afflicts white tigers outside of their natural locale namely, strabismus or cross-eyed vision as a result of incorrectly routed visual pathways in the brain. His mental state which probably extends to his creator is probably better described by the phrase that the book itself fortuitously provides - "half-baked."
As a nation we are often in the news for a whole lot of wrong reasons. Progress has been uneven, unequal and deplorably slow. As a democracy we have really learnt about sharing the national pie with the large majority that has survived outside of the pale of benefits provided to the empowered citizen only in the last 20 years. Yet, we grope towards some hopeful future, which is based on a human belief in empowerment and equality. That is where several real life entrepreneurs have been slowly but silently making a difference. Their work has been at the grassroots level, and they give back to their communities, and their numbers are slowly dotting vast expanses on the Indian map. Unfortunately, this is the territory that lies beyond the blurred ideological focus of The White Tiger.