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Poverty on the flip side: the brilliance within White Tiger

By far one of my favourite books I have read this year is White Tiger, a novel told from the perspective of an Indian servant. I love stories that make you look at things from a different viewpoint than from the outside in – Requiem for a Dream, for instance, but that movie just makes you feel high in a very paranoid way. On that note, DO NOT WATCH IT WHILST HIGH. Bad idea.

White Tiger drops you into the mind of poverty and stirs your understanding of the ancient caste system until it’s of an entirely different consistency than when you first picked up the novel. If you are sitting on a computer reading this right now (probability: 1), then you simply do not, cannot understand life from the bottom side up, unless of course you worked your way out, in which case, Yay, You! It is one thing for a writer to take on a different persona of someone who would be on the same level in society, but it is another skill entirely – and an incredibly admirable one – to be able to look at the world with a 180 degree angle. It is the kind of writing which is rarely achieved, but Aravind Adiga succeeded in doing just that with his very first novel. After all, it won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for a reason.
God I hate him.

The main character, Balram (otherwise known as the White Tiger) is from a small village in India and has lived under extreme poverty his whole life. Without giving too much away, he ends up being a servant to the wealthiest family in the region, and the story follows his evolving attitude towards his masters, his society and his role within it. It also discusses corruption, identity, loyalty and the competition for world domination amongst two of the most rapidly rising powers today.

The topic was of immediate interest to me, given I had recently travelled to India and, for the first time in my life, encountered real servants on a day to day basis. Forever before I thought “servant” was a make-believe word created by women who needed a proper noun to describe how they felt when they always had to pick up after their men. WHY ON EARTH CAN’T THEY PICK UP AFTER THEMSELVES, I DON’T KNOW. While I knew real servants theoretically existed elsewhere, I was blown away by the reality in which I met them. When I was staying at my aunt’s home, I didn’t have to move an inch. Seriously, if I needed to go the toilet and couldn’t be bothered getting up, they would have brought me a bucket. I always have water by my bed when I go to bed at night, and naturally, I’m used to getting this for myself. It’s not hard. But one little servant took notice, and right after the first night I stayed at my aunt’s there was always a glass of water waiting for me, day and night. They served me dinner, they took my plates away, they drove us around, they cleaned up after us. It was just the way it was. I had always dreamt of a butler – albeit mine was a monkey with a cane – but I never envisioned REAL people could devote their entire lives to such tasks. And when I say devote, I don’t mean they just WORK there. They sleep in the servant quarters, they never have a day off and they wait up obscene hours to ensure their masters are properly cared for when they arrive home after a night out. And the funny thing is? They SMILE when they do it. For the people in India’s lower caste, being a servant is a DESIRABLE profession. Even though they’re making our spare change.

Read White Tiger, and then thank me for recommending such a good book by bringing me a glass of water, and maybe rubbing my feet afterwards.

A couple shots I took driving through the slums in Chennai.

words: Seema Duggal


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