“The White Tiger”: A Primer on Indian Social Commentary

Since our book club’s discussion of Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” in early June, references to contemporary India keep popping up in my random readings.

Just today I was thumbing through a stack of unread New Yorker magazines, and I came across Ian Parker’s essay from the October 3, 2011 issue entitled “The I. D. Man: Can a software mogul’s epic project help India’s poor?”

Parker’s “I.D.” man is software billionaire, Nandan Nilekani, the fifty-seven year-old creator of Infosys, a custom software company that produces systems to manage inventories and payrolls for clients such as Amazon, Apple, Ford, and Bank of America. Balram Halwai, the effusively colorful narrator of “The White Tiger” would surely call Nandan Nilekani an “entrepreneur.” The Indian company Nikelani created in 1981 is now worth $30 billion dollars. Nikelani retired from the company in 2009, still owning 1.45% of Infosys, making him currently worth about a half billion dollars.

Both Balram Halwai and Nandan Nilekani make Bangalore, India their homes. Ian Parker describes Bangalore’s winter weather as “Californian,” to help describe its appeal. Nilekani describes Bangalore as “laidback.” All three men recognize the city of Bangalore as India’s technology capital. It’s no wonder why author Adiga Adinga selected Bangalore as a modern representation of India’s technological revolution.

Adiga wanted readers of “The White Tiger” to know as much as they could about India’s complex past and present social history, and so he used seven letters written by Balram Halwai to the fictitious Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, to help explain India’s culture. Most of India’s 1.2 billion people, we’re told, are the working poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence in teeming filthy cities or in landscapes devoid of clean water, sewage systems, and other basic services one might expect to find in a contemporary culture. India’s political system is corrupt; educational systems are corrupt; social service systems—even hospitals—are filled with corruption.

Throughout his essay, Parker supports all of Adiga’s novel’s contentions (without referencing the prize-winning author) with examples such as these:

*Just 33 million Indians out of 1.2 billion pay any income tax.
*Bureaucrats “steal from welfare funds or harass citizens for bribes.”
*Nandan Nilekani’s company, Infosys, was put at risk early in its existence because of Nilekani’s “refusal to bribe the Bangalore telephone department.”
*India is “overdue” for adopting “good governance.”
*Hundreds of millions of Indians are ciphers because there is no national social security system.

Like Balram, Nandan turned to writing to explain his country’s shortcomings, and in 2008 he published “Imagining India,” his personal reflections on, among other things, India’s “education, inequality, urban infrastructure” and his speculations about how his home country, because of its surge of an educated, youthful population could now better face opportunities to improve India’s governance.

One observer praised Nilekani’s writing brilliance this way: “He [Nilekani] has a finer and more intuitive understanding of the dynamics of caste, of religion, of governance, the functioning of political parties, than the most highly skilled sociologists and historians.”

A fundamental point in Nilekani’s book was making a case for creating an Indian identification system, a national biometric database that would include every citizen’s name, fingerprints, photo and iris scan, as well as other personal data. In so doing, India’s disenfranchised could be part of a system that would help ensure a better delivery system for the country’s basic, promised citizen services, which heretofore have been mired in a deliberate, debilitating, and dehumanizing culture of cronyism and corruption.

Nilekani’s book began being seen as a human manifesto. He promoted the book throughout India and travelled to the United States gain a wider audience. He even appeared on “The Daily Show,” with Jon Stewart. When Nilekani returned to India, he was offered an opportunity to join the Manmohan Singh government to create a national agency to carry out his dream of implementing an I.D. program for all Indian citizens.

The Indian government could see the benefits to a national I.D. system: economic growth because of increased taxes, an expansion of a more effective Indian welfare state, and a way to begin to effectively curb rampant corruption.

Nilekani agreed to take the government position for five years. His task is immense. He is not without his share of critics: What does India do about its illegal Pakistani population? Will “Big Brother” government become more intrusive in people’s lives? What do you do with people who don’t want to be identified?

The answer to these questions, and so many others, would only come from an “entrepreneurial approach” to problem solving, as Nilekani’s described it, an approach Balram Halwai would most certainly approve of even if he is one of those Bangalore residents who would prefer to remain anonymous because of his criminal past.

What does Nilekani say to citizens as he travels throughout India, promoting his national identification program?

“If you don’t have any form of identity, if you don’t have any acknowledgment of your fundamental existence, then you’re essentially shut out of the system. You become a nonperson.”

Unlike Balram Halwai, Nilekani has offered a specific plan to help modernize India. By 2014, when he leaves office, we’ll know more about how his experimental program is working. Soon, every Indian citizen may be able to show anyone who doubts his or her true existence an identification card that, as Ian Parker describes it in his New Yorker essay’s final sentence, says, “Look, this is who I am.”

Ron Powers

About powersron

I'm a member of the Tacoma Retired Men's Book Club.
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2 Responses to “The White Tiger”: A Primer on Indian Social Commentary

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    I have had a similar experience of noticing lots of comments about India and entrepreneurship since we read the book. In the New York Times business section they frequently have those short features where they interview businesspeople. One of the questions they often ask is, what books have you been reading lately. On at least a couple of occasions recently I have seen White Tiger mentioned.

  2. gil4or says:

    The White Tiger: Out of his Cage.
    This has been a mighty odd period of literary criticism on Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Once interest is sparked, ours is a world of print and pictures shooting out at us or popping up before us at a plastic button’s click, let alone in the number of headlines in the NYT or The New Yorker that catch one’s tiger by the tail. The tale of coincidence–synchronicity–is one of the wonders I’ve detected in retirement. If I’m on a Mark Twain kick, many Twainiac quotes and essay articles seem to pop up before me. Not inclined to go clacking the plastics with the spontaneity some of you have the occasion to do, the serendipitous appearance of a modest number of articles and mentionings in books and magazines delights me no end. They are all around me if I go looking.

    When I was fascinated by Gerard Manley Hopkins (and his poems) through reading a biography of him, by chance I met a Catholic man in a small town in Idaho who was also interested in Hopkins. After my morning’s reading the biography, in a few moments’ peering out onto the lake bordering our property, I caught the morning’s minion in a local osprey buckling over the waters. Then I caught the phone ringing and heard the voice of the Catholic Hopkinsian ask me to meet him for a coffee. Later that same afternoon, on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, I heard the discussion with a Hopkins’ scholar who had written another biography enhancing the poetry and life of the troubled Jesuit poet. Three times in one day seemed a magical hat-trick of references and mentionings. However, as I’ve said, this happens more and more, as though a period of focussing on a subject, especially literary for me, brings up a number of other facets of details from the immediate world at disposal around me. Had I not focussed with interest on the details of my subject–Hopkins or, say, Twain–and had I not set my mental environment for a treasure hunt concerning it, I suppose I would have deleted, disposed of, or overlooked the article or quote as the leaves of a page flipped before me. As in a fairy tale, the land of Serendip is all about us,

    If today I continue to seek interest in Adiga’s novel, considering its dark theme of tentative freedom in India, and look for articles on the state of India’s decline, I’m sure I’ll be surprised at the number of “hits” that come my way. Same thing if I look for India’s rise to power. If I go looking today for Balram in other books, I’m sure I’ll find him, and in newer books tomorrow. Of course, joining the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club and joining in the discussion on computer, by phone, or over coffee at Bluebeard’s Cafe, I’ll be sharing with a group in funfilled learning and inquiry that comes with common readership. The story goes on or around as if in a collective unconsciousness, and all sorts of fantasms emerge once the box is made ajar. “The gate will open, even if you cannot find the key.”

    While looking for my copy of Indian literature a moment ago, I came across Arthur Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence: An Excursion into Parapsychology, which I recall had investigated the ideas behind Synchronicity and Serendipity. I wish I had time to browse through it now, but time is winging. Paul Kammerer, a precursor of Jung, had written about the miraculous occurrences of meaningful things as The Laws of Seriality; his term for synchronicity was Seriality, described by Koestler as “the universal hanging-together of things, their embeddedness in a universal matrix.” (Roots of Coincidence, Vintage Books ed. 1973, p. 110) Shazam! I know I’ll be having dreams about this sort of thing before long.–David Gilmour

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