Balram’s Bildungsroman

The Muslim Persian Poets in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger 

“I have no need for the ear of today —
I am the voice of the poet of tomorrow!”

(Muhammad Iqbal, see source citation at end of post)

“I am tomorrow.”
(Balram Halwai, aka The White Tiger and Ashok Sharma)

 Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (New York: Free Press, 2008) has been discussed as much by our book club members in the weeks following our discussion meeting as perhaps any other work in our catalogue of readings.  With serious intent Peter Farnum and other members have argued important points of meaning and usage in the RMBC’s blog you are reading this in (paradox of modern India, Indian Social Commentary).  Listening to the coffee-shop engagements, I realized how many different thematic purposes readers could come up with.  From whichever perspective one defines it, the theme, despite all the overlying ideas and information about global change, the mixed-up cultures of India, the dilemma of families caught between the past and the on-going present, the corruption of politics, etc., most certainly Balram Halwai is at the center of it:  The White Tiger has to do with human survival and moral behavior in a dog-eat-dog world.  To what ends must one go to escape imprisonment in the human zoo?  Some readers did not like the novel because Balram is “despicable.”  Sure, Balram does not appear to be a very dignified hero at times, but protagonists of great literature are significant because they reveal the many-sidedness of mind, heart, and soul. One has to suspend one’s disbelief to take this roller-coaster ride for what it is. 

For starters, here’s a short list of descriptions Balram delivers about his nature in revealing himself to the Chinese Premier:  He’s totally open about being a murderer, “…not just any murderer, but one who has killed his own employer (who is kind of a second father), and also contributed to the probable death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer.”( Pagination from edition above, p.37)  All he wanted “was to be a man—and for that one murder was enough.”(p.274)  He says he’s not a brave man.(p. 235)  He feels free because he has awakened from the Darkness, neither man or demon, but one who has woken up, while others still sleep.(p.271)  To have executed his heinous deed to free himself, he admits he was a madman. (p.220)  One who has broken out of the Rooster Coop, to see his family destroyed, that is the act of “no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.” (p.150)  He is a White Tiger.  Such brazen honesty is a characteristic of the formerly lean, dark-skinned boy from Laxmangarh; now he is a prosperous entrepreneur, he has grown a belly (p. 196).  “Anyone with a belly could rise up.” (p. 54)        

 For my part, though I agree there is much wit and humor in the writing, Balram is not a silly fellow.  His quest for freedom is deadly serious.  Ha!  As humor goes, there is much that is sickening from the reader’s perspective, especially I mean the injurious type such as making sport of people, exploiting a person’s ignorance, etc.  Balram, throughout his picaresque meanderings, had every reason to be sickened into rage and madness by the way he was treated by his family, his bosses, the authorities acquainted with Ashok, and by his colleague chauffeurs who take him for a country bumpkin.  The element in the story I wish to focus on is the seemingly humorous set of statements about the world’s greatest Persian poets.  This immediately caught my serious attention when I heard the story narrated, i.e. performed, by John Lee on audio discs.  Hearing the passage repeated, I knew something was important in their refrain.  Ron Powers included one of the sentences in his set of quotes from the text, hoping someone might choose it to examine the story when he conducted the discussion:  “I know by heart the works of the four greatest poets of all time—Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, and a fourth fellow whose name I forget. I am a self-taught entrepreneur.(p. 4.)  With some ambitious intentions, taking it a little more seriously than I probably should,  I wish to make an investigation of this motif which shows up on several occasions in Balram’s accounting of his nature and identity.

 The passages about the poets occur as follows:

 1. as noted above (p. 4).

 2. Iqbal, who is one of the four best poets in the world—the others being Rumi, Mirza Ghalib, and a fourth fellow, also a Muslim, whose name I have forgotten—has written a poem where he says about slaves: They remain slaves because they cannot see what is beautiful in this world. (p. 34, verse italicized in text)

 3. You are familiar already with my love of poetry—and especially of the works of the four poets acknowledged to be the greatest of all time.  Now Iqbal, who is one of the four, has written this remarkable poem in which he imagines that he is the Devil… (p. 74-75, where a long excerpt is explained in which God and the Devil engage one another contentiously.)

4. Now, the four greatest of these wise poets were Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, and another fellow whose name I was told but have forgotten. (Who was that fourth poet? It drives me crazy that I can’t recall  his name.  If you know it, send me an e-mail.) (p. 217, italics in text)

 It is early in his dictated confession to Premier Wen Jiabao that Balram first mentions the Persian poets, priding himself on knowing them by heart.  Some have conjectured his inability to name the fourth world’s greatest poet is an indication that he really does not know them, has not read them, nor has he learned them by heart; otherwise, why would he not have remembered such a short list of them?  To some all of this an indication of his putting on airs.  Is Balram merely bragging about his lofty taste in arts, attesting to his other self-taught interests like entrepreneurship?  Of the poets, Muhammad Iqbal is the only one Balram quotes, but there are obviously several passages in which salient verses and a long allusion appear:  a) The one noted above about slavery and beauty (p.34);  b) the couplet, “You were looking for the key for years / But the door was always open.” (p. 216); and 3) Balram’s personalized version: I was looking for the key for years / But the gate was always open. (p.228)   By this evidence, Balram does indeed have some familiarity with Iqbal’s works and can recite verses, as well as paraphrase a passage from a long poem.  Knowing Persian and Urdu poetry was the mark of India’s highly educated elite, especially Muslim.  Why then did Balram choose Muslim poetry?  If he had acquired a serious interest and disciplined himself to memorize the poets, it would seem to have been for the sake of survival, and in what way he needed the knowledge of Persian poetry or used its influence, beauty, wisdom, and power in his life is something to ponder. 

A superficial joke it may be that Adiga makes Balram repeat the poets’ names and the forgotten fourth like a refrain throughout the novel.  But I don’t think so.  Is this just a psychological tic?  In his reference to the four men in history who have led successful revolutions, he can name three—Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Mao Tse-tung–but the fourth he can’t seem to remember.  He says, “It may have been Hitler.” (p. 260) Ha! Is this a joke.    Normally a person will not admit over and over to forgetting an element in a short catalog of names, especially when the expression is about memory, i.e. learning by heart, and, furthermore, reciting the poets would naturally remind one of the name.  Hafiz, for example, a well-known poet of 14th century Shiraz, would be a name familiar to those interested in Oriental poetry.  Had Hafiz been the name Balram forgot, it is very strange he wouldn’t remember him, because Hafiz very often named, or addressed, himself in his verses.  There are, of course, other choices for the fourth famous fellow.  Be that as it may, many of us busy readers and film-goers can recall conversations during which we cannot remember some famous name we have often spoken about and are totally knowledgeable about or familiar with, and yet, the name refuses to come to mind.

As a self-taught entrepreneur, Balram intimates he has become an appreciator of poetry.  It’s unlikely his inadequate education in Laxmangarh gave Balram a love of mystic Muslim poets whose works he learned by heart; although, the habit of memorizing and recitation was a major pedagogical discipline in schools.  He does say he was aware of beauty from childhood and he heard discussions by eunuchs of the Kama Sutra. (Amusing?)  The Indian mind is not perhaps logical or totally rational in the same way as some of us Westerners think the mind—i.e. heart, brain, liver, and the whole schmeer that makes up the mental toolkit–is made to function.  However, the dichotomy of knowing by heart and forgetting in the brain is a fact I can attest to.  One poem I learned hundreds of verses of in a German class in 1960, “Max and Moritz,” which I can rattle off to this day, is such an example.  A decade or so ago someone mentioned who the famous German poet, popular with adolescents, was and from that time I thought I would remember it, but today, alas, I have again forgotten it.  At any rate, the name of the poet, a bit of brain data, isn’t known by heart to me.  He wasn’t a Goethe, a Hölderlin, or Stefan Georg, or any well-known name of Germanic poetic fame.  Still, I do wonder why I didn’t recall the author.  Hmm! Funny.  So it does happen: one can remember much about something “by heart” but forget the title or the author.      

Much speaks against the truthfulness of Balram’s assertion that he knows the great Persian poets’ works.  Balram’s modern Hindu character, with his devotion to entrepreneurial success, did not appear to incline naturally towards serious study of Persian poetry from the Middle Ages (Rumi) to the twentieth century (Iqbal).  After all, knowing the poetry would require serious study of Classical Persian and Urdu; also the foreign poems are fraught with complexity of musical values or quantities, figures of speech, and interpretive meanings.  As I’ve noted earlier, the knowledge of them bears the stamp of high-class Muslim upbringing and education.  With close reasoning, I will attempt to illustrate Balram’s serious purpose for learning by heart the writings of the great Persian poets and the positive results that come from disappearing into powerful poetry.       

First, before I take up the matter of the Persian poets, I wish to consider the setting and audience for Balram’s saga, the revelation of his life’s career.  Truthfulness is always suspect in epic stories, especially in those called autobiographies.

Confession and the lie are one and the same.  In order to be able to confess, one tells lies. –Franz Kafka

Balram Halwai writes his narrative as though confessing the sorry yet successful career of his life to the Premier Wen Jiabao over seven nights of dictation.  As in much autobiography and confessional literature, Balram’s stories, for the sake of interesting the audience, stray from strict recounting the facts of an incident or event into dramatic fictionalizing of events.  Who can remember dialogue accurately?  The young writer, for Balram cannot be much older than his thirties, is likely to have spun the anecdotes with fictional flair.  Is he truly writing in e-mail form or dictating into a recording machine?  Titling himself as “The White Tiger,” Balram’s formal epistolary opening address and salutation and the closing, naming himself Ashok Sharma, imply certain pretensions of correspondence or communication that may, or may not, be responded to.  Already the problem of names and identities is apparent.  However, given the language difficulties, an Indian language and dialect, perhaps Hindi or that of Balram’s adopted Balgalore, and the necessary translation by a Chinese administrative linguist to then refer this long novelistic missive in Mandarin to the offices of the Premier’s flak-catchers, is it likely that this strange informational document would be read by Wen Jiabao and acted upon?  Ha!  What kind of joke is this?

Early in Balram Halwai’s dictation to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is purportedly expected to visit Bangalore to learn from some Indian entrepreneurs how entrepreneurship flourishes in the subcontinent, Balram intends beforehand to convince the Chinese premier that he is the man who can give him the scoop about business matters.  Though, Balram hardly believes it is true as the news reports issue forth that the Chinese Premier will arrive for a lesson from trustworthy entrepreneurs, or that his own prime minister and government officials would allow the truth to be told.  Nevertheless, in his tongue-in-cheek midnight fantasy, surely a witting deception of his own troubled psyche, he assumes the role of soothsayer, confessor and perhaps even prophet.  As he says about most books of business advice, “… they are so yesterday.” Then he adds “I am tomorrow.” (p.4)  Holding his audience in suspense of the one thing that can only be expressed in English about the reliability of Indian officialdom—in fact, about the morality and saintliness of Indians–he finally utters the phrase learned from his ex-employer’s ex-wife Pinky Madam: “What a fucking joke.” (p.5)  Indeed, there is a good joke in Balram’s intention to inform Premier Wen Jiabao about how wicked one must be to succeed in gaining undeserved power and prosperity. 

The very likelihood of this long narration, a conjectural biography at best, of ever reaching Premier Wen Jiabao has to be considered questionable; it is a far-fetched expectation.  Balram’s personal Bildungsroman, the novel of a youth’s education and character development, is an elaborate fictional creation, at base, a therapeutic confession as were Augustine’s, Rousseau’s and Goethe’s (in his epistolary The Sorrows of Young Werther), drawn from autobiographical materials but told as a picaresque novel, and like early English novels, Richardson’s Pamela being a prime example, it tells in pseudo-epistolary form the trials and tribulations of an innocent.  The White Tiger might very well have as an alternate title, Vice Rewarded, an ironic twist on Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.   In this modern hybrid form, the author Adiga has produced a richly embroidered novel, an amalgamation of several novelistic traditions—confessional, epistolary, picaresque.   The intention of the informally educated Balram, who speaks openly of sexual feelings and deep psychological motivations, critical of Indian religion, of social mores, of corrupt politics, is to explore his escape from ignorance and poverty, his transformation from innocence to experience, his conversion to and acquisition of 21st-century values.  A huge sack of truths are unloaded in this intimate saga of survival. 

In its way, it has much in common with Dostoesvsky’s novels of the dreadful strategies of an abject hero’s escape from misery and search for freedom.  As many have noted, it has features in the hero’s quest that compare with Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in hiding in Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s desperate character of Native Son, and the hidden refugee in “The Man Who Lived Underground.”  The inhumanity practiced in the human zoo of The White Tiger shows a craven and inadequate sapience of Homo sapiens, which irrationally keeps subjugated certain classes and ethnic groups to ensure their poverty and servitude.      

Many readers will already have thought of such an expressive phrase as “What a fucking joke” as Balram pretends to wheedle his way into the good graces of the Chinese Premier.  Take, for example, Balram’s display of rather common learning, when he says, curiously, he learned some useful information in a book of Chinese history, Exciting Tales of the Exotic East, “… that you Chinese are great lovers of freedom and individual liberty.” (p.3)  Ha!  Surely Balram’s irony implies he is joking!  The pretext for his confession is highly questionable, hilariously imaginative, but the projection of his life story is one way, I imagine, he can vent his tormented soul of vexations, alone in his midnight office hideout, masked in a new identity as a prosperous business owner, reclining in comfort, his mind awhirl, in ecstasy, as he stares at the chandelier lights spun about the room by the ceiling fan blades.                       

[In a second posting, I take up the uses Balram discovered through learning about Persian poets]

* Quote at beginning of post taken from Annemarie Schimmel, “Iqbal’s Persian Poetry” in Persian Literature, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, Columbia Lectures on Iranian Studies: No. 3, 1988, p. 427.

David Gilmour, September 2012.

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