Balram’s Bildungsroman Part 2

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

[Note: Click here to see Part 1 in this series of posts]

Here’s a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even.  You know more about him than his father and his mother; they knew his fetus, but you know his corpse. Only you can complete the story of his life; only you know why his body has to be pushed into the fire before its time, and why his toes curl up and fight for another hour on earth.(Balram Halwai, the White Tiger, Ashok Sharma, p.38-39)

In this section of my essay I want to argue that Balram did actually become aware of Persian poetry and that his interest in the Muslim Persian poets—Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, et al.—is very serious, though the level of his knowledge is not extensive, given the few years he has been reading and memorizing.  The insights he has acquired by study are purposeful, not only for his edification and the illumination of his mind, but also for very practical reasons in light of his need of a new identity.  Furthermore, what he has learned by reading and educating himself since the break from servitude has considerably enabled him to elucidate his life experience, narrating that story with greater imagination.  The narrative is also enhanced by an eloquent philosophical and poetic style that is vastly more varied than he would have been able to accomplish in his naïve, youthful state of mind when he was shackled to the old cages of the Darkness.  (Consider the passage in the heading)

At the time he was on the precipice prior to his murderous deed, he had been enraged, maddened to the point of holding discourse with gobs of paan spittle (p.210); he held discourse with a cockroach (p.195), he heard four dark fruits in a lady’s shopping back advise him to follow through with his plan to murder Ashok; and a major premonition came to him from a death-cart buffalo which spoke with the voice of his father.  So unhinged had he become, he was even able to conceive of abandoning or killing his young nephew Dharam.  Throughout, we are listening to/reading his record of confession some years after he had successfully vanished through poetry and established himself in Bangalore as a fairly well-off entrepreneur.  Obviously there is still a PTSD syndrome working in his psyche, but he is pulling himself together, i.e. his many selves together. In his favorite poet Iqbal’s terms, his transformation or resurrection to a better soul and person is an ongoing and never-ending transcendence. Following Rumi, Iqbal’s message emphasized progress, constant growth, and revival of the self through love or compassion.  Middle-of-the dark-night taxi-service entrepreneuring isn’t the start-up he wants for the rest of his life.  “I’ll have to sell this start-up to some other moron—entrepreneur, I mean—and head into a new line.”(p.274, italics in text)  He is still living in a darkness, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and waiting for a new leap into a brighter enlightened realm, stroboscopic chandelier lights helping to lose the old self by or to discover the new.  In fact, Balram uses the chandelier lights as a device for remembering:

Now among the many uses of a chandelier, this most unsung and unloved object, is that, when you forget something, all you have to do is stare at the glass pieces shining in the ceiling long enough, and within five minutes you’ll remember exactly what it is you were trying to remember. (p.98)

It’s a shame, you might be thinking, that he doesn’t spend five minutes and remember that fourth famous Persian poet he has forgotten.  Unfortunately, that mystery remains throughout the narration.

Readers have a great need to suspend disbelief if they think Balram’s narrative eloquence has always been his style.  The high style, drawn from Persian poetry or general poetic intuitions, is naturally not found everywhere in the composition, but it is prevalent as a summing up.  For example:  “I can’t live the way the Wild Boar and the Buffalo and the Raven lived, and probably still live, back in Laxmangarh.  I am in the Light now.” (p.269, italics in text)  The poetic vein is especially in evidence in the description of beautiful scenes where colors, natural shapes and flora, and interesting objects are named, but also when mystical or dense psychological insights are detailed.  One could say Adiga is the poet, and of course he is, but it’s his persona’s character we must believe as the story-teller.  In pulling off this conceit with refined, subtle artistry, let alone the hilarity, wit, absurdity and rollicking entertainment that many critics and reviewers have commented on, Aravind Adiga deserved to be chosen among the ranks of great writers by the Man Booker jury.

These days we read so quickly and after a discussion of a work, we book clubbers are on tracks for the next work in line.  How much we can miss!  As I’ve noted, listening to the audio-book version of The White Tiger, I could not have stopped to question much as I continued to enjoy the story.  Only by reading, highlighting and making marginal notes in the paperback book I read at leisure could I have come to these thoughts and wished to express the ideas I present in this essay.   And, I add, to have devoted myself to a brief study of Persian poetry, the thousand-year-long classical tradition of things lost or abandoned through the technological change and mercenary haste of the twentieth century.  Of course, I may be way off the mark by looking at the work as so deeply interpretive.   But I don’t feel I have been wasting my time.  In his artistic way, Adiga is, I believe, hoping to tease some readers into a remembrance of poetic wisdom and perhaps to reignite an interest in revered Persian, especially Indo-Persian, poetry, of which Iqbal was perhaps the last great representative.  For what does the world need Persian poetry, you might ask.  For the same reasons Balram discovered: to find himself, to lose the self, to escape the idols of the marketplace, and generally to re-enchant daily life.

Whatever I say will not change some readers’ attitudes to the story they read and found appalling in the devil-may-care attitude of its murderer protagonist.  Balram is a composite of many people, and Adiga, as he says in his interview in the FreePress 2008 edition, doesn’t necessarily want the reader to identify with Balram. (p.286)  In the same way some of the Indian gods and goddesses—creators, destroyers, and destructive creators and creative destroyers– required fifty arms to cope with their powers, Balram juggles several psychic personalities as he explains himself.  He’s high and he’s low and everywhere in between.  Even sociopaths are struggling to find the better self.  However, it will not be fair, after what I present, to argue that Balram is a charlatan about his knowing Persian poets.  No one can assert that our hero came across a few verses of Iqbal, Rumi, or Mirza Ghalib on some greasy text-book paper that had been used for selling a fast-food aloo samosa or that he is now just boasting of learning and knowing such poetry.  His learning in such high-minded arts has only just begun and through poetic devices he wishes to pour forth some insights he has gathered, like brilliant treasures from a broken, charred clay vessel.

There are, of course, instances where Balram admits to finding information on such a used textbook page in a tea stall—a list of the four revolutionary figures who freed slaves and killed their masters. (p.260) These data are rather faulty and part of Balram’s half-bakedness in accepting facts because he read about them.  Another instance, however, is more telling of his new-found poetic awareness of the dark and the light, a result of his ruminating on his complicity in wicked human behavior.  Towards the end of his long seven-night saga, he imagines, rhetorically, the Premier might think him “a cold-blooded monster.”  Balram’s response comes from a story he might have read on a torn page used to wrap an ear of corn he bought at a stall—the origin he cannot clearly remember.  In it, a cunning Brahmin asks the Buddha, in an attempt to trick the Enlightened One, “Master, do you consider yourself a man or a god?” The Buddha answered, “Neither. I’m just one who has woken up while the rest of you are still sleeping.” (p.270)  To his own question, whether Balram is a man or a demon, the newly enlightened Balram responds: “Neither, I say, I have woken up, and the rest of you are still sleeping, and that is the only difference between us.” (p.271)  This kind of awareness and the magic of the psychological antithesis have been derived from Balram’s interest in mystical poetry as I will illustrate more fully in a moment.  For now, it is enough to say that such a contrast of ideas was a favorite device of the classical poets.

Signs of the simple villager he was as Munnu still show up. Balram in his half-baked state is a man susceptible to sexual folklore of the street; for example, he believes the retention of semen in the lower body leads “to evil movements in the fluids of the upper body.”(p.213)  Therapy for this is found in red-light districts.  He also explained to the Chinese Premier, who surely knew it anyway, [Ha!] that young girls tasted like watermelon and that diseases of mind and body get cured when a man penetrates a virgin. “These are known facts.”(p.165)  Ha!  But besides all this nonsense, he can also make astute comments about the importance of the mind, even when they are combined with modern folklore: for example, he thinks cell-phones destroy the brain, and so he uses expensive land lines: “It hurts my business, but my brain is important, sir; it’s all that a thinking man has in this world.” (p.262)

* * * * *
The Power of Poetry:  Images that Stick

“I had a vision of a pale stiff foot pushing through a fire.”
“No,” I said.  (Balram Halwai, the White Tiger, Ashok Sharma: p. 165)

At a crisis of recognition as slave to family, landlords, master, and sport of the chauffeur Rooster Coop, Balram remembers the fiery fate of his mother, whose “pale stiff foot” was the symbol of resistance: “As the fire ate away the silk, a pale foot jerked out, like a living thing; the toes which were melting in the heat, began to curl up, offering resistance to what was being done to them. Kusum shoved the foot into the fire, but it would not burn.  My heart began to race. My mother wasn’t going to let them destroy her.”(p.14)  At all costs Balram was not going to allow them, the family, to destroy him nor the black mud of the Ganga to swallow him up.  Yes, the desire to be a servant had been bred into him; he reveals:  [It was] “hammered into my skull, nail after nail, and poured into my blood, the way sewage and pollution had poured into Mother Ganga.”(p. 165) At this thought, it is here he utters the resounding “No,” remembering his mother’s foot jerking in the pyre.  A refuge out of the Darkness of the Rooster Coop and an escape into enlightenment beyond undignified servitude were deep desires borne in upon Balram through his experiences away from the village and among the elites.  To read many passages (like those in the headings above) of his life’s reminiscences he is supposedly narrating for Wen Jiabao’s edification, any reader who pays close attention to the language, the phrases, the careful description, replete with analogies and various poetic figures of speech, must question how Balram the tea-shop coal-smasher became Ashok Sharma the literary artist and taxi-service entrepreneur.

Balram did not stay in formal schooling long enough to become the stylist in composition that we encounter in his confessional writing of his life story.  True, he was a bright child, literate from his early years, the smartest child in his school.  In Granny Kusum’s letter to Balram, when he had been away for many months chauffeuring for Ashok in Delhi, the cunning Kali-like matriarch used persuasive rhetoric of familial connection and “food-is-love” sentimentality mostly to seduce her grandson to send money home; she writes:

You are different from the others [other family members].  You are deep, like your mother.  Even as a boy you were so; when you would stop near the pond and stare at the Black Fort with your mouth open, in the morning, and evening, and night. (p.163)

His father, a lowly rickshaw-puller, was for Balram “a man of honor and courage” (p. 19) and he “was a man with a plan.  I was his plan.” (p.23)  Part of the plan was for Balram, as Munnu the child, to complete his education.  The father, along with his mother, instilled the value of education in the boy, but their early deaths allowed the Rooster Coop to exploit Munnu before he realized the full importance of formal education and was forced to find learning and knowledge by his own wits.  A smart cookie, he had all the ingredients for becoming fully baked, but as he describes the vicissitudes of his picaresque life in the Indian Satyricon, he remained “half-baked” to a point.  His psyche is still in the baking pan, as successful, secure, and enlightened as he thinks he is.  Even here, the “baking” metaphor stands for a degree of self-analysis and rise of consciousness beyond his youthful verbal ability.   Consider what he says about his donkey-whipped father, “The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.” (p.22)  How impressive are his poetic turns of language, with a striking paired contrast of rich cushioned softness and skeletal vulnerability, in this careful description of his father’s body:

A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours is different.  My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar, cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. (p.22)

The Animal in Man

A literate young boy, he was able to impress the visiting school inspector with his learning.   It was in the schoolhouse from the inspector he acquired first his identification as “the white tiger,” “the rarest of animals, a creature that comes along once in a generation.” (p.30)  Symbolic or analogical thinking was thus instilled in Balram’s impressionable mind at an early age.  Even so, the language of the village was rife with such imagery in children’s minds to describe the exploitative landlords who kept the peasant castes in bondage; the people had nick-named them as animals: Stork, Ashok’s father; Wild Boar, Ashok’s uncle; Raven and Buffalo were others.  Mukesh, Ashok’s brother, the villagers called the Mongoose.  So already the symbolizing of a human being as an animal was part of Balram’s imaginative life; other analogies, sophisticated figures of speech, would follow in time.  But first he had to find the key to unlock his cage.

In the red-light district of Old Delhi, confronted with beautiful, jeering prostitutes, Balram is unable to raise his erotic ardor.  The stigma of the cage comes to mind as he views the women:  “…sometimes what is most animal in a man may be the best thing in him.  From my waist down, nothing stirred.  They’re like parrots in a cage.  It’ll be one animal fucking another animal.” (p.214, italics in text)   The white tiger in Balram is beginning to awaken to the secret of his self.  No longer is the cry of “Them, them, them!” important to his nature.  He sees the prostitutes’ incarceration for what it is, a cage of another “Darkness.”  He has changed greatly in his preference for women: “(That’s right, Mr. Jiabao: I don’t go to ‘red-light districts’ anymore.  It’s not right to buy and sell women who live in birdcages and get treated like animals.  I only buy girls in five-star hotels.)” (p.261)

Finding the Key

In the present time of Balram’s narration, he constantly emphasizes that he is a transformed character in his awakened state. Where did he first encounter Rumi, Iqbal, and Mirza Ghaleb, let alone that fourth fellow?  His awakening came in a district of Old Delhi, in the book market of Darya Ganj, where he ran crazy through the streets to escape the pimps who chased after him.  In the red light district on G.B. Road, he had tussled with a midget pimp who tried to bully him into choosing a prostitute, one of the “parrots in a cage.” Escaping this sordid affair, beside himself, he made his way to the area of the Delhi Gate where books of the sellers are laid out on the street up to the market by the Red Fort.  It is here that Balram is first introduced to Muslim Persian poetry.

Old Delhi is a place “full of things the modern world forgot about—rickshaws, old stone buildings, the Muslims.”(p. 215)  In the market of Darya Ganj, among the smell of books and paper, Balram suffered a revelation that led him first toward the mystical power of poetry, its ambiguity and secret knowledge: “I went amid the books and sucked in the air; it was like oxygen after the stench of the brothel.”  Working with antithesis, juxtaposition and coincidence of diction, he describes his escape from the putrid, brothel cages, the streets of the red-light district into the vicinity of the Red Fort, where the books gave off a refreshing air, metaphorically termed “oxygen.”  This is very sophisticated poetic language for a poorly educated youth, but it is now stated by the older Balram who has matured, or has seen the light, since his days in the Darkness.   Through his manipulation of symbols, similes and metaphors—and, indeed, they are apt–he is perhaps attempting to impress the Chinese Premier with his acquired wisdom.  The Persian poets of old were accustomed to finding positions of prestige by courting great kings, sultans, sheikhs, and potentates; they dwelt in luxury and found protection by pleasing their masters with ideas expressed in fine language—beautiful, wise, and philosophical.

In the streets of the bookshops, Balram initially pretended to browse, flipping through many books, some written in Urdu– “…the language of the Muslims which is all just scratches and dots, as if some crow had dipped its feet in black ink and pressed them to the page.” As he flipped through an Urdu book, he was stopped short by a bookseller, an old Muslim, “with a pitch-black face that was bedewed with sweat, like a begonia leaf after the rains, and a long white beard.”  Thinking him an ignoramus, the bookseller wonders why he has chosen such a book: “Can you read Urdu?”(p. 216)   Balram shot back,”Can you read Urdu?” The old bookman calling Balram’s bluff, translated the enigmatic couplet of Iqbal: “You were looking for the key for years / But the door was always open!”  Then he told Balram, obviously an innocent to such curious language, “That’s called poetry.  Now get lost.” (p. 216)  From this moment, Balram, realizing his ignorance of something truly intellectual and strangely beautiful in its philosophical, psychological meaning, wanted to hear more.  He was enchanted to learn about this poetry and who wrote the verses.  After some cajoling, the old man read other verses and explained “the true history of poetry, which is a kind of secret, a magic known only to wise men.” (p. 217)

Through this engagement in the heart of the Muslim district of Old Delhi, Balram had been captured and lured out of his mental cage from the Darkness.  The knowledge he had happened upon, though he knew of the caste and class inequalities, was “the ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor,” and so by this wonderful accident his spiritual-intellectual learning turned toward Persian poetry.  In a significant way he took Iqbal’s verses to have meaning for him, for certainly he had been searching for a way out of his cages— the Darkness, the village Rooster Coop, the gang of vulgar adolescent drivers, and his job as flunky driver for a corrupt, influence-peddling, weak-willed “boss,” son of the dictatorial landlord and member of the “mafia” family.  Balram realized from the verse of Iqbal that the door to freedom has been unlocked all the time; he had merely to open it, following through with his rage to execute the deed he had been contemplating, as he sensed the possibility of stealing the red bribe bag of Ashok when it bulged with hundreds of thousands of rupees.  The symbolism of the verses, “looking for keys” must have impressed him; but now no lock or latch needs to be opened.  The door or gate is already open, ready to be tried.

Color and paired contrasts are vividly displayed in his recollection of the bookseller.  The pitch-black Muslim bookseller was a face “bedewed with sweat, like a begonia leaf after the rain, and a long white beard.”  Particularly here in narrating his introduction to Persian poetry, Balram has used poetic imagery in his simile.  Besides the contrast of “pitch-black face” and “long white beard,” he described the sweat bedewed face, not just as dripping with sweat drops, but enhanced the imagery for those who can imagine a dark begonia leaf after raindrops have spotted it.   He is now practicing the art of poetry. Balram’s description of the significance of poetry shows, as he has demonstrated in the diction and composition of his narration, he realizes there are hidden meanings and beautiful ideas to be learned.  For example:

[The rich have won the war with brains, leaving the poor helpless and impotent]  That’s why, one day, some wise men, out of compassion for the poor, left them signs and symbols in poems, which appear to be about roses and pretty girls and things like that, but when understood correctly spill out secrets that allow the poorest man on earth to conclude the ten-thousand-year-old brain-war on terms favorable to himself.  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)

After having recited the incantatory catalogue yet again, with a slight variation, naming them “wise poets,” he still cannot call the fourth name out of memory.  At this point of claiming his advanced learning, he apostrophizes about the matter and even asks Wen Jiabao to engage upon the subject, as if the Premier could suggest the fourth or name any other Persian poet of great fame.  At the same time Balram tests the Premier, Adiga, through his persona, may be asking the reader whether anyone can even name a fourth world famous Persian poet.  At this point, it is less certain that Balram is merely putting on airs by name dropping.

Returning to the scene with the bookseller: Balram persists in pursuing poetic meaning and purpose, endearing himself to the old bookseller by addressing him courteously: “Muslim uncle, I have another question for you?” To this, the old man, perturbed by Balram’s intrusion into his business, snaps: “What do I look like?  Your schoolteacher? Don’t keep asking me questions.” (p. 217)

Vanishing with Poetry

With the bookseller, Balram becomes quizzical and mystical in his language, as though the metaphors of Persian poetry had transported him to another psychic realm: “Tell me, Muslim uncle, can a man make himself vanish with poetry?”  Seeing Balram now as quite balmy, touched, or inclined to voodoo, the bookseller drops back to practical business: “What do you mean—like vanish through black magic? … Yes, that can be done.  There are books for that.  You want to buy one?” (p.217)   “No,” pleads Balram, “not like that.  I meant can he … can he  ….”  It is left to the reader to fill in what Balram means by “vanish with poetry.”

The answer, or answers, to this may be found in the scene when Balram conducts Dharam through the Old Fort which houses the National Zoo of Delhi.  Beforehand we learned how the Black Fort of Laxmangarh was Munnu’s place for escape into beauty; the Red Fort was the vicinity of his discovery of Persian poetry; now another fort has appeared as a place of revelation.  Though for most people, as Balram describes it, the zoo is a place for family outings and for young people to have romantic dates, ogling, laughing, and throwing objects at the caged animals.  For Balram, it is place for enlightenment:

If it is enlightenment you have come to India for, you people, forget the Ganga—forget the ashrams—go straight to the National Zoo in the heart of New Delhi.

Dharam and I saw the golden-beaked storks sitting on the palm trees in the middle of an artificial lake.  They swooped down over the green water of the lake, and showed us traces of pink on their wings.  In the background you could see the broken walls of the Old Fort. (p.236)

Once again, just as his Granny’s letter had reminded him of childhood awe in the face of beauty, where he escaped from the sordidness of Laxmangarh, the Old Fort of New Delhi is having such an effect upon him. Earlier he described the beauty of the Black Fort in terms poetically comparable to those at Old Fort’s zoo experience:

The long loopholes turned into lines of burning pink at sunrise and burning gold at sunset; the blue sky shone through the slits in the stone, while the moon shone on the ragged ramparts, and the monkeys ran wild along the walls, shrieking and attacking each other, as if they were the spirits of the dead warriors reincarnated, refighting their final battles. (p.34)

Having followed in his mother’s steps in appreciation of nature’s beauty, he had discovered awe-inspiring enchantment in the ruins of the Black Fort; now he sees a reflection of that magical beauty and wishes Dharam to glimpse it.   With mentioning of the Old Fort, Iqbal’s verses come to mind: “They remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world.”(p.34)

Balram remembers, “Even as a boy I could see what was beautiful in the world: I was destined not to stay a slave.”(p.35)  After he chose to take Dharam under his wing rather than abandon him, Balram wished to apply Iqbal’s secret wisdom—now also his own—to his innocent ward.

Iqbal, the great poet was so right.  The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave.  … If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India.

I made sure Dharam appreciated the georgeous rise and fall of the fort’s outline—the way its loopholes filled up with blue sky—the way the old stones glittered in the light.  (p. 236-237)

Vanishing White Tigers

Following the line of animal enclosures, Balram and the boy come upon the cage of a tiger, “Not any kind of tiger.  The creature that gets born only once every generation in the jungle.” Namely, the white tiger:

I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars.  Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slow-down reels of an old black-and-white film.  He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then turning around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell.
He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this—this was the only way he could tolerate his cage.
Then the thing behind the bamboo bars stopped moving.  It turned its face to my face.  The tiger’s eyes met my eyes, like my master’s eyes met mine often in the mirror of the car.
All at once, the tiger vanished. (p.237, italics mine)

At this moment of identification, Balram swoons, suffers a rapture, and the world goes dark for him.  In this way, two “white tigers” vanish.  Just as the zoo’s white tiger is able to tolerate the incarceration of his cage through a spell of ecstasy through motion, Balram realizes in the welling up of overwhelming emotions and lightning bolt of consciousness that he too can vanish.  Just as he had once vanished in the beauty of the old Black Fort, he had discovered in the vicinity of the Red Fort of Old Delhi the Persian poetry through which he could now escape, as if under a spell, and through the poems he learned several ways of “vanishing,” transporting himself out of the putrid, mercenary world and periodically into a realm of enlightenment.  In another sense of vanishing, Balram has disappeared from Delhi and in Bangalore he has taken on new identities, through which Balram Halwai is unidentifiable, unless he should go home to Laxmangarh.  For all intents and purposes he has disappeared, gone underground, undercover, lives incognito, in disguise:

Here is a little souvenir of your [the Premier’s] Indian visit to keep with you.  Balram Halwai is a vanished man, a fugitive, someone whose whereabouts are unknown to the police, right?
Ha! (p.85)

Balram has acquired an awareness of various meanings of words through interpretation of Persian poetry; the classical poets prided themselves on the use of coded or double meanings.  Consider Balram’s use of the analogy of the belly:

[Re. his cheating of Ashok]  The strangest thing was that each time I looked at the cash I had made by cheating him, instead of guilt, what did I feel?
The more I stole from him, the more I realized how much he had stolen from me.
To go back to the analogy I used describing Indian politics to you earlier [namely, “That was all that counted now, the size of your belly.” “These days there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small bellies.” (p.54)],  I was growing a belly at last. (p. 196)

Now to interpret this, one might take “belly” as another feature of the skinny Balram’s disguise—he’s prosperous and shows the rich man’s paunch.  This is another mystical aspect of his disappearing as he grows fatter.  But there’s another sense he intends, just as he used the expression of his father weakness or submission as lacking “belly”:

It didn’t matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up.  My father must have been a real Halwai, a sweet-maker, but when he inherited a shop, a member of some other caste must have stolen it from him with the help of the police.  My father had not had the belly to fight back. (p.54)

Balram’s belly, besides the literal meaning “growing fat,” is his new strength by which he has evaded the law, escaped the Rooster Coop, and has risen in status.  Growing a belly is his acquisition of guts, fortitude, or bravado.  Now he can stomach the world and instead of being eaten up, he is the one who eats.  His reference to the “analogy he used” and his word play are characteristics of an appreciator or interpreter of poetry.  By being a reader or reciter of the Persian poets, Balram is hiding his Laxmangarhian fate-appointed identity; he has taken on the personality and character of one of India’s elite.  Thus he has vanished with poetry.

Attention to the wise poets, several of them, although Iqbal is the only poet we have direct evidence of, had taught Balram to develop a greater appreciation of the world, freeing him intellectually and spiritually in ways his mundane freedom from poverty through murder, theft, and entrepreneurship could never have accomplished.  Among other things, it had enhanced his imagination and linguistic ability so that he might describe the white tiger of the Delhi Zoo in a poetic manner, rich in metaphor and simile, as seen above: “Black stripes and sunlit fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it is like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.”

Other Poetic Examples

When I want scent, you are color; when I want
peace, you are war,
When I go straight, you are lame—what kind
of character have you got? (Abu’l-Faraj Runi, Muslim Indian poet (d.1091))
(Excerpt from “Persian Poetry in the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent” by Annemarie Schimmel, in Persian Literature, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, Columbia Lectures on Iranian Studies: no. 3, 1988, p. 406)

The secret wisdom of escape, of vanishing, and of disappearing, which Balram has inculcated in himself through reading and learning the Persian poetry shows up periodically in lines that strike one just as inventive and mystical, even humorously antithetical, as those of the Persian poets’ examples (see, above and following).  For example, paired contrasts, closely juxtaposed or patterned, which was a favorite mannerism of Persian verse, can be noticed in the following example from The White Tiger, playing on the dark and the light, hiding in brilliant light, the blind and the enlightened:

“I don’t understand why other people don’t buy chandeliers all the time, and put them up everywhere. Free people don’t know the value of freedom, that’s the problem.
Sometimes in my apartment, I turn on both chandeliers and then I lie down amid all that light, and I just start laughing.  A man in hiding and yet he’s surrounded by chandeliers!
There, I’m revealing the secret to a successful escape.  The police searched for me in the darkness; but I hid myself in light.”(p.97-98)

Another example of strange or unusual contrast: upon his killing of Ashok, blood spurting into his face, Balram cries out: “I was blind.  I was a free man.” (p.246)  That one has an opposition worth further interpretation. As does the following:

(I confess, Mr. Premier: I am not an original thinker–but I am an original listener) (p.39, italics in text)  Do you know what an “original listener” is?  That’s a contrast worth discussing.

How does Balram grow with every experience?  Because he’s a sponge.  While he was soaking and massaging the Stork’s feet, taking a knock on the head from time to time when the old man became irritated with his servant’s rough manner, Balram explains the knack of entrepreneurs:  “I absorbed everything—that’s the amazing thing about entrepreneurs.  We are like sponges—we absorb and grow.” (p.60)

Mystical lines are thrown in effectively.  When Munnu was beaten by the foreman of the work gangs, he sat stunned:  “The shadow of an eagle passed over my body.  I burst into tears.” At this instant, his brother Kishan came by, proclaiming: “White Tiger! There you are!”(p.46)  Was his exploitative brother Kishan the eagle, a predator, whose shadow passed over his body?  If so, one can see a quite subtle metaphoric effect at work in his imagery.

Another example:  Coal becomes ice. The old driver of Dhanbad, a hookah-smoking man in a brown army uniform who taught Balram how to drive, was a presentiment of the bookseller of Old Delhi.  The gruff man felt it was an impossible transformation for a Halwai to become a driver: “That’s like getting [burning] coals to make ice for you.  Mastering a car…–it’s like taming a wild stallion—only a boy from the warrior castes can manage that.”(p.47)  To this challenge, Balram responded:  “Coal was taught to make ice, starting the next morning at six.”  Further poetic language of transformation is used when Balram was made to repair the engines to learn the how they worked:

“I emerged from under the taxi like a hog from sewage, my face black with grease, my hands shiny with engine oil.  I dipped into a Ganga of black—and came out a driver.”(p.47-48)

Use of animal imagery and states of transformation were phrased artistically in the best of the Moghul Indian era poets.  Consider this passage of the poet ‘Orfi, a competitor for excellence with Akbar’s court poet Fayzi. [Remember the great Akbar of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence?]  He offers a comparable example of such turns of fortune, or rather misfortune, in the tension of hope and despair:

From my friend’s door—how can I tell how I went?
Having come there all longing, I went, all deprivation….

I came in the morning like a nightingale in the meadow of Nowruz [Persian Vernal New                                                                Year]
In the evening I went like one who mourns, from the dust of the martyrs….
(Excerpt from Persian Literature, in Schimmel, as above, p. 414)

This is perhaps sufficient, but I could compare many other examples that show the characteristics of Balram’s new poetic inclination.  Besides his ordinary life of business start-ups, the peasant of Laxmangarh has miraculously been transformed into a poetical raconteur.  Knowing poetry, and especially knowing of Persian poetry, a highly intellectual and esthetic discipline, has the power to mask the peasant of the streets, to help conceal the identity of the “half-baked” Indian.  Concealing his identity and escaping the rat-race of the fucking-joke human zoo, Balram will cloak himself in dignity through some knowledge of the Persian poetic tradition.  In attempting to disappear from the world as Balram, murderer of his master, through the Persian poets he will add an intellectual alibi to his transformed character.  A man who knows the Persian poets and the mystical wisdom could not be the perverted, wicked murderer from the backwoods village of Laxmangarh. No, not at all.

[In Part 3 of this series, I will detail Balram’s new-found inclination towards Muslim personalities and provide some brief illustrations of Rumi’s, Iqbal’s, and Mirza Ghalib’s poetry.]

David Gilmour, (September 2012)

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