Part 3: The Muslim Persian Poets of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger

[NOTE: This is my third and final post about The White Tiger. To visit my second post click here. For the first post click here.]

“I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.”  (Balram Halwai, aka the White Tiger, Ashok Sharma, p.276)

In this section, I will discuss the Muslim aspect in Balram’s choice of the Persian poets.  The highest regard for Muslims is found in Balram’s admiration for the poets; otherwise Balram is mixed in his regard for the modern Indian Muslims who struggle to survive in the largely inimical Hindu states.  Ashok speaks about Muslims with surprising tolerance and broad-mindedness, attempting at times to correct his family’s ingrained prejudices against them as a despised sectarian class of Indians.  At the conclusion of the second part, in regard to Balram’s alias or disguise, I might have simply added that the Muslim element of the Persian poets compounded Balram’s cover.  The intellectual high-mindedness of knowing Persian poetry of various Muslim writers put Balram’s identity at a distance from his Hindu background.  Balram’s fondness for the great Muslim Persian poets, or his ability, however slight, to recite from memory some verses of their poems, implied that Mr. Ashok Sharma, proprietor of the White Tiger taxi fleet, had Muslim sympathies and perhaps even an inclination towards Islam or had come from a Muslim background.

In the discovery of Iqbal’s Urdu poetry in the Muslim book market, Balram found himself caught in a moment of crisis.  He had run helter-skelter into the Muslim quarter of Old Delhi.  In terms of Balram’s character development, Adiga has used a coincidence for his protagonist’s discovery of the key to secret wisdom.  Balram found the key when he was least intent on looking for it. It was a phenomenon; it happened to him.  Rumi likewise found his moment of discovery from a chance engagement with a stranger, his mentor Shams-i-Tabriz.  Rumi firmly believed in the rise of consciousness as a change that comes about magically without deliberately being sought.  Finding the Islamic philosopher-poet Iqbal through the bookseller’s reading of a couplet in a book randomly picked out, a magical and serendipitous choice of verses, Balram experienced by chance the spark, the lightning bolt, of recognition for himself.  With the sudden opening of his mind, Balram awakened to the resolution of his vision for a change of life.

Mystical as the initial effect might have been, Balram’s strategy for change turned on an essentially egoistic motivation to better his station by going through the forbidden doors of murder and grand theft.  Had he read further, and deeply, in Iqbal’s verse and come to believe the philosophy of the Muslim poet, Balram might have thought twice about his wicked plan.  Also, he would have been persuaded to think about the sorry plight of Islam and its role in Indian history.  There is, I believe, no possibility from his learning, upbringing, and social climate, though, that Balram would see Islamic faith, as Iqbal envisioned it, as a means of resolving the inequalities of India’s classes and the world’s iniquity.  The course of the 20th century and certainly the first years of the twenty-first have shown impossible-to-reconcile divisions in Muslim unity.  Political ideologies rather than spiritual compassion drive so much of present-day Muslim divisiveness.  Undoubtedly, however superficially he delved into the any of the poets’ philosophies or religious mysticism, the veneer of his Muslim literary affections and his choice of Muslim drivers for his fleet show an effect at work in concealing Balram’s poorly-educated Hindu identity.  This was his practical aim.

For a higher purpose, Balram’s emergence into the greater community, a mixture of quarreling faiths and contending classes, will be determined by the deepening of his compassion for human nature and the degree to which he can re-enchant and revivify his morbid soul.  The revival of life’s spark is often lighted in the imagination from strange visitations of things missed and long past, such as the arts.  Choosing the Persian poets for contemplation was a useful path toward a re-enchantment of life, but it is one that will require the diminishing of attention to materialist, capitalist values that are still necessary for surviving successfully in the modern day.  Faith and virtues alone will not help Balram improve his station, nor will they help ghettoized Muslims to improve their lot among the Hindu majority.  In matters of thematic interpretation, the prevalent prejudice against Muslims among Hindus (and vice versa) is I believe an underlying motif Adiga wished to expose and mitigate through his writing.  Therefore, I will take time to emphasize the role of this aspect of Indian life.  Finally I will consider the effects of the Persian poets in helping Balram to deal with life’s fortunes.

******

A) “Have you noticed that all of the four greatest in the world are Muslim?”(p.35)

Whether Avarind Adiga intended his readers to take Balram at his word and realize that the Persian poets had made a profound impression on his protagonist’s sensibilities is something that other critics might want to challenge or enlarge upon.  That his psyche was influenced by poetry was the argument of my previous posting.  Mostly we know Iqbal, the father of Pakistani Muslim nationhood, had impressed him with some thoughtful aphorisms about slavery and beauty, and about testing gates or doors that appear locked shut.  Beyond that, the persuasive power of Rumi’s or Ghalib’s verse is to be guessed by intuition, for no direct allusion to their poems or ideas is expressed in the narration.  Through the willing suspension of disbelief, most readers can enjoy The White Tiger as an entertainment, indeed a rollicking good story, though a serious one for the truths exposed, about a scoundrel’s life.  My criticism, venturing out onto a limb that might break from slimness of evidential strength, intends to take the work as an interpretive novel of subtle artistry, employing poetic elements relevant to Balram’s development, and, as with most great novels, a humanistic theme is developed for readers to learn from.  Balram is a scoundrel, half-baked in his development and rise of consciousness, but he has begun a rite of passage towards a change of social conscience.  Over the seven days and nights of his dictation, we find him at a time of crisis when, without a friend or loved one to divulge his career to in safety, he ventures to explain his life to Premier Wen Jiabao.  As prisoners once wrote upon the walls to mark their being, Balram, imprisoned in his office cell, needs to assert his full being.  Perhaps he does this for want of interiority of his self, an idea the Persian poets would have addressed a need for in their verses; often their poems were self-oriented deliberations or meditations.

In Bangalore, still in limbo, living outside of a society or community whom he cannot fully accept and who could never fully accept him as Balram the Thug, he is nevertheless a partially transformed individual.  In Iqbal’s philosophy, the individual is always unfolding and transforming.  From “The Dividing Line”:

Fools…

take their pride

in their origins, accidents of birth.

The wise

seek their talent, potent worth

and –off to a lightning start, lo, go

—fate fashioners in their own [way].[1]

Having shaken off his old Laxmangarh skin, Balram hibernates nightly in his 150-square-foot office, laughing ecstatically beneath the twirling illuminations of his fan-whipped chandelier, narrating what he has learned about the Darkness he emerged from and the truth of darkness within himself.  Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in his electrically illuminated basement, Balram might say: “The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.  Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the patterns of your certainties I must come out, I must emerge.”[2]  Both Balram and Invisible Man use technologies to effect their enlightenment.  Until they can stand freely in wonder under the celestial cosmos, it is all practice of soul making.  Rumi was the exemplar of the ecstatic experience:

a) A night full of talking that hurts,

my worst held back secrets. Everything

has to do with loving or not loving.

This night will pass.

Then we have work to do.

b) Inside water, a waterwheel turns.

A star circulates with the moon.

We live in the night ocean wondering,

What are these lights?[3]      

After his nights of talking, Balram must emerge from his chandelier-lit glory-hole into the daylight of nature where he has greater work to do.

B. Aren’t we all just people here?

Though he did not make a full transformation from his biases acquired in the Darkness, it is clear Balram had moved closer in his identification with his former boss Ashok through an acceptance of Muslim personalities.  Furthermore, the conscience he adopted was that of the American Pinky Madam in realizing the gravity of his actions.  When the whole Stork family held back from informing Balram he would not go to jail for the accident committed by his master and mistress, Pinky Madam alone spoke for him:

“Has no one told him?  What a fucking joke!  He was the one who was going to jail!” (p.153)

Later, when the Stork resumes the cruel head knocking of Balram for the slightest splash of his foot-bath water, Pinky Madam left the room aghast:

“(Who would have thought, Mr. Jiabao, that of this whole family, the lady with the short skirt would be the one with a conscience?)

The Stork watched her go into her room and said, ‘She’s gone crazy, that woman.  Wanting to find the family of the child and give them compensation—craziness.  As if we were all murderers here.’” (p.153)

Nevertheless, Balram is still half-baked in complete renunciation of his bigotry.   He admits in his confession to the Chinese Premier:

“I’ve come to respect Muslims, sir.  They’re not the brightest lot, except for those four poet fellows, but they make good drivers, and they’re honest people, by and large, although a few seem to get the urge to blow trains up every year.” (p.267)

He has, after all, chosen only Muslim drivers for his taxi service; no Hindus are employed.  Calling himself an original listener (p.39), Balram had heard his master call him ignorant and half-baked when he failed to answer correctly a number of general knowledge questions, one of which was “What’s the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim?” (p.7)  This test turned embarrassing and humiliating for the young chauffeur in front of Ashok’s wife Pinky Madam. (p.7-8)  On another occasion, refusing his servant’s foot massage when Balram insisted he give him one, Ashok kicked the wash bucket and scolded angrily: “How stupid can you people get?” (p.164)  Again, later, after Pinky Madam, very unhappy with Indian life, had left her husband for good, Balram heard another humiliating insult, one that could jeopardize his chauffeur position.  While driving Ashok and his former lover, the exotic Uma, around Delhi, Balram listened to prejudicial remarks about his backwoods character.  Uma rejected Balram as her driver because she wanted nothing of the services of “his kind, the village kind.”  Ashok countered that Balram was family, not one of the rotten kind who sells drugs and prostitutes. “Not this one.  He’s stupid as hell, but he is honest.” (p.179)  How much of this nastiness can one take?  Balram had heard bigoted slurs from all sides, and though he had awakened his mind, he still harbored a degree of bigotry against the Muslims, imitating Ashok’s words: “not the brightest lot” but “they’re honest people, by and large.”  Generalizations such as these are at the root of prejudice.

Ashok, too, was himself still carrying much of the prejudicial baggage of his family upbringing, but, whether from experience or education, he had acquired a more open mind regarding the fallacious side of prejudice against Muslims.  When Balram had been put into service to play bowler at cricket with the Mongoose’s son, Roshan, the boy shouted out, “I’m Azharuddin, captain of India.”  The Stork was upset at Roshan’s choice of hero: “Call yourself Gvaskar.  Azharuddin is a Muslim.” The educated Ashok spoke against the religious prejudice: “Father, what a silly thing to say!  Hindu or Muslim, what difference does it make?” (p.59)  To the Stork this openness was a fad of the younger generation and his son’s modern ideas.

At times enlightened, Ashok frequently dropped back into prejudice against his “stupid driver from the village.”  Even to the point of exploiting Balram as a scapegoat, using him to take the fall for the driving accident committed by Pinky Madam.  He was complicit in planning to ship Balram down the river, falsely accused as the culprit of manslaughter.  This was a degree of wickedness in Ashok beside which the corrupt practices of bribing politicians pales. The lowly servitude of Balram and the shameful slights he had to suffer without recourse were punitive and unjust; but the criminal use of a servant for the master’s benefit was tantamount to enslavement.  And yet, in his benighted state, impotent Balram would likely have suffered this indignity of enslavement, which his greedy Granny Kusum had given assent to and endorsed as a worthy sacrifice for suitable payment.

Fortunately, because no report of a death had been recorded, Balram escaped the imprisonment.  Nevertheless, the very thought of the indignity of having been used enraged Balram to the extreme: “Even to think this again makes me so angry I might just go out and cut the throat of some rich man right now.” (p.145)   Once the innocent Munna, now the daimonic Balram: this combination of innocence and powerlessness begets violence and murder.  Stripped of his worth and being, Balram had been pushed into thuggery by Ashok and the landlords—and not to forget Granny Kusum, avatar of the Hindu goddess Kali.  The now almost-forgotten ritual of the Thug, a professional assassin, had been insidiously inculcated in our scoundrel hero.[4]  When the daimonic spirit of the incarcerated White Tiger has been loosed, no telling what mayhem can result.

C) “I have switched sides; I am now one of those who cannot be caught in India.” (p.275)

 

I have given myself away.”  “Getting caught—it’s always a possibility.” (p.275)

As life’s fortune had changed once for the good, Balram has awareness that possible misfortune lay ahead.  For Balram to have changed sides, to have joined the ranks of the elite, a transformation of some complexity had taken place.  Aravind Adiga, speaking against religious prejudices, has Balram’s character develop with some mitigation of his bigotry regarding the Muslims.  Not only does he acquaint himself with Muslim Iqbal’s Urdu and Persian literature but also, going over to the other side, he seems to redeem himself of his earlier exploitation of the hapless Muslim driver Ram Persad.  Sir Muhammad Iqbal was himself a strange side-switcher.  Though a severe critic of British rule in India, he accepted, in an about turn, the British imperialistic knighthood.  Even so, Iqbal would have been saddened by Balram’s hypocrisy as a pseudo-Muslim capitalist entrepreneur.  Likewise, he would have been deeply aggrieved by Ram Persad, the undercover chauffeur of the Stork, for his pseudo-Hindu hypocrisy.  Both of the servants had adopted a morality of materialist values rather than choosing a more spiritual kind, an honesty which the Persian poets since medieval times had sought to practice and espouse.  But what counted for the pious Iqbal as Muslim morality and purity of faith in the first quarter of the twentieth century had drastically changed in India by the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Survival at all costs was the name of the game.

Iqbal, in his idealistic philosophy, proposed, first, that an individual must come to grips with the self, ridding oneself of fear and despair, and understanding one’s uniqueness and worthwhile strength of soul.  Then one can choose to lose the self by joining the social river of life and participating to form a harmony of souls in the larger community.  For Iqbal this meant devotion to the Prophet’s precepts and Allah the All-Merciful.  Balram, a modern cynic about religion as another brand of enslavement, would never see the light in accordance with Iqbal’s religious dogmatism, no matter how benign it seemed.  One cannot give oneself up—or away—unless the community or society is accepting of the selfless individual.  Friendless and loveless, Balram, as Ashok Sharma, is unable as his true self to join the common society, the miserably corrupt one he understands it to be.  This would entail an emergence into a stage of higher consciousness toward unity with, and harmony within, the commonwealth. As Iqbal expresses it:

The link that binds the Individual

To the Society a Mercy is;

His truest Self in the Community

Alone achieves fulfillment.  Whereof be

So far as in thee lies close rapport

With thy Society, and lustre bring

To the wide intercourse of free-born men.

Keep for thy talisman these words he spoke

That was the best of mortals [i.e. Mohammad]: “Satan holds

His furthest distance where men congregate.”

The Individual a Mirror holds

To the Community, and they to him;

He is a jewel threaded on a cord,

A star that in their constellation shines;

He wins respect as being one of them,

And the Society is organized

As by comprising many such as he.[5]

Balram, in his partially enlightened character, is still finding himself and coming to his senses.  However esoteric he is in his leanings, Indian society is still far away from accepting him as he is.  Could he imagine China as the mass society in which he can blend as his true self and thereby lose himself in it?  Does Balram imagine (fantasize?) Premier Wen Jiabao as his potential patron who might introduce him to the echelon of Chinese society that best suits a self-taught entrepreneur?  By exposing himself through his confessions, Balram is risking a great deal if there are ears to hear his saga; his utterances are tantamount to his own “outing.”  Searching for his outlet, Balram is expressing himself through utterance.  “Utter” and “vent” have very similar meanings.

D) The Outing of Ram Persad

Balram had exploited Ram Persad, number one driver who was a closeted Muslim among the Stork’s family, when he caught him out through Persad’s observance of the food restrictions during Ramadan.  In the servants’ Rooster Coop, Balram had a hatred for his colleague: “Is there any hatred on earth like the hatred of the number two servant for the number one?” (p.66)  The Nepalese boss of the servants, Ram Bahadur, had no knowledge of Ram Persad’s Muslim nature. Had he allowed Persad to work by exacting a bribe from him, this would seriously have endangered Bahadur’s job security in the Stork’s service, revealing his slipshod management of his underling servants.  For subsistence’s sake, Ram Persad could not have enjoyed his chauffer position except through his Hindu disguise.  Both the Nepalese and the disguised Muslim shared prejudices when they spoke disparagingly of Ashok.  They clucked in mock-horror that Ashok had married the Christian woman, Pinky Madam.  But, then, in his daily life, the number one driver camouflaged his religious belief through ritual “Om” prayers before an array of Hindu idols.  Wishing to become Ashok’s driver in Delhi, Balram’s willingness to “out” his rival driver had few restraints.  The pressure was put on Ram Bahadur, who would have been fired or demoted if the Stork’s family knew of the Muslim hire.  In one day Balram had become number one driver; Ram Persad had been unceremoniously dispatched.

The irony in this action is found in Balram’s twinge of conscience, imagining the “miserable life he’s [Persad] had, having to hide his religion, his name, just to get a job as a driver.” (p.93)  Balram had no idea in those dog-eat-dog days that he, too, would eventually be hiding his religion and name for survival and a share of the better life.  His cover could be blown, perhaps by the boy Dharam whom Balram felt he had to please and give in to.  That someday the game would be up was a distinct possibility.

E) “The blood is on my hands, not his.” (p.264)

As a form of atonement for his past exploitation—i.e. for having used Muslim Ram Persad as an instrument for his own mercenary advantage—Balram shows his rise of consciousness not only in the protection of a Muslim driver but in the more or less ethical action of compensating a poor family for their son’s death beneath the wheels of one of his Toyota Qualis taxis.  His driver Mohammad Asif had owned up to the accidental death and felt deeply chagrined.  When Balram urged his driver to call the police, Muhammad said, “But sir—I am at fault.  I hit him, sir.” (p. 263) In quite the opposite of the same kind of situation when Balram had found himself made culprit of an accidental death, the driver Asif was allowed to continue his work driving his customers home, while Balram took responsibility as the proprietor of the taxi service for the dead youth.  To the enraged brother of the dead man—a rage he admired and respected—Balram responded: “Look here, son.  I am the owner of the vehicle.  Your fight is with me, not with this driver.  …The blood is on my hands, not his. …–I offer myself as your ransom.” (p.263-64)

Balram acts magnanimously here.  How different the moral stand is here from that similar crisis of his past in which his master and family had intended to indict their servant for a death he did not commit.  Balram has changed for the better, setting an example of sorts towards a more balanced, just response to the dilemma.  But we must not forget that he was still executing the procedures of a man who knew the corrupt bribing techniques by which he and his driver would go free, with no repercussions from the police or courts.  What is a life worth in India?  How can such a society be improved?  What can stem the cataract of chaos into which society has plunged?

Balram sets another example by his honesty, demonstrating how one can take a higher moral stance, though always with some risk.  He followed up his covering for Mohammad Asif, who looked “devastated,” burning with shame for the accident and the death the next day when he came to Balram’s office.  Balram wasn’t going to fire Asif as Ram Persad had suffered just for being Muslim.  The explanation to Premier Wen is that in Laxmangarh he would have had no choice to act in a way moral or otherwise. (p.266)  In Bangalore, in his new life, he had a choice.  Even against Asif’s protestation that his boss was going to pay recompense for the accidental death–(“Why go, sir?  We don’t have to fear anything from the parents.  Please don’t do this.”(p.267))—Balram offered 25,000 rupees cash, expressed sorrow for the family’s loss and asked forgiveness.  He also showed favor to the family’s other son, who had behaved bravely before the investigating police, demanding justice for his brother’s death.  To the resistant mother, Balram offered to grant the remaining son a driving position.  All of his gestures might have been refused if the mother had had her way, but the father accepted the money.

The problem that now confronted Balram was how he might save face before his Muslim drivers who would think him impiously weak for acting subordinately before the dead man’s mother; perhaps they would attempt to cheat their boss now he’d shown the chinks in his armor.  Trying to correct or balance the mistakes of his past, Balram insisted he had acted in a way different from that expected of him, as the rich landlords of his village had lived.  He had set an example; he had learned much from his past.  But, still, he was not totally free; without bags of money, he could not flourish with his new morality.  One slip of arrogance and the game would be up: “Times up, Munna.” (p.276)

F) Iqbal’s Influence

Muhammud Iqbal (1879-1938), the last great Indo-Persian poet, following the fame and reputation of Mirza Ghalib in the 19th century (1797-1869), had perhaps also attracted Balram’s attention through his attacks on the Hindu capitalist elites of past times. The elites flourished in imitation of the British imperialist invaders who had put Muslims into servile underclass penury.  Iqbal expressed a Jobian anger at his God in his complaining poems about Allah’s betrayal of the people of Muslim India and elsewhere.   He despised the despotism that came with imperialist democracy; he condemned exploitation of the weak and poor:

Colossal oppression

Masquerades in the robes

Of democracy, and with iron

Feet it tramples down the

Weak without remorse.[6]

Another example:

One nation pastures on the other,

One sows the grain which another harvests.

Philosophy teaches that bread is to be pilfered from the hands

of the weak,

And his soul sent from his body.

Extortion of one’s fellowman is the law of the new civilization.

And it conceals itself behind the veil of commerce.[7]

The following is a stanza from the Shikwa, The Complaint:

 

Why amongst Muslims is worldly wealth rarely found?

Great is Your power beyond measure, without bound,

If it were Your will, water would bubble forth from the bosom of arid land,

And the traveller lashed by waves of mirages in the sand.

Our lot is strangers’ taunts, ill repute and penury;

Must disgrace be our lot who gave their lives for You?[8]

For the most part, Balram had come to comprehend those passages of the Urdu and Persian poets that in some way connected with his own circumstances; interpreting difficult poetry depends upon how one applies one’s own experience and understanding.  Whether he had comprehended them as the poet meant them is another matter.  In the use of much Persian poetry, often learned as aphoristic couplets, it was quite usual, as it still is for Western readers of famous English poems, that a few salient verses of the whole poem might be memorized rather than the complete poem.  Particularly this is the nature of the form known as ghazal; several couplets make up the ghazal, but each set or sher may be taken as a separate thought to ponder without thematic connection or unity with the others.  Furthermore, having read several poetic translations of Iqbal’s and Ghalib’s poetry, I have found it surprising how vastly different representations of the same poem can be.  In Urdu or in Persian, the degree of difficulty of very compact verses made precise translation nearly impossible. Verses can be quite abstract, with sometimes intricate play of arcane or archaic diction meant to be interpreted with various meanings.[9]  Regarding such difficulties, consider the following Ghazal of Iqbal, a translation of the verses of the ghazal from which, I believe, Adiga’s lines about beauty and freedom arise:

Slavery—exile from the love of beauty:

Beauty—whatever free men reckon so;

Trust no slave’s eyes, clear sight and liberty

Go hand in hand.  His own resolves bestow

The empire of To-day on him who fishes

To-morrow’s pearl up from Time’s undertow.[10]

Balram’s earliest introduction to Iqbal’s verses renders the idea about slavery and beauty as follows:

“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’ve forgotten—has written a poem where he says this about slaves:

They remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world.

That’s the truest thing anyone ever said.

A great poet, this fellow Iqbal—even if he was a Muslim.”  (p. 34-35)

Comparing Iqbal’s ghazal verses, as translated in lines 1-2, (above p. 9) with the coherent line rendition (in italics) of the couplet Balram had learned from translation, one can see the freedom of interpretation that is needed to express that poetic idea from the original Urdu verses.  It is a cliché of criticism of translated poetry that much of the poetry gets lost—the meter and music, and often content through approximating diction. Urdu Indian or the Classical Persian poets presents a formidable challenge to translators, which difficulty the example above illustrates.

Closing his mention of Iqbal’s verses (quoted above) which impressed him, Balram engages the Premier in a snide aside about Iqbal’s greatness, “even though he was a Muslim.”  Following that remark, Balram further differentiates the character of those Muslims he finds in his present world from that of the wise poets he admires.  And he even wants the Premier to offer his opinion of “these people,” echoing his former master Ashok’s derogatory phrase toward Balram, “You people”:

“(By the way, Mr. Premier: Have you notice that all four of the greatest poets in the world are Muslim?  And yet all the Muslims you meet are illiterate or covered from head to toe in black burkas or looking for buildings to blow up?  It’s a puzzle isn’t it?  If you ever figure these people out, send me an e-mail.)” (p.35)

Purblind still, Balram comes off as quite barmy, fluctuating between the specific and sublime and generalized fallacies.  Here again he shows his slack understanding, his inability to grasp the contrasts that he might understand more reasonably if he read further the life and works of Iqbal, as well as the history of Hindu-Muslim India.  Though some of the esthetic beauty of poetic rhetoric might have enchanted Balram if he truly devoted himself to reading Rumi, Ghalib, and Iqbal, as well as the fourth whether it be Attar, Hafiz, Saadi, or Sanai, it appears the major influence of the poetry for Balram was through a personal identification in relevant ideas that rang true.  Iqbal, though he had moments of lyrical flourishes and strove for beautiful imagery, in the manner of Rumi who was a model for beatific verse, as the latter-day Indian Urdu and Persian poet, he practiced a poetry of philosophical flights of thinking.  Furthermore, he expressed political and philosophical ideas even in the poetic styles, such as ghazals, that were normally reserved for expressions of love and sensuality.

G) The Devils’ Defiance

At this point, and in conclusion of this investigation of the Muslim motif, I would like to consider the longest allusion to Iqbal’s poetry that Balram relates, by which I might explicate the fascination the Indian poet’s work had on him.  The following focuses on Balram’s identification with Iqbal’s Devil:

“Now Iqbal … has written this remarkable poem in which he imagines that he is the Devil, standing up for his rights at a moment when God tries to bully him.  The Devil, according to the Muslims, was once God’s sidekick, until he fought with him and went freelance, and ever since, there has been a war of brains between God and the Devil.  This is what Iqbal writes about.  The exact words of the poem I can’t remember, but it goes something like this.

God says: I am powerful.  I am huge.  Become my servant again.

Devil says: Ha!

When I remember Iqbal’s Devil, as I do often, lying here under my chandelier, I think of a little black figure in a wet khaki uniform who is climbing up the entranceway to a black fort.

There he stands now, one foot on the ramparts of the Black Fort, surrounded by a group of amazed monkeys.

Up in the blue skies, God spreads His palm over the plains below, showing this little man Laxmangarh, and its little tributary of the Ganga, and all that lies beyond: a million such villages, billion such people.  And God asks this little man:

Isn’t it all wonderful? Isn’t it all grand?  Aren’t you grateful to be my servant?  

And I see this small black man in the wet khaki uniform start to shake, as if he had gone mad with anger, before delivering to the Almighty a gesture of thanks for having created the world this particular way, instead of all the other ways it could have been created.

I see the little man in the khaki uniform spitting at God again and again, as I watch the black blades of the midget fan slice the light from the chandelier again and again.” (p.74-75)

This passage contains the sort of surprise that was one of the rhetorical figures found in much Persian poetry: in a place of mysterious beauty as the Black Fort was once upon a time for Balram, anger and confused emotions give rise to a gesture that is the antithesis of “thanks to the Almighty”; instead, the little devil offers a gesture of utter defiance.  Manichean Balram, named after the sidekick of Krishna, will not be fooled into seeing the Darkness called Light.  His meditation and contemplation beneath the whirling lights set the image in his heart.

Here, through Iqbal, another door to self is opened.  In conceiving the imagery in his allusion, Balram has woven a reprise of his visit to the Black Fort that he had experienced a few years ago, prior to leaving Dhanbad.  Up until the time he returned with Ashok to Laxmangarh, Balram had been scared away in his boyhood attempts to gain full appreciation of the Black Fort and its magical environment.  The attraction had been there, but his entrance into the fort had been forbidden.  Before he entered the doorway, he had been chased off in fear at some spectral shape, in reality just a cow.  At an early age his witch-like Granny Kusum had instilled in the boy’s psyche a horror of entering the Black Fort; she told Balram he was a coward and would die of fright for a monstrous lizard guarded the fort. (p.34)  Kusum had planted this apotropaic symbol in her grandson’s heart.  Under this spell, thereafter, he always lost nerve to enter the fort.  But, at last, at age twenty-four, he succeeded in breaking the neurosis and entered the fort’s inner sanctum:

“I swam through the pond, walked up the hill, went in the doorway and entered the Black Fort for the first time.  There wasn’t much around—just some broken walls and bunch of frightened monkeys watching me from a distance. Putting my foot on the wall, I looked down on the village from there.  My little Laxmangarh.  I saw the temple tower, the market, the glistening line of sewage, the landlords’ mansions—and my own house, with that dark little cloud outside—the water buffalo.  It looked like the most beautiful sight on earth.

I leaned out from the edge of the fort in the direction of my village—and then I did something too disgusting to describe to you.

Well, actually, I spat.  Again and again.  And then whistling and humming, I went back down the hill.

Eight months later I slit Mr. Ashok’s throat.”(p.35-36)

Beauty, disgust, murder—sensitive and lyrical appeals to the romantic senses give way to the thuggish, visceral and horrific.  Such antithesis is the surprise in literary art.  What it means to live like a man is a mystery.

H) Breaking Bounds

Mirza Ghalib of Agra, Ghalib (“victorious”) being the nom de plume of Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, like Iqbal, was an Indian Urdu (and Persian) poet who espoused a unity of Islamic virtues,  More intimately personal than Iqbal, Ghalib’s verse lies beyond any concern for nationalism.  A poetic philosophy outside politics charged his verse, though he made striking comments about the radical changes in civilization because of the British imperialistic dominance.  In his day in the early 19th century, when Ghalib lived in Delhi, what had been the Classical tradition in the long line from Rumi through Hafiz was coming to its end, with Ghalib and his era’s poets considered the last of the best.  Classical poets could no longer depend on prosperous stipends of patrons nor on adequate compensation for their published verse.  Ghalib struggled to make ends meet, and, Muslim though he was, he squandered much of money on drinking.  The Moghul court survived and he was employed by the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, but the British invaders had set their stamp on the trends in India, brutally quashing resistance as in the Revolt of 1857 when 27,000 Indians were hanged in Delhi.  The impending chaos must have impressed Ghalib and despair of a better age to come is emphasized in many of his verses:

When I look out, I see no hope for change.

I don’t see how anything in my life can end well.

I do die; the longing for death is so strong it’s killing me.

Such a death comes, but the other death doesn’t come.[11]

The sadness and depression in Ghalib’s verse from a past age would be relevant to the state of affairs in India’s modern culture infected by another wave of Western invasion through electronic engineering.  Balram is doing his best to adopt the new technologies in his life, but, as with Ghalib, a lonely night fire inhabits his heart in his shadow world.  A complete ghazal follows about the fading distant frontiers for the stranger’s refuge:

Ghazal 19

With every step I took, my goal seemed farther away.

I ran my fastest, but the desert ran faster.

That lonely night fire inhabited my heart

And my shadow drifted from me in a thin cloud of smoke.

Because my feet were blistered in the desert

Of my madness, my wake shone like a chain of [ruby] pearls.

Because of you the goblet had a thousand faces;

Because of me it was mirrored in a single eye.

Fire runs from my burning eyes, Asad!

I light up the soil and dead leaves in the garden.[12]

Balram might have enjoyed the following with its reference to a caged bird (two couplets from Ghazal 16):

Now I am behind bars, go ahead, tell me the story—

that nest the lightning shriveled last night—why do you think it was mine?

What I’m living through now could smash my house to pieces:

My friend, with you on earth I don’t need enemies in the clouds.[13]

Whatever poetic thoughts, like those illustrated, Balram might have found relevant to and sympathetic with his own circumstances, could they not have been a salve to his darkened soul?  Just to know another person in the world had suffered as he.  In this final example from Ghalib, one can perhaps sense Balram’s yearning to tell his story, to face himself, see himself for who he is, and to become an intrinsic part of the whole:

He has no image:  outside, everywhere, so distinctly

himself that even a mirror couldn’t reflect him.

Held behind lips, lament burdens the heart; the drop

held to itself fails the river and is sucked into dust.

If you live aloof in the whole world’s story,

the plot of your life drones on, a mere romance.

Either one enters the drift, part and whole as one,

or life’s a mere game:  Be, or be lost.[14]

The verses illustrate the great Ghalib in the India of his day, a pensioned poet but never prosperous nor a favorite of the Emperor’s court.  He persisted in writing about the importance of love, not a specific love, a love for someone, but of the morality of love in the face of chaos.  Did Balram understand such love; did he have love in his being?  He said he loved Ashok, but he murdered him.  Did he love his nephew Dharam?  Conditionally, perhaps.  As he says, Dharam is not going to give him up at present: “Little blackmailing thug. He’s going to keep quiet so long as I keep feeding him.” (p.271)  Yet, at a point when he could have gotten away alone, Balram did not give Dharam up; he did take him with him to share his new life.

I) Divine Insight

In the decision making about Dharam—whether to abandon him or to take him under his wing—there was one crisis Balram solved based on an emotional and, one might say, spiritual impulse.  No other insights seem to arise from the divine moment in the actions of Balram as much as this one.  It happened when he was considering his getaway after murdering Ashok.  He asked himself: “Should I go back to get Dharam?” (p.246)   If Balram went back to the apartments, the police might catch him and the cash in the bag would have been stolen for naught.  However, if Dharam were caught, he would be the sport of those in the poorhouse or prison.  Here is the moment of decision:

“I squatted on the floor of the [railway] station, pressed down by indecision.  There was a squealing noise to my left.  A plastic bucket was tumbling about, as if it were alive: then a grinning black face popped out of the bucket.  A little creature, a baby boy.  A homeless man and woman, covered in filth, sat on either side of the bucket, gazing blankly into the distance.  Between the fatigued parents, this little thing was having the time of his life, playing with the water and splashing it on passersby.  ‘Don’t do it little boy,’ I said.  He splashed more water, squealing with pleasure each time he hit me.  I raised my hand.  He ducked back into his bucket and kept thrashing from the inside.

I reached into my pockets, searched for a rupee coin, checked to make sure it wasn’t a two-rupee coin, and rolled it towards the bucket.

Then I sighed, and got up, and cursed myself, and walked out of the station.

Your lucky day, Dharam.”(p.247)

This is Balram’s recognition that he need not act like Ashok and kick the child splashing his shoes.  He sees himself in the child, innocent and happy in the midst of filth and deprivation.  In the midst of his mercenary aims, Balram is stopped in his tracks and responds to the child with no idea of gain.  It is a moment of virtue.  But he has also taken into himself some of Ashok’s soul.  The beggar child agitates Balram’s soul, pulling the best senses about humanistic survival out of him.  Nevertheless, Balram halves his charitable offering, just as Pinky Madam, the Mongoose and others had all his life.  The point is: if this little chap can squeal with pleasure in his utter indigence, then Balram has half a chance to carry his nephew and help him in their striving for a better life.  Balram risked much to rescue Dharam.  Emotion and heart to join the struggle were driving this moment, not selfish egoism.  Mirza Ghalib would have encouraged this motivation in a God-forsaken entropic world.  Balram’s moment of compassion is a telling anecdote as poetically worthy as any recounted by the renowned Persian poets.

As I have said, it is pure conjecture on my part what it was that enchanted Balram in the Muslim Persian poets, other than in Iqbal, whom he says he has read and knows by heart.  Nevertheless, if poetry can save lives or direct one’s life in a meaningful direction, perhaps it was Ghalib who had good advice for struggling, gravely distressed, desperate souls.  Aijaz Ahmad in his introduction to the Ghazals of Ghalib, from which several of the verse illustrations above are taken, has this to say about the poet’s expectations:

“He [Ghalib] expects that you will read these couplets as impressions of a man who sought wholeness at a time when wholeness was difficult—as it always is, but more so.  Also a man who needed love, knew it, knew its failures, yet sought for it always—in himself, and in his loveless times.  Ghalib was a man who wrote poetry because poetry was necessary, the times were inauspicious and poetry alone had the power to save what could be saved in a portrait of a man that was fast disappearing.  Ghalib’s poetry is a work of restoration on that portrait.” (p. xxv)

J) “There was a deep hole, but no bucket and no rope.” [From “A Story Shams Told” by Rumi][15]

If Balram had read about Rumi’s life, he would have learned about his mentor Shams-i-Tabriz, a wandering stranger who taught Rumi the wisdom of his life.  It was not a formal teacher from whom Rumi learned his philosophy but a ragged beggar he happened upon.  Shams was like a phantom Rumi took for God on earth.  In the strange way Balram was awakened by Iqbal’s poetry read by the old Muslim bookseller in the slum of Old Delhi, so Rumi was awakened, his consciousness opened to seeing life with new eyes.   Balram’s education and mind-opening experiences also came from strangers he happened upon:  the old hookah-smoking man who taught him car engines and driving; especially the black-faced Muslim bookseller with the white wisp of beard near the Red Fort market.

Rumi’s powerful poetry of self-consciousness must have had a significant effect on Balram’s self-awareness:

It’s the same with anything.

You don’t understand until you are

what you’re trying to understand.

Listen to what anyone says

As though it were the last words

Of a father to a son.[16]

Jalal ud-Din Rumi (1207-1273) was an original listener, the first poet in Balram’s list, and the earliest in the Classical poetic tradition named by him.  From Rumi’s works I will apply the same treatment of conjecture to consider what might have been significant for the sake of Balram’s survival and edification.  Rumi was a Persian by birth and later settled as a dweller in the South central Turkish town of Konya (Roman Iconium).  Rum was the Arabic term for Roman Byzantium from which he got his nickname.  He was famous as the Sufi mystical poet of a whirling Dervish school.  His poetry is beatific, full of love and longing, of the wonder of stars and the night, of turning wheels, and of beautiful dreams.  The idea of a union with God was for Rumi what we might call the ecstatic losing of oneself, forgetting the ego and libido, the escape from mundane rationality.  Balram wanted escape from the mundane, from the hum-drum, and for a breakthrough into a new perspective.  Rumi would have fit the bill.  For example:

Friends, last night I carefully watched my love

sleeping by a spring encircled with eglantine.

The houris of paradise stood around him,

their hands cupped together

between a tulip field and jasmine.

From the beginning of this dream, I told myself

go slowly, wait

for the break into consciousness.  Don’t breathe.[17]

Finally, another piece by Rumi on night and sleep, with imagery from a hilltop view upon the lower land and the transformation of animals into men, perhaps reminiscent of Laxmangarh and the spirits of the Black Fort:

Night and Sleep

At the time of night-prayer, as the sun slides down,

The route the senses walk on closes, the route to the invisible opens.

The angel of sleep then gathers and drives along the spirits;

just as the mountain keeper gathers his sheep on a slope.

And what amazing sights he offers to the descending sheep!

Cities with sparkling streets, hyacinth gardens, emerald pastures!

The spirit sees astounding beings, turtles turned to men,

Men turned to angels, when sleep erases the banal.

I think one could say the spirit goes back to its old home; it no longer remembers where it lives, and loses its fatigue.

It carries around in life so many griefs and loads

And trembles under their weight; they’re gone [in sleep]; it is all well.[18]

The problem of losing the self is Balram’s problem, everyone’s problem.  The world of the entrepreneur is a material world of gain.  Being drawn into the selfish desires for gain is the opposite of losing the self, the “I.”  Rumi constantly urges the loss of self, into which vein of philosophical wisdom both Ghalib and Iqbal insinuated themselves, though perhaps less successfully because of the exigencies of civilization’s trends.  Through meditation, through Zen exercises, through yoga, through hypnosis, and many divinational practices, people the world over attempt to escape the certainties of rational, logical awareness.  Through intuitive practices, we begin to learn how music, poetry and painting can improve our awareness and knowledge. Through the arts we can come to grips with an awareness of self.  For Balram, the Persian poets are like diviners, poetic seers, through whom he could intuit ideas clearer than those of his rational mind from the reports of modern media. They are like the Magi of Persian Zoroastrianism who were a priestly class, possessed of powerful visions and insights.[19]  The enchantment of the poets allowed Balram to live outside the closed coops of fruitless existence.  Comfort also comes to Balram in escape from the mundane, as he loses himself in the transcendent vision and sensual dreams of Rumi.  The awareness of grief and sinful baggage allows him to own up to his past.  Who doesn’t wish to sleep and dream in the darkness? The twirling chandelier lights and Balram’s laughter are the echoes of cycling nighttime stars and the ecstatic escape one might also experience through Rumi’s magical verse.

K) The forgotten fourth: Hafiz, Saadi, Sanai—who can it be?

Finally, I think it’s only fair—who, though, really gives a fig for fairness?—that I conjecture who the fourth forgotten Muslim Persian poet was.  Crazy, you say!  Balram doesn’t show he remembers even Iqbal’s words—in translation, that is—he just gives a rough estimate, which is after all what any translation could be of a Persian poet’s original words.   My guess is—and here you might well say, “What a fucking joke!—he has forgotten Hafez or Hafiz (1320-1389), whose very name means “The Rememberer,” “he who has memorized the Qur’an.” (Could this be Adiga’s personal secret joke?)  Like Balram, Hafiz was, in the words of translator Coleman Barks, “a shape-shifter,” one in whom “the conventional divisions of awareness do not apply.” “Hafiz says, ‘How can you walk the true path unless you step out of your own nature?’  This is the paradox he embodied.”[20]   Furthermore, the strait-laced Iqbal, though he once had favored Hafiz’s verse, eventually found him a poor model—drunken, hedonistic, unpredictable–of the morality for turning Muslims toward the true path of Allah.  Since Balram, the White Tiger, never seemed to have a true friend, consider the following short poems of Hafiz:

Each “friend” turned out to be an enemy,

Corruption rotted all their “purity”;

They say the night is pregnant with new times,

But since there are no men here, how can that be?

Desire’s destroyed my life; what gifts have I

Been given by the blindly turning sky?

And, such is my luck, everyone I said

“Dear Friend” to loathed me by and by.[21]

Hafiz, with his merciless squibs and acute criticism of human failings, might have warned Balram about the reality of life just beyond the cockpit of the Rooster Coop. Perhaps Balram didn’t want to remember the Rememberer and his cutting diatribes against human dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Most of you who know some Persian poets might think my choice of Hafiz of Shiraz is really too easy, too important, not to remember.  Taunting perhaps, Adiga is having fun with his character and with his audience. However, the puzzle of the fourth poet may be solved yet.  Balram may have at some point in his youth favored Saadi, or Sa ‘di, the short name he goes by, but whose full name is extremely long and quite forgettable; namely Abū-Muḥammad Muṣliḥ al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī.  Would that have been the name to boggle Balram’s memory?  Consider the following short poem and replace Ashok and Pinky Madam for the names Azra and Laila. Finally, Balram might write in tears before his life is done:

This I write, mix ink with tears,

and have written of grief before, but never so grievously,

to tell Azra Vaquim’s pain,

to tell Laila Majnun’s plight,

to tell you my own

unfinished story.

Take it.  Seek no excuse.

How sweetly you will sing what I so sadly write.[22]

In case you think me totally balrammy from this investigation, this will do for now. However, as Adiga set me on the trail to things forgotten, arts that can enchant a magic-starved existence, I must read more poetry from the Persian poets to find other voices of enlightenment and self-discovery that may pertain to Balram’s plight.  The poets must be legion and it will take a lifetime to cover them.  Many aesthetes believe poetry can save lives.  If Balram remains unrepentant for his crimes, his act of soul restoration may benefit from taking poetry to heart.  Some readers who found The White Tiger too cynical and morbid for appreciation as high art and saw Balram as a despicable hero may still prefer that he punish himself by being hooked on poetry of pain and remorse.  I think sympathy for him is better, more humane, and the hope that he will find a morality that will help his ward and the next generation to flourish without having to peck, claw, or murder their way out of the Rooster Coop.

David Gilmour, October 2012.


[1] Iqbal and his Poems (A Reappraisal) by K. N. Sud with aforeward by Omar Abou Riche, Poet Laureate of India (Delhi: Sterling Publishers, Ltd, 1969), p. 134.

[2] Invisible Man (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 567. 

[3] From “Four Poems on the Night” translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, in World Poetry: an Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, edited by Katherine Washburn, John Major, and Clifton Fadiman (gen. ed.) (New York:  QPBC, 1998), p. 478.

[4] In Indo-European linguistic etymology, a thug is “one who goes undercover”: *steg is the Proto-Indo-European root word, from which Sanskrit sthagati, “he covers,” shows an early formation of the term “thug.”  (See in Appendix of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, in which Pokorny’s Proto-Indo-European roots have become a prized section for amateur and professional etymologists, p. 1543.)

[5] From “Prelude” of The Mysteries of Selflessness: a Philosophical Poem, by the late Sir Muhammad Iqbal, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Arthur J. Arberry (London: John Murray Publ., (1st ed.) 1953) p.5, vv. 1-17.

[6] Translated by Freeland Abbott, in the Foreward by Rafiq Zakariah of Muhammad Iqbal: Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa: Complaint and Answer: Iqbal’s Dialog with Allah, translated from the Urdu, with an introduction, by Khwant Singh (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 12.

[7] Ibid., translated by Allah Allah, p. 12.

[8] Ibid., translated by K. Singh, p. 44

[9] A very thoughtful introduction to the style and content of the ghazal in Mirza Ghalib’s poetry can be found in Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu by Aijaz Ahmad (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1971), p. vii-xxviii.  He employs several translations from Western poets (Adrienne Rich, M.S. Merwin, William Stafford, et al.) who based their verses on a quite strict literal translation from the Urdu by Aijaz Ahmad.  I have used some of these passages of couplets as examples of Ghalib’s verse and thought.

[10]Poems from Iqbal, translated by V. G. Kiernan (London: John Murray, 1955), p. 30.

[11] The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib: Selected Poems of Ghalib, Translated from the Urdu by Robert Bly and Sunlil Dutta (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1999), from “My Spiritual State,” p. 13.

[12] Translated by Mark Strand, in Aijaz Ahmad’s Ghazals of Ghalib, p. 93.

[13] Translated by Adrienne Rich, Ghazals of Ghalib, p. 83.

[14]Translated by William Stafford, Ghazals of Ghalib, from Ghazal 9, p. 47.

[15] The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia, translations from the poems of Sanai, Attar, Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz by Coleman Barks ( New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1993), p. 87.

[16] From “Dying,” by Rumi in The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia, vv. 13-15, p. 89.

[17] From “Caring for My Lover,” tr. by Willis Barnstone and Reza Baraheni. This and the following verses are quoted from World Poetry: an Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, edited by Katherine Washburn, John Major, and Clifton Fadiman (gen. ed.)(New York:  QPBC, 1998) p. 478.

[18] From “Night and Sleep,” tr. Robert Bly in World Poetry, p. 479.

[19] Magus is old Persian from Proto-Indo-European *magh- meaning “having ability or power.”  Iqbal used the term Magian to refer to Persian religious priests and poets.  The magician or mage is one who has special powers.  (See American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.), p. 1527)

[20] Quotes from The Hand of Poetry, p. 145-147

[21] Translated by Dick Davis, World Poetry, p. 482.

[22] Translated by Basil Bunting, World Poetry, p. 480.

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4 Responses to Part 3: The Muslim Persian Poets of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    David,
    What a wonderful treatise! Made me think much more deeply about The White Tiger than I had previously.
    Ron

  2. gil4or says:

    Thank you for the compliment, Maybelle. It’s good to know readers of White Tiger are interested in Muslim Persian poetry. Have you read Between the Assassinations? There are some fascinating connections with Tiger‘s motifs in various sections of Adiga’s second book–childhood influences, poetry, odd strangers, meditative life vs. activistic, Muslims and Hindus.–David

  3. AR Mufti says:

    An excellent reading, thank you.

    • gil4or says:

      Dear, Mr. Mufti: I’m so happy some learned souls have found interest in my interpretation of Adiga’s novel and Balram’s unusual reiteration of the Persian poets. I still read Persian poets and often wonder which one might have been the fourth whom Balram could not recall. Amazing how a modern novel can invite a reader to return to older traditions! –David

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