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The White Tiger: how India’s poor pay for market’s failings

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Booker prize winning novel The White Tiger sheds light on modern India, writes Esme Choonara
Issue 2124

“Growth will be our mount, equity will be our companion, and social justice will be our destination.”

So declared India’s finance minister P Chidambaram in 2006.

This dramatically reaffirmed what has now been the orthodoxy for many years – that capitalist growth will lift people out of poverty.

India has been held up as a model by politicians and economists worldwide – praised for rapid industrial expansion and a fast growing middle class.

Yet behind the government-endorsed special economic zones and the shiny shopping malls springing up in India’s major cities is the stark reality of endemic poverty.

As the current economic crisis exposes the failures of the market and threatens the welfare of millions of the world’s poor, this is a timely moment for Mumbai-based writer Aravind Adiga’s tale of modern India, The White Tiger, to win the 2008 Booker Prize.

The novel traces the story of Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw driver from an impoverished village in rural India – or “the Darkness” as it is called in the book.

Balram becomes a driver for a wealthy family and moves into the cockroach-ridden servants’ quarter in the basement of their luxury apartment in Delhi.

Through his eyes we see the indignity, humiliation and injustice servants are made to suffer – even at the hands of the more enlightened bosses.

An act of violence, or “entrepreneurship” as he sees it, eventually gives Balram the chance to join the new modern India.

More than just a personal story, The White Tiger is a damning indictment of the failures of the market in India.

The path taken by Balram from village to city mirrors the struggles and frustration of thousands across India who are thrown into the growing cities to look for work and a chance of a better life.

As India’s economy has boomed over recent years, so has inequality.

India now boasts the fourth highest number of dollar billionaires in the world, yet it ranks 126 out of 177 countries in the UN’s 2006 report into human development.

The report showed that more than two thirds of people in India still have no access to sanitation. More than 1,000 people die every day from diarrhoea.

There are many scenes in The White Tiger that drive this reality home.

Early on in the novel Balram watches his father die of TB on the floor of a village hospital.

India has more TB cases than any other country. Around 364,000 people, predominantly poor, die from the disease every year.

The novel shows the kind of gated communities and US-style malls that have sprung up to service India’s new rich. Balram’s employers live in a luxury apartment block, complete with silly English names and servants’ quarters.

Such luxury flats now exist in all the major Indian cities.

In proof that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, there is a new development in Bangalore – the centre of India’s technology boom – bizarrely called Windmills Of Your Mind apartments, boasting private swimming pools, garden bathrooms and a servants’ room and toilet.

But as The White Tiger makes clear, none of these rich enclaves can exist without the labour – construction and maintenance – of workers.

The dramatic transformation of India in recent years means that millions now live crammed on pavements, slums or in dilapidated housing with views of the riches that they have no access to.

It is unsurprising then that the Asian Development Bank warned last year that the growing gap between rich and poor could lead to protests and political instability.

In the opening chapter, Balram points to the absurd market values that have become the orthodoxy in much of India.

He says, “Our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.”

The White Tiger is of course a novel, not a social documentary or a political manifesto.

But with the chaos of the financial crisis only just beginning to impact on India, Aravind Adiga is right to describe his novel as “a portrait of a society that is on the brink of unrest”.

The White Tiger is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £12.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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