Burning bright

Burning bright

Jefferson Chase looks at an exercise in the class system

Whisky & Culture | 26 Feb 2010 | Issue 86 | By Jefferson Chase

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Whisky lovers may look down upon those who view the spirit we all love as a lifestyle accessory, but there’s no doubt that status is part of how whisky is perceived and consumed. Nowhere is that more true than in India, which is, perhaps not incidentally, the world’s leading consumer of whisky – or at least the home-distilled equivalents.

So I found it very interesting to get an inside look at how Indian society works through the eyes of the lower-caste, morally ambiguous protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger.

Our hero Balram Halwai leaves the impoverished village of his birth to become a driver for a wealthy, politically connected family. It’s a huge step up the social ladder, and one he takes thanks to some skilled grovelling.

You should have seen me that day – what a performance of wails and kisses and tears! You’d think I would have been born to a caste of performing actors! All the time while clutching the Stork’s feet, I was staring at his huge, dirty, uncut toenails and thinking, What is he doing in Dhanbad? Why isn’t he back home, screwing poor fishermen out of their money and humping their daughters.

The Stork is the brother of Balram’s eventual master, Mr. Ashok. And the servant’s disparaging internal thoughts suggest that he is not one to be completely blinded by wealth.

Early on in the novel, Balram continually stresses his new employer’s kindness. But the jobs he and his fellow drivers have to perform, including massaging the family patriarch’s feet, are hardly savoury.

As I was massaging, the two sons pulled up chairs and sat down with their father to talk. Ram Persad would bring out a bottle full of golden liquid, and put it into three glasses, and drop ice cubes in their glasses, and hand one glass to each of them. The sons would wait for their father to take the first sip and say, “Ah...whiskey. How would we survive this country without it.”

Balram halting tone of voice is not only funny and (arguably) realistic; it also makes a ritual that probably goes on countless times every day in India seem bizarre.

At first, Balram accepts his master and the social order he represents without question. But when Ashok’s wife leaves him and he slides into dissipation, Balram begins to think ever more critically about the world he inhabits.

One moment comes while comparing experiences with a driver in a parking lot, while the upper classes engage in some sexual hijinks.

We talked like this for a while – but then our friendship ended as all servant-servant friendships must: without masters bellowing for us. A gang of rich kids wanted to be shown a smutty American magazine – and Mr. Ashok came walking out of a bar, stinking of liquor.

Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker prize for The White Tiger, and the award was well-deserved. It’s rare to find a novel that articulates so much anger without raising a wagging moral finger, or that combines themes of utter human desperation and frustration with such humour.

In the end, thanks to an act of extreme betrayal and brutality, Balram gets to enjoy the benefits of wealth in Indian society, including better classes of whisky.

The genius of this book is that it’s hard for us, as readers, to begrudge him for it.
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