“Subaltern Predicament in the recent Indian English Fiction: A Study of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Vikram Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb


 “Subaltern Predicament in the recent Indian English Fiction: A Study of  Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger and Vikram Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire” : Prof.  AJ Sebastian sdb


        Subaltern concerns have been  quite  aptly  portrayed  in some of the recent Indian English fiction  with reference to  those groups that have been   subordinated in manifold ways.  This study  focuses on the subaltern predicament in Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger and Vikram Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire in the backdrop of  the  subaltern theory that purports that  norms are established by those in power and imposed on the “Other” who has had no voice because of race, class, or gender.  

          Aravind Adiga’s  The White Tiger is a powerful social commentary on injustice and   class struggle in India.  portrays the anti-hero Balram Halwai, who represents the subaltern section  of society, juxtaposed against the rich. Adiga employs the  metaphor of the Rooster Coop to  examine the never-ending oppressive system  under which the subaltern groups suffer.  

          Slumdog millionaire based on Vikas Swarup’s  novel Q & A  and directed by  Danny  Boyle which  bagged eight Oscars in 2009, presents slum-subaltern in the midst of  murder, thieving, extortion, communal conflict, prostitution, beggary and  mafia rivalry.  Swarup’s   portrayal of his protagonist Jamal  from a slum background,  defines forcefully the concept of  slum-subaltern. It is a case in point to prove that  slums are no more a threat to growing global poverty, but an asset to economic growth if  given strategic direction. 

          Both Adiga and Swarup have been very vibrant in their social criticism.    Social inequality and  injustice keep  accelerating  the poor-rich divide in society,  leading to escalation of  violence, crime and  evils  of all magnitudes.  Both the fictionists  raise  critical questions for introspection and action  on the part of administrators and law makers to help liberate subaltern people from social and economic disparity. 

  1. The term ‘subaltern’

         Antonio Gramsci   (1891-1937),  the Italian Marxist  and theoretician  is believed to have introduced    the term ‘Subaltern’ meaning inferior status, quality, or importance.    During his imprisonment, Gramsci    kept  prison Notes  where he wrote   about  subaltern social groups. He propounded the idea that  these social groups   are not  united and which cannot unite until they become  a ‘state.’

         In the  South Asian context  the term ‘subaltern’ may  be applied to  those groups that have been   subordinated in terms of  class, caste, age, gender, office  and the like. Subaltern  groups may be understood better in  their binary relationship  to the dominant group (Macey 367).  Gramsci considered the subaltern as a historically determined category that exists within particular historical, economic, political, social, and cultural contexts. He tried to know the process, development, and lineage of the subaltern: how their social conditions were developed; how some groups survived at the margins of society, and how others succeeded in their ascent from a subordinate social position to a dominant one  (Green).

         According to Subaltern theory,   norms are established by those in power and imposed on the “Other” who has had no voice because of race, class, or gender.  Critics like  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Ranajit Guha,  focus on signifiers’ while interpreting the term ‘subaltern.’ They argue that  the colonialist discourse has socially constructed the signifiers from the colonial language, giving no real voice to the oppressed and colonized. As  Spivak observes :

The relationship between global capitalism (exploitation in economics) and nation-state allegiances (domination in geopolitics) is so macrological that it cannot account for the micrological texture of power. To move toward such an accounting one must move toward theories of ideology – of subject formations that micrologically and often erratically operate the interests that congeal the macrologies…My view is that radical practice should attend to this double session of representation rather than reintroduce the individual subject through totalizing concepts of power and desire  (Spivak 279). A slightly different opinion is  postulated  by Homi Bhabha  on  the signifier effects of the dominant discourse. He focuses on the fact that ideas are expressed in the dominant discourse, in which the oppressed and colonized are not well versed  and not skilled at expressing their validity claims. Hence,  the claims of the oppressed are often expressed in poor imitation of the master discourse. And they are not given good faith hearing by those skilled in the use of the dominant discourse   (Curran). The question that puzzles one is – why do the subaltern groups continue to remain perpetually thwarted?   The elite groups have ‘remained dominant devoid of  the will  and ability to transform society, while the counterthrust from subaltern groups was perpetually thwarted or subalted by elite domination’ (Sen 207-8). Dipesh Chakrabarty has tried to clarify some of the charges levelled against   Subaltern Studies being reduced to class relations of binary division of society into ‘elite’ and ‘subaltern,’: …the word ‘subaltern’ in Subaltern Studies …refers to the specific nature of class relationships in India, where relationships, at almost all levels, are subsumed in the relations of domination and subordination between members of the elite and subaltern classes… the language of class in India overlaps with the language of citizen-politics only in the minority of instances. For the greater part of  our daily experience, class relations express themselves in that other language of politics, which is the politics of a nation without ‘citizens.’ It is in this realm that notions of hierarchy, domination and subordination work themselves out, as do the traditions of resistance to domination and deference towards the dominant. ‘Subalternity’- the composite culture of resistance to and acceptance of domination and hierarchy- is characteristic of  class relations in our society, where the veneer of bourgeous equality barely masks the violent, feudal nature of much of our systems of power and authority (Chakrabarty 375-6).

           However, Spivak  has been   critical of  the efforts of the subaltern studies group  that has interpreted Gramsci’s term ‘subaltern’ (the economically dispossessed)   to   re-establish a ‘voice’ or collective locus of agency in postcolonial India. Although Spivak acknowledges the ‘epistemic violence’ done upon Indian subalterns, in her view any  outside attempt  to amend their condition by granting them collective speech will certainly  lead to  problems such as: i) a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people, and ii) a dependence upon western intellectuals to ‘speak for’ the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. She further argues that  by speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity, subalterns will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. The academic assumption of a subaltern collectivity is similar to an ethnocentric extension of Western logos- a totalizing, essentialist mythology as Derrida might describe it-that doesn’t account for the heterogeneity of the colonized body politic (Graves).

  1. Subaltern concerns in Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger

  Aravid Adiga bagged the Man Booker Prize 2008  for his debut novel  The White Tiger, set in  the backdrop of  the economic boom  in India that has ushered in a great chasm between the haves and have-nots.   As Adiga himself has said: “Well, this is the reality for a lot of Indian people and it’s important that it gets written about, rather than just hearing about the 5% of people in my country who are doing well. …At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society” (Jeffries).  

The novel is  a  social commentary and a   study of  injustice and power in  the  form of  a class struggle in India that depicts the anti-hero Balram representing the    downtrodden sections of the Indian society juxtaposed against the rich.   “The White Tiger protagonist  exposes  the rot  in the three pillars of modern India –  democracy, enterprise and justice – reducing them to  the tired clichés of a faltering nation.… that the West is holding The White Tiger as a mirror to us. It is telling us  that India is not shining and, despite its claims of  a booming economy, it is still “the near-heart of darkness”, which it has  been since time immemorial”  (Saxena 9).

  The story unfolds the way Balram breaks out to his new found freedom from a caged life of misery through crime and cunning.   This  is a reflection of contemporary India, calling attention to social justice in the wake of  economic prosperity. It is a novel about the emerging new India which is pivoted on the   great divide between the haves and have-nots with moral  implications.

Deirdre Donahue  labels The White Tiger an angry novel about injustice and power  “But Tiger isn’t about race or caste in India. It’s about the vast economic inequality between  the poor and the wealthy elite. The narrator is an Indian entrepreneur detailing his rise to power. His India is a merciless, corrupt Darwinian jungle where only the ruthless survive”(Donahue). 

 Adiga’s first hand meeting the poor of India inspired him to  create his protagonist:  “Many of the Indians I met while I traveled through India blended into Balram; but the character is ultimately of my own invention. I wanted to depict someone from India’s underclass—which is perhaps 400 million strong—and which has largely missed out on the economic boom, and which remains invisible in most films and books coming out of India…  (DiMartino).   

         The novel is centred on the crime Balram commits and   how he became an entrepreneur coming into the ‘Light’ of prosperity.    Born in  a   tiny hell-hole called Laxmangarh in  northern India,   his  impoverished parents merely called   him ‘munna’ — ‘boy’ and they raised him in the world of darkness  of their extreme poverty.  While at school, Balram was spotted by the inspector of schools who offered to get a scholarship for  his education  (TWT 35).

           Balram considers himself  “half-baked”  as he was deprived of schooling like most children of his age group in India. His parents preferred him to work in a teashop,  however one of the  feudal lords took him to Delhi, where he began to experience the world of light. He learned driving and was employed as a chauffeur by Mr. Ashok at Dhanbad. 

          Coming to   Delhi   Balram experiences the   two kinds of India   with those who are eaten, and those who eat, prey and predators. Balram decides  to be an eater, someone with a big belly, and the novel tracks the way in which this ambition plays out (Walters).

 Speaking  on the servant-master relationship, Adiga says:

 The servant-master system implies two things: One is that the servants are far poorer than the rich—a servant has no possibility of ever catching up to the master. And secondly, he has access to the master—the master’s money, the master’s physical person. Yet crime rates in India are very low….  You need two things [for crime to occur]—a divide and a conscious ideology of resentment. We don’t have resentment in India. The poor just assume that the rich are a fact of life…. But I think we’re seeing what I believe is a class-based resentment for the first time.  (Sawhney).

            The key metaphor in the novel is of the Rooster Coop. Balram is caged like  the chickens in the rooster coop. He, being a white tiger, has to break  out of the cage to freedom.

 Go to Old Delhi …and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country   (TWT 173-4).

           Balram  decides to   become a big-bellied man, by resorting to corrupt ways he has learnt through bribery, crime, disregarding all civilized ways of life.  His violent bid for freedom is shocking. Is he made just another thug in India’s urban jungle or a revolutionary and idealist ? (Turpin).  Adiga  “strikes a fine balance between the sociology of the wretched place he has chosen as home and the twisted humanism of the outcast”   (Prasannarajan).  Balram  breaks away slowly from his family which is   contrary to the  Indian tradition where loyalty to ones family upholds  moral principles. Through his  criminal drive Balram becomes a businessman and   runs a car service for the call centres in Bangalore.

  He is presented as  a modern Indian hero, in the midst of the economic prosperity of India in the recent past. His climbing the ladder of success is by  murdering Mr. Ashok, his employer, and stealing his bag full of money – Rs.700,000/-,  based on a philosophy of revenge,   ambition and corruption.

           The money is sufficient for him to begin a new life with  a house of his own, a motorbike and a small shop.  He hatched the murder plan in quick succession: “The dream of the rich, and the dreams of the poor – they never overlap, do they? See,   the  poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich  dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor” (TWT 225).

       Injustice and inequality has always been around us and we get used to it.  How long can it go on? Social discontent and violence  has been on the rise. What  Adiga highlights is the  ever widening gap between the rich and the poor  and the economic system that   lets  a small minority  to prosper at the expense of the majority. “At a time when India is going  through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society… the great divide.” (Raaj 9).

        Adiga probes further into the  mind of Balram like an expert psychologist and finds him in perfect  mental state,  determined to  execute his plans with precision. He was not  fully satisfied with the crime. He feared his recovery and  the consequences would be fatal – police case and the terrible destruction of his family. So turning  the body around and stamping his knees on its chest, he pierced the neck “and  his lifeblood spurted into my eyes. I was blind. I was a free man” (TWT  286).

          He is free at last out of the Rooster Coop.  But  the run for his new-found  life  begins for Balram. He is on the run to  make his dream come true. A peep into  the level of  poverty into which  millions of  his fellow Indians are plunged is  imperative for a proper assessment of the criminal and  the gravity of his crime.

   When he plans meticulously how to  snatch  Ashok’s huge  money bag, he  gets out of his Rooster Coop  and takes a plunge into the entrepreneur’s world. He never gives up the fight for survival like the freak white tiger.  While visiting the  National zoo in Delhi he tells Dharam:  “Let animals live like animals;  let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence” (TWT 276).  When he chanced to see the white  tiger in the enclosure, he began his musings: “…Not any kind  of tiger. The creature that gets born only once every generation in the jungle. I watched  him  walk behind the bamboo bars… He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this – that was the  only way he could tolerate this cage….The tiger’s eyes met my eyes, like my master’s eyes have met mine in the mirror of the  car. All at once, the tiger vanished… My knees began to shake; I felt light” (276-7). 

        The Rooster Coop continues to exist  like a never ending  oppressive system. “The rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs…The coop is guarded from the inside” (TWT 194).  As   Andrew Holgate opines, “Rather than encouraging freedom and “enterprise,” everything in this system — landlords, family, education, politics — seems designed specifically to suppress them” (Holgate). 

Adiga makes the protagonist spell out the way  enterprising drivers make  a little extra money by: i) siphoning petrol and selling, ii) repairing the car under a corrupt mechanic who gives inflated bills, iii) studying his master’s habits and capitalize on his  carelessness, iv) risking to make his master’s car into a freelance taxi.   Balram thought of making  a confession of all these misdeed, but instead of guilt he felt “Rage. 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 when describing Indian politics to you earlier, I was growing a belly at last” (TWT 230).

 It was the mean  and ironic behaviour  on the part of  Ashok that drives Balram crazy for vengeance. There is perfect communication gap between the two. This is symbolic of the rich-poor divide that   is fermenting to  take revenge. Balram’s plans are confirmed while visiting the National Zoo in Delhi.

He  sums up his  success story as an entrepreneur in Bangalore. He moves  from success to success- from being a social entrepreneur to a business entrepreneur. What does he mean by ‘social’ to ‘business’? He has perhaps become another incarnation of Mr Ashok by christening himself  Ashok.

 All that he can remember is his past juxtaposed with his present status. From a sweet-maker to a business tycoon. The circle is complete in his case like that of his boss Mr Ashok, who was from a cook’s family. He claims to be different from Mr Ashok.

Once I was a driver to a master, but now I am a master of drivers. I don’t treat them like servants – I don’t slap, or bully, or mock anyone. I don’t insult any of them by calling them my ‘family’ either. They’re my employees, I’m their boss, that’s all. I make them sign a contract and I sign it too, and both of us must honour that contract. That’s all. If they notice the way I talk, the way I dress, the way I keep things clean, they’ll go up in life. If they don’t, they’ll be drivers all their lives. I leave the choice up to them. When the work is done I kick them out of the office: no chitchat, no cups of coffee. A White Tiger keeps no friends. It’s too dangerous (302).

Balram sounds very pragmatic. His   philosophy of individualism comes close to Mr Ashoke’s  Machiavellianism.  Balram’s individualism   stresses independence and self-reliance disregarding any morality, while Ashok’s Machiavellianism  describes his tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain.  He prompts  his drivers to imitate him if they wished to succeed in life, becoming White Tigers.  He dreams of establishing a school for poor children in Bangalore where he could train them in facts of life.

What difference is there between the terror mechanism employed by Balram and  a terrorist. As Adiga  opines,  “Terrorism and corruption are linked. A corrupt system that fails to provide justice or to reduce poverty is one of the causes of terrorism. Terrorists in India are often middle-class, but one of the things that gets them worked up” (Adiga). Class struggle in India continues to be the focus of The White Tiger, where Adiga  attempts to bring out the contrast between the haves and have-nots.   However, some Indian critics wonder if   Adiga intended  the novel   primarily to get  western readership, projecting  the   protagonist,  getting away with his crime, being a victim of perpetual servitude(Quari). Similar is the anguish   of Amardeep Singh  who is perturbed by  Adiga’s   narrating   about  India’s poverty for a non-Indian, non-poor readers, through a    half baked Indian protagonist who is a   socio-political caricature (Singh).

 It  may be remarked that Adiga  wanted to  show to the world the other side of India in the form of a fiction. As some readers point out why  we should  feel so pricked about it since fiction should be treated not as gospel truth.  Our national pride shouldn’t  be hurt by it. How long can we ignore the cry of the poor made poorer day by day by corruption reigning supreme in all  sectors in our democracy?  Amitava Kumar  finds The White Tiger inauthentic and  points out how several non-resident Indian authors after Rushdie had taken refuge in magic realism and  have gone farther in to  inauthenticity  (Kumar 2).

In creating a protagonist like Balram in The white Tiger, has Adiga come forward to make   subaltern speak through crime?   Gayati Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of  Subaltern   leads to the premise that  subaltern cannot speak.  It   not    a classy word for oppressed, for other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie, but  it signified “proletarian,” whose voice could not be heard, being structurally written out of the capitalist bourgeois narrative  (Kilburn).

 Subaltern speaks through Slumdog Millionaire 

 ‘Slum household’ is described as a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area lacking  durable housing, sufficient living area, secure tenure and access to clean water and sanitation. Though,  segregated slums for the poor  is  an aftermath of  Industrial Revolution,   today one-in-three of all city dwellers  live in slums. Over 90 per cent of this underclass are in the developing world, with South Asia having the largest share, followed by eastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America (Howden). 

Those who inhabit the  slums form a  distinctive subaltern group. A slum may be defined as an urban area heavily populated by poor and strangers living with substandard housing and filth.  Such people living in a state of constant migration,  undergo problems due to unhygienic conditions,  leading to outbreak of diseases. Living in  constant poverty, they are easily prone to crime and  evil practices.

         According to a United Nations report,  population growth and urbanization are veritably creating a planet of slums, which is expected to  double by 2030.The slums in the cities of Africa and Asia are  growing by more than  a million people every week. The report states that the  growth of cities will be the single largest influence on development in the 21st century (Howden).

         Slumdog millionaire based on Vikas Swarup’s  novel Q & A  and directed by  Danny Boyle,   reflects  life in Dharavi,  Asia’s largest slum of  about  520 acres, existing at the heart of Mumbai. NGOs such as SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area resource Centres) and PROUD (Peoples’ Responsible Organization for a United Dharavi) have estimated the population from 700,000 to 1,200,000, comprising of 30% Muslims and 65% Dalit (Chatterji 8).   It  is known for its vibrancy with entrepreneurial  activities  that generate  between   US$50 to $100 million annually.  The slum dwellers have also organized themselves into  cooperative societies that provide basic facilities and protection to residents.  “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.… Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivalling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency” (Echanove).  Dharavi in recent times has been observed differently by International Organizations, state policy makers and NGOs who  have come to acknowledge the residents of the slums as consumers and future taxpayers and  property holders. It is not a slum occupied by  poor people, rather by income earners whose rights to housing need to be addressed (Chatterji   x).

        Known for its criminal activities, several measures have been  taken to contain social problems in Dharavi through  the residents organizing themselves into chawl committees. These   work   along with the police to break up illicit distilleries and liquor dens (140-1). 

        The Maharashtra Slum Areas Improvement, Clearance and  Redevelopment Act of 1971  was a result of the Government recognizing the  slums to be an answer to Bombay’s chronic housing shortage rather than considering it a  problem to be solved (135). The Slum Upgradation Programme (SUP)  was begun in the 1980s by which   cooperatives  are formed by   groups of contiguous huts through which housing societies undertake upgradation works in the colonies (137). The Prime Minister’s Grant Project (PMGP) begun in 1985 with a sanction of  thirty crore rupees for Dharavi by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was a boon to the slum dwellers (138). According to a  fieldwork  study conducted on  Dharavi  it has been  found that the slums  could be turned into  centres of human resources for economic development than liabilities.

Dharavi, and slums in general, should not be viewed as an overall liability to India’s development, even if they are often public health and sanitation nightmares… The economic manpower and cultural essence of Mumbai reside in her masses of people who exist cradle-to-grave in this informal sector. Well over 50 percent of Mumbai’s residents live in slums, and this percentage cannot decrease so long as rural migrants continue flocking to their congested city of dreams (Piven).

         The  practice of organised child beggary in Dharavi  is run by   slum mafia that  mutilate   many of the children to appear pathetic  to  draw sympathy   from donors.   Unfortunately, western media, for its own reasons, has often projected India  in a poor light with the filth in the slums encapsulated in  beggary, corruption, crime, communal tension,  prostitution and drug trade. However, it should be noted that such evils exist in any slums in any metropolitan cities.  

 Slumdog Millionaire be seen as an eye opener to the  global phenomenon of  displaced populations  as “it (film) communicated across boundaries of culture, geography, economy and language. It shone a light into the heart of characters from Mumbai, but in so doing it taught everyone who saw it – from Mumbai to Milan, from Bangkok to Brazil,  and from Lagos to Los Angeles, something about themselves and their immediate world” (Goldberg). 

          The potential human resources available in the slums of  Dharavi makes many   consider  them   no more  as  dreaded places full of beggars and criminals.    The slums   bustle  with  commercial arteries and form a lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have been very  creative in   setting up a highly functional recycling industry. Dharavi’s resourcefulness has been proven in the past 60 years of its growth from a  small village in the marshlands  to become a million-dollar economic miracle.   It has been built by  immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression and natural disasters. It’s economic success is an inspiration in the midst of  global depression (Echanove).

            Vikas Swarup has been very  unique in his portrayal of his protagonist  from a slum background to define forcefully the concept of  slum-subaltern. His  portrayal of characters living impoverished  lives and yet  sharing   deep-felt  human emotions, is a case in point to prove that  slums are no more a threat to growing global poverty, but an asset to economic growth if  given strategic direction. 

           Swarup has been very vibrant in his social criticism like   Aravind Adiga in    The White Tiger. Social inequality and  injustice keep  accelerating  the poor-rich divide in society,  leading to escalation of  violence, crime and  evils  of all magnitudes.  The fictionist, being a social observer from the bureaucracy,  pauses  critical questions for introspection and action, on the part of administrators and law makers. 

  Swarup opens  the novel with a prologue in which  the protagonist articulates his subaltern concern:

         I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.

          They came for me late last night, when even the stray dogs had gone off to sleep. They broke 

          open my door, handcuffed me    and marched me off to the waiting jeep with a flashing red light.

          There was no   hue and cry. Not one resident stirred from his hut. Only the old owl on the

          tamarind tree hooted at my  arrest (SM  11).

           In the movie, Danny Boyle, presents the episode through a very powerful scene of the constable puffing  cigarette smoke on to  Jamal Malik’s  face as he begins torturing the young man to get a forced confession out. It is  a symbolic presentation of the boy’s dream of becoming  a millionaire going into smoke.

          It has been observed that  police often falsely implicate slum dwellers  in criminal cases. For example in 1995 during the ‘danga’ (riot) policemen broke open  a certain Dina’s house and bundled her husband into a van and assaulted him with the rifle butt. He was charged with homicide. Though the case was later disposed off, he  had to report to Dharavi police station every week (Chatterji 119-20).

          The story of  the novel  is based on  the  TV quiz W3B? (Who Will Win A Billion?) which became a national obsession in the recent past with  “Kaun Banega Crorepati” hosted by Amitabh Bhachan.    Danny Boyle  opens the film  with the caption which sums up the whole plot.

Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 Million Rupees.

How did he do it?

A: He cheated.

B: He’s lucky.

  1. He’s a genius.
  2. It is written.

         Vikas Swarup in his novel,  wanted to prove  how even an uneducated slum-kid could show his worth  and  succeed in life since knowledge is not the monopoly of the educated  elite.  Through a series of  episodes the novelist  tells the  story of modern India through a  quiz programme.

I read a newspaper report that street children in India have begun using the mobile Net facility. That gave me an idea. They had intuitively understood technology. You normally don’t expect street children to surf the World Wide Web. We think they are uneducated people who do not go to schools. How can they think about the Internet? Here it was a reality. I thought, why not have an unlettered person appear on a quiz show, where difficult questions are asked and through his real-life experiences he answers  them all (Swarup). 

         Jamal recollects how he has fallen into a trap by overstepping his limits by taking part in a quiz progamme meant for the educated lot: “There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself. By dabbling in that quiz show, they will wag a finger at me and remind me of what the elders in Dharavi say about never crossing the dividing line that separates the rich from the poor. After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use. We are supposed to use only our hands and legs” (SM 12).

 He  comes to the realization that  the trap was laid by the organizers  conniving with the police  to continue a TV gimmick.

        When the police   grill  Jamal with a  barrage of questions, he answers them all wrong. This  convinces them that he had cheated  like a  British army Major who won £1 million  with the assistance of his wife and a college lecturer. He was convicted in April 2003 for fraud. Swarup hit upon the plan of writing his story on  an ignorant tiffin boy from the slums of Mumbai,  on the verge of winning  20 million rupees,  but  accused of cheating (Macdonald). 

But the  Commissioner of Police is more  practical by suggesting to the organisers  to pay Jamal some money and force him to withdraw from the quiz. After several hours of  torture with different instruments, Jamal is told to sign a confession statement:

I, Ram Mohammad Thomas, do hereby state that on 10 July I was a participant in the quiz show Who Will Win A Billion? I confess that I cheated. I did not know the answers to all the questions. I hereby withdraw my claim to the top prize or any other prize. I beg forgiveness. I am making this statement in full control of my senses and without any undue pressure from anyone. Signed: Ram Mohammad Thomas (SM 24-5).

         In the novel,  Jamal’s ordeal   ends as  a young   woman lawyer  named Smita Shah comes to his rescue. The rest of the story is recounted through his confession to the lawyer built around thirteen questions of the quiz show.

          In police custody, Jamal is tortured   through different inhuman  methods to  get a  forced  confession that he cheated at the show. The Inspector of police suspects that he has been wired up with some network to get the right answers. He  cannot come to believe that a Slumdog without any formal education can answer questions which Professors, Lawyers, Doctors, General Knowledge Wallahs never answer.

          It  is to be noted that every question Jamal answers has its history of  episodes connected to various stages of his life.  The flashback technique is very aptly employed  in the film with energizing musical scores and pithy  dialogues. When the question is asked – ‘in depictions of  the God Ram, he is famously holding what in his right hand? Is it A) A flower. B) A scimitar. C) A child. D) a bow and arrow?’ (SMM 19).

          He reminisces his childhood traumatic experience after his mother was killed in a local riot. While escaping  with his brother he observes three year old boy in a doorway, painted  in blue holding in his hand a bow and arrow. That gives Jamal the clue to answer the  question. He expresses his  bitter pain: “I wake up every morning wishing I didn’t know the answer to that question? If it wasn’t for Ram and Allah, I would still have a mother” (24).

           Unable to get the confession out of Jamal despite all tortures,   the Inspector   assumes that   his stubborn resistance is due to love of money and women: “Well, well. The slum dog barks. Money or women. The reason for most mistakes in life. Looks like you got mixed up with both…” (31). His hypothesis is very true as  Jamal’s determination is strengthened only by  his yearning to win money and  Latika.

          The scenes of child abuse and torture perpetrated by Maman, Punnose and  their men, reveal yet  another social  issue at stake in the slums.  Salim is promised to be made a leader  and a professional in the trade, if he cooperated with them.

          Salim watches them take out the eyes of Aravind to make him a pathetic looking beggar.  When Jamal is called in to be blinded, Salim flings   chloroform on  to Punnose and escapes with Jamal and Latika. However, Latika fails to get on to the speeding train engine. 

         The episode portraying Salim  and  Jamal atop  a train, admiring the distant Himalayas, makes the latter  reminisce their  migrant life in the slums: “We criss-crossed the country  from Rajasthan to Calcutta. Every time we were thrown off we got back on again. This was our home for years. A home with wheels and a whistle” ( 45). Displacement is  often found in Dharavi by which   people keep moving into a different neighbourhood within the slum. Some leave Mumbai and migrate to other places (Chatterji 78). The slum life, being  one of struggle for survival with no future in  sight, makes the inmates live by a do-or-die principle. Hence, slum subaltern is often led to speaks  through anti-social  activities.

         As the story  further develops we find the two brothers as tourist guides in Agra. The  episodes  at Taj Mahal where they exploit tourists add much  humour  to the melodrama. Their life of stealing and pick-pocketing is typical of slum-subaltern in action for survival. Simon Beaufoy  focuses on the adroitness  and intelligence of   slum boys in dire straights.   

           Returning to  Mumbai, the brothers work at different places and at a restaurant. But Jamal’s love for Latika continues to motivate him to find her.  Though Salim discourages  his brother from  the wild goose chase trying to track her in the midst of nineteen million people in the city, he keep up his search.. But Jamal doesn’t give up searching for his first love.  He chances to meet his old pal, the eyeless Arvind, who tells him of his pathetic story after being blinded by Maman’s men. While conversing, Jamal confesses how his love for Latika impelled him to escape Maman’s dungeon.  Arvind is upset with his futile search as he would  be captured by Maman’s gang.

         When the brothers  discover Latika, she is being groomed  by Mamanto be a potential prostitute with skills in dancing and singing.  Maman is quick to  recognises them both and refuses to let Latika go. The brothel scene  presents the child prostitution prevalent in slums. The Oscar-nominated and Academy-award winning documentary Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids  released in 2004  depicts very powerfully child sex exploitation and  prostitution ( Snyder).

           When Maman refuses to let Latika go free, Salim  straightens up his gun and shoots him.  He  couldn’t take the risk of sparing Maman’s life, as the mafia would track them all. The three escape with the money they get. The  scene depicts how mafia gangs  control  slum-life through perpetuating   slavery through gun culture.

          When Jamal has rejoined his girl-friend, Salim’s passion for   her drives out Jamal at gunpoint. They are once again separated. When they meet again we find Salim working as a  hit man for Javid   after having had killed Maman. The sequence shows how mafia groups function. Javid was happy to employ him now saying, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” (SMM 70).

         The two brothers are united once again when Jamal tries to get in touch with  the operator to join the  contest on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

SALIM: Jamal? Is that you? Brother? Where are you, man?… I thought you were dead or

something… we had to go, Jamal. Maman’s guys. They were searching the hotel…(81).

          The sequence  shifts to the studio where Jamal proves his worth in the quiz contest. Miraculously he gets all answers correct to the volley of questions to compete for the  five million rupees question:

          In both the fiction and the film, it is revealed that   every question Jamal answers has a link to the  history of his life in the slums. This is a proof  to the resilient spirit of slum-kids, who are intelligent and earnest in whatever they do.   

          In the sequence where  Salim and Jamal meet together sitting  atop a building observing their Mumbai city, Salim speaks of his  accomplishments after having joined Javed’s  gang. He boasts of  having become rich,   becoming the centre of all criminal activities in the slums.  They observe that the  multi-storied apartments have replaced the old decrepit structures, giving the impression of urban mobility and transformation.    Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city as each of its 80-plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means   (Echanove). 

           On the contrary Jamal is   only interested in  knowing  the whereabouts of Latika. When he enquires of her Salim answers   slyly: “Still? She’s gone, Jamal. Long gone. Now go. Quick”  (SMM 89). Salim cannot understand  the depth of sincere and passionate  love Jamal has for the girl.

           Meantime, Jamal  comes to know that Salim works for   Javid as a hit man.  He risks following  his  track and sees Latika on the balcony of Javid’s fortified bungalow. He gets access pretending  to be the new cook.   The door keeper mistaking  him for the new dishwasher, lets him in. Latika recognises her long lost lover. Meanwhile they could overhear  TV commentary on millionaire programme and the conversation gears up on it, turning attention on  the secret of happiness. The sequence is a reflection on   slum-subaltern yearning for happiness through riches. 

           When Javid returns, matters get worsened as he finds  the new  cook.   As he keeps yelling and swearing, Jamal tells  Latika  to escape with him to freedom. But she declines his offer considering it mere wishful thinking. But, Jamal keeps his promise and waits for her daily at VT station at five O’ clock  in the evening.

           As the final episode of the   quiz show for 20 million rupees is on for Jamal, everyone is focussed on their TV sets. There is a total change of heart in   Salim who  persuades Latika to drive off to witness the live show. As she moves off, he offers her his mobile with the premonition that Jamal would call on it in course of the programme.  The show begins with the final question on  Alexander Duma’s book The Three Musketeers. Jamal  confesses he doesn’t know the answer and is asked to dial a friend. He calls Salim’s mobile and gets Latika online after much delay as she left it on the car seat. As Latika introduces herself on phone there is a  first real smile on Jamal’s adult life, indicating his final achievement in getting in touch with her.  Though she is unable to help him with a  clue, Jamal guesses the right answer and makes history winning 20 million rupees.

         The scene shifts to  Javed’s bungalow  where Salim fills the bath tub with rupee bills and lies in it. When an enraged Javid comes   charging  him for having let Latika escape, Salim guns him down.    Shot by Javid’s men,  Salim dies uttering ‘God is good.’ The film comes to a close with the scene of  Jamal  waiting for Latika at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus gazing at the VT station as commuters  file past. Their love being genuine, Latika comes in search of him. He  forces himself through the crowd and reaches out to her.

LATIKA: I thought we would meet again only in death.

JAMAL: I knew you’d be watching… This is our destiny…This is our destiny (121).

          The slum-subaltern has the final victory. The   movie climaxes   with the hit song Jai ho bringing warmth to the frigid  audience.

          The fiction and the film have been acclaimed as well as decried by critics. Though most find it very realistic in portraying slum-life based on Swarup’s- novel. Danny Boyle has  rendered it  a superb celluloid sensation. However certain  dehumanising scenes are disgusting to any cultured audience like the way the young Jamal dives in through the  septic hole and wades across  the mire fully covered in human excrement. Coining the word ‘slumdog’ has  been offensive too in a world where  affirmation of human dignity is given prime importance by virtue of human rights of individuals. The slum dwellers may be  the poorest of the poor, but they  are to be respected as persons in a world where there is an ever growing   awareness treating  with respect every living organism.  Amitabh Bhachan  rightly reacted when he wrote, “ if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations” (Bhachan).

          The fiction and the film have a  universal appeal as the characters are representative of everyman in every age. It has been pointed out by Prince Charles,   that  the Mumbai shanty town featured in the film should be a model for urban planning  as the  west has much to learn from societies and places which, while sometimes poorer in material terms are infinitely richer in the ways in which they live and organise themselves as communities (Swaine).

           It may be observed that the lead character’s name in the film is changed from Ram Mohammad Thomas to Jamal Malik. This removes the original notion    Swarup had of  projecting  his hero as an Indian everyman with a  Hindu, Muslim and Christian name. In the film Jamal  is a Muslim whose mother is killed by a Hindu mob, rendering it more dramatic. The novelist has  appreciated screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s creativity in rendering the film   beautiful with a plot  riveting with  the breathtaking child actors. However, Swarup has reservations on  public reaction to communal riots portrayed as people are very sensitive in India (Swarup).

        In the novel the protagonist unfolds his story to Smita Shah the lawyer. As she  reviews the footage of the show to build the case, Ram tells heart wrenching stories from his life and the mystery unfolds.   Ram Mohammad Thomas narrates his life story in 13 controlled, quick paced episodes, that link into each quiz query.  On the other hand, in the film  the police inspector shows the videotape and after each question   Jamal narrates   his life- story: his childhood with his brother Salim, his crush for Latika and their fight to survive on the streets. Guided by his common sense and past experiences, Jamal is able  to give   right answers to all questions.  

         Slumdog Millionaire  has captivated the attention of global audience as it depicts the slum reality   of the metropolitan cities of the world  today with the  urbanization of poverty.  Slum-subaltern has got its voice heard to some extend, seeking redressive measures. The rags to riches story of  Jamal finally climaxing in emotional union with Latika proves to affirm human values of  love compassion in a world  pivoted  on economic boom and materialistic pursuits.  The story narrated in episodic flashbacks with  three sets of actors of three different age groups  from   the  real slums renders it a powerful presentation in the film. It revolves  around  love, friendship, betrayal, poverty and hope.     

         In the present  scenario, the UN General Secretary’s  calls for global attention to solve the  slum crisis  through  determined political will of nations is apt and fitting:

Slums represent the worst of urban poverty and inequality. Yet the world has the resources, know-how and power to reach the target established in the Millennium Declaration. … the best practises it identifies, will enable all actors involved to overcome the apathy and lack of political will that have been a barrier to progress, and move ahead with greater determination and knowledge in our common effort to help the world’s slum dwellers to attain lives of dignity, prosperity and peace  (Annan).


        The need of the hour is to empower subaltern people by uplifting them from  poverty and social oppression.  According to World Bank’s Poverty Estimates,   1.4 billion people live at the  poverty line   of $1.25 a day or below (Shah). Being confronted by  ever increasing global poverty, it is imperative on the  part of  the rich nations and peoples to contribute towards eradicating it.   Peter Singer,   Australian philosopher and humanist   opines that  philanthropy and charity to the poor  is imperative for anyone  to live  a moral and ethically good life.  He argues that affluent societies have the obligation  ‘to choose to give’ a larger amount of their income to help the poor. Several international organisations and  NGOs  are using charity to build institutions and create job opportunities for the poor to give them independent and sustainable life (Guzeldeniz ) .  The fate of  the poor and the subaltern people  world over should go beyond voluminous documentation and debates. 

           It has been pointed out that the period since the neo-liberal economic reforms were introduced in  India, there has been greater economic disparity. There is a growing    consumption by the rich and   the urban upper middle income groups.  Side by side  we see the  lives of the poor becoming   more vulnerable and precarious. The National Sample Survey Organization, through its study, has   shown that  up to 1998,  there has  been relatively flat consumption per person and   no decline in poverty.   There was a dramatic revision of poverty figures in 1999-00.   9 surveys from  1989-90 to 1998 had shown no poverty reduction.  A minority of the population (around 20  per cent) has   benefited   from the economic policies in the  last decade, while   the majority of the rural  and urban population   have not benefited.    But for  80 per cent of the  rural population per capita consumption  has actually declined since 1989-90 (Ghosh). 

 It is imperative that our Government  has the political will  to fight corruption at all levels and take  appropriate measures to fight poverty of its teeming millions  with increased   investment in basic education, medical care and farming.   

    However, The White Tiger and The Slumdog millionaire  should make every right thinking citizen  to   read the signs of the times  and be socially conscious of  the   rights and duties  of each one,  irrespective of caste, creed or    economic status. 

 Rapid urbanization   due to influx of the poor to cities,   calls on planners to   utilize it for greater economic growth through   sustainability.   Meanwhile,  the two novels    remain   powerful  subaltern portrayal of rapidly growing planet of   the slums with ever increasing poor-rich divide. 


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