All I can think about while reading The White Tiger is Frank McCourt.
Well, OK, that’s not all I think about. But The White Tiger seems to be providing some sort of counter narrative to the omnipresent “American Dream” novel/book/story/whatever. In ‘Tis, Frank McCourt writes about his struggles as an Irish immigrant to the US, and much of the book deals with his harsh realization that the “American Dream” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, you can’t exactly pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you’re not even wearing boots, am I right?
There seems to be plenty of public discourse as of late regarding the continued validity of the American Dream. (Before we get any further, I should probably make it clear that I’m fully aware that White Tiger does not, in fact, take place in America. Don’t worry, I’m getting there.) I hate to beat a dead (post-rigor, partially decayed corpse of a) horse, but especially now, in the midst of an economic crisis that has decimated the ranks of the middle class and plunged scores of people into crippling debt, there are still so many staunch defenders of the American Dream.
Balram writes, “Haven’t I succeeded in the struggle that every poor man here should be making — the struggle not to take the lashes your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of Mother Ganga?” (273).
I mean, that’s the American Dream in a nutshell too, right? Ending a cycle of poverty; doing better than your parents did. So, “American Dream” is kind of a misnomer — it’s more of a Universal Dream.
But there’s an expectation in the US that clearly doesn’t exist in Balram’s India, i.e., the Darkness. There’s an expectation that someone who works hard enough will be able to be successful as a product of nothing more than the fruit of his own labors. And Balram’s version of the American Dream still ends the same way; he’s just more realistic about the means required to meet that end. He writes, “Yes, it’s true: a few hundred thousand rupees of someone else’s money, and a lot of hard work, can make magic happen in this country” (258). That’s kind of how it works here, now, in modern-day, corporate capitalist America: yeah, you can make money if you work hard. But you have to have money first.
Also, the American Dream as presented in American literature can have very dark undertones — I’m thinking mostly of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Sure, Carrie claws her way out of poverty, but she resorts to prostitution to do it. Or even in something more like The Rise of Silas Lapham (William Dean Howells), where the protagonist ostensibly achieves the American Dream, only to realize that he hasn’t the command of aristocratic social skills to actually maintain a life among the upper class. Plus he loses all his money in the end anyway.
For something that’s touted as one of America’s best qualities — unlimited upward social mobility for those willing to work — it’s not exactly the most realistic thing. It’s more like folklore, than anything else. I guess.
But Balram’s version of the American Dream is representative of the reality of the American Dream. The “darkness” of Balram’s American Dream is overt and in your face, and to question whether or not his story is dark would probably just be to have not read the book. Balram lied, stole, and murdered his way out of poverty. And as far as I could tell, at the end of the book, it seems like he’s going to be able to continue to live a pretty decent life. To me, that sort of speaks to the complete bullshit-ery that is the notion of “working hard” in order to climb the proverbial socioeconomic ladder.
On page 43, Balram writes:
“Go to a tea shop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that tea shop — men, I say, but better to call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven, and in their thirties or forties or fifties but still ‘boys.’ But that is your fate if you do your job well — with honesty, dedication, and sincerity, the way Gandhi would have done it, no doubt” (43).
The American Dream certainly doesn’t exist in America any more. And according to Balram, it doesn’t exist in India either.
Here’s a video of my boy Noam Chomsky talking about the death of the American Dream. It’s really a trailer for a film (“Requiem for the American Dream”) but the things he says about the current state of affairs in America seem just as applicable to the India that Balram describes throughout The WhiteTiger.