So this one time in a book club I incited scorn from half the table of literati by saying how much I loved Aravind Adiga’s, The White Tiger. Those who hated the book mostly did so because that “evil little bastard” Balram killed his master. The “nice” one at that. There was also one person who didn’t understand the satirical context of Balram’s letter to the Premier of China. When I discovered how many people disliked the book I paused and listened so that maybe I could comprehend why. The left side of the table, where most of the dissent was born said things like “I think he’s lying, no one is that poor anywhere,” “it’s so fucked up that he killed his master and got away with it,” amongst other things. The line that divorced me from simply listening was “he makes it seem like people can’t just escape their situation by working harder, he acts like Balram didn’t have a choice.”
“Really?” I said. “Is it really up to the servant who is constantly being slapped, kicked and berated to maintain his composure? Is that what you got from this book? Is that what was important? That this modern day slave needs to mind his behavior and follow the rules?” Are these people fucking serious? I thought. I knew I was getting louder, as often happens when I’m excited. I also knew very well however, from constantly being the only black guy present that if I were to become too excited it would just scare everyone into silence, or make some people leave. Debating too strongly would incite hysteria, so I let some of the other members non-threateningly talk over each other.
Granted, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The whole country is obsessed with the simple minded diversion of laying blame on the lap of the disenfranchised. Every unarmed black kid that gets shot was “threatening” or “shouldn’t have had a toy gun” (even in a state where its legal to carry a real one, mind you). Every woman who gets raped “shouldn’t have been wearing that.” Every poor person is just “lazy.” Why would I expect critical thinking or empathy from this writing group? It is possible that I still held on to some assumption that those who heavily invest their free time in the literary world should think more critically, be more socially aware and more instrospective by nature. That was a stupid assumption. It makes more sense that they would fall in line with mainstream ideas that are necessary in order for them to feel like winners. To be a winner the lazy way, all you have to do is look around for natural losers and think to yourself “I’m better than that,” “I would have worked harder,” “I would have done X,” or any other manner of snide, uneducated, unconcerned bullshit in order to promote yourself and your conscience to a level that surpasses all of the scum who might dare harm their master.
The show and tell here is funny, because of course people normally know what to say or not to say in public. Unless of course, they’re running for office and pandering to the bolder, dumber conservatives who will actually say nigger on television or think they should be able to grab women’s breasts if they breastfeed in public, compared to the actual detrimental ones who hold contemptuous views of “others” and continuously support policy that makes life less livable by said “others.” Balram is the most diabolical, hateful character in the novel because he kills his master and cannot be forgiven, but when I asked the question: “So does everyone here feel the same way about the Haitian revolution? Were they ‘evil’ for killing their masters?” Of course no one would dare say that while there is a black person around, the one asking the question at that. No one said anything, most of the faces looked away, people grabbed drinks, called the waiter, but no words.
I also asked about the sins of Balram’s masters. The constant physical and verbal abuse, attempting to frame him for murder, tax evasion, rigging elections, bribing government officials, etc. No one was really bothered by that though. They “worked hard and got to where they wanted,” even though the wealth was primarily inherited, as usual… The masters are always to be forgiven if we are to get along, especially since one of them was “nice,” which meant he didn’t physically abuse his human property and stood up for him sometimes when other people went too far. In fact, Balram was supposed to have been thankful to the “nice” one. As always, there lies the not so subtle implication that the standards for good on the part of the upper-class include: maybe not beating your slave too much and treating people with slightly less respect, but not literally spitting on them. While for poor people, brown people, women people, nice includes: not talking back, not disagreeing, taking a beating, accepting less, being a joke, working twice as hard for half as much, etc. etc. The list is infinite, and it usually implies things that are considered to be stepping out of line and being ungrateful. This sentiment peppers every conversation we have in this country and It’s just depressing how optimistic I was to think that just because this was a book club and the book The White Tiger was chosen by someone other than me, that I would find my kind of people, that there would be in-depth social and political consideration outside of the self. Of course, I should have known better.