Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
Haven't read any of Aravind Adiga's other books but The White Tiger is a gripping tale of a loyalty, treachery, hatred, love, anger, servants, masters, poverty and wealth. In short, all the extremes of life are covered in it, and in that the author has painted a brilliantly accurate picture of modern India, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humour thrown in. Told in the first-person, through the eyes of a chauffeur living in Delhi, it's one book that is really hard to put down. After a long time the real tale of 'two Indias' has got the attention it deserves.
Through one person's story, we get to travel to village India, experience their troubles, then to the typical rich person's world in urban India, the businessman's world and their nexus with politicians, we see the point of the view of the Indian who has just returned from abroad and who believes he can change the country, we deal with his rising frustration. Meanwhile we see the faithful servants, an integral part of the Indian family and Indian way of life. They happily serve their disgusting masters, while deep inside some plot far more evil doings. We see the servant's world, both tragic and fascinating, enriched with servant's gossip, which is, as everyone knows, the best and the juiciest gossip there is. More specifically we get a first-hand account of the driver's world, which revolves around the Honda City, polishing and cleaning the Honda City, the hot memsahib in her miniskirts, the sweet and unsuspecting sahib, the dominating relatives, the other pesky drivers, and the servants hierarchy. We see that older generation of India, who control their children well into adulthood. We see the backwardness that rules much of India, both the super-rich and super-poor. The over-arching theme reflects the reality that India is an anarchy, and lends authenticity to the book. A poor, illiterate village man, through sheer intelligence and cunning, rises to become a millionaire. A rich man's son, full of hope, positivity and with a good heart, still ends up with nothing. Humour, sarcasm and brilliant dialogues make this one fast-paced and insightful read.
Once in a while a person wakes up from their situation, and realises what they want in life. If there is nothing holding them back, not even their conscience, then they may achieve the most impossible of things. The human spirit can rise to be anything and fall to be nothing, both in the same moment.