India’s crushing defeat of England in Chennai this week not only levelled the old rivals’ Test series, but ensured that the subcontinent’s sporting religion will once-again absorb its legion of fans for weeks to come. Yes, cricket. What was once the embodiment of leisurely pace, suffused with the dust of lost afternoons, echoing the colonial past and a sense of the eternal, is now a $5bn industry.
So what should one watch in order to catch up with post-independence, post-myth contemporary India? Here is the answer. The White Tiger on Netflix is out to provoke with its bleak conclusion that the best way to move forward in Indian society is to be a sociopath.
You all know the story. India has never quite lived up to its immense economic potential. It has leapt from agriculture to services without developing a powerful industrial sector, as many countries in east Asia managed to do. Although growth rates are still high relative to rich countries, since the 2010s, the economy's performance has been disappointing, because of a creaky public sector flooded by red tape and overborrowing. India has developed advanced clusters in finance, software and outsourcing, with Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai combining globally competitive service-industry hubs — alongside shocking slums.
If you want an inch-perfect sense of contemporary India go to The White Tiger, a dark Bildungsroman and punchy parable that begins in Bangalore in 2010, using flashbacks to tell the story of a chauffeur’s tortured rise, and sheds light on the master-servant dynamic. Based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man-Booker-Prize-winning debut novel, it exposes a rigged system of bribery and tax fraud. The protagonist is a boy from nowhere and with nothing. Part told via a series of messages to the then Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao at the time of a visit to India, the anti-hero is in charge of the narrative: moving up the ladder from tea-stall waiter to driver, living in a roach-infested garage with other drivers under a luxury high-rise in Delhi. The plot then accelerates at a frenetic pace. Spoiler alert: the chauffeur ends up killing his boss on his way to deliver a large bribe to a government minister.
So which India-based television series get it right? Sacred Games, a crime thriller and India’s first Netflix original series, revolves around a Mumbai police inspector seeking validation against the city’s mafia lords and the force’s endemic corruption. Tandav, on Amazon Prime, also exposes layers of greed and violence, and the message both shows hammer home is that social mobility is unattainable as long as power and the corruption it yields nurture near-feudal relationships. Is this all there is, you wonder.
The chauffeur’s journey, a chronicle of hope and depravity against the background of raw inequality and a fractured society, is shaped by India’s rise as a modern, outperforming economy. And his trajectory, underscored by his struggle to beat the odds in a cycle of systematic poverty, is chillingly conveyed.
For a period in the 2000s it became common to ask if India’s freewheeling capitalism might replicate the success of China’s state-led system. Although analysts had predicted that India would become the fifth largest economy by 2025 and third largest by 2030, the danger now is that it is entering a decade of lost opportunity. Even if India booms again, its rigid code of social division embedded in the caste system will remain difficult to transcend. As The White Tiger powerfully demonstrates, even in the era of global capitalism discrimination persists.
In Orientalism, published in 1978, Edward Said argued that Europeans had divided the world into the occident west and the orient east in an attempt to legitimise colonialism, by exaggerating and distorting differences between people and cultures. The one exception is that when the British brought cricket to India in the early 18th century, it was a genuine love affair, making it not only the de facto sport but also an important part of the culture. In The White Tiger, watch how an Indian-American raised in New York behaves around her husband’s impoverished driver and you’ll find not only validation in Said’s work but everything you need to know about the western gaze.
Cricket leaves no race diminished or plundered; it expands and unites — until the match next week.
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