Flying the Coop: An Examination of Slavery in India

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is a satirical novel in the form of an email from Balram Halwai to the Chinese Premier, focusing on Balram’s life as a servant. Balram’s objective is to explain the way the Indian social system is organized. “Mr. Jiabao. Sir,” writes Balram:

Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market… The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. 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. (Adiga 147)

This is Balram’s explanation of the “basis of the entire Indian economy ” (Adiga 149). His detailed description does not leave much room for interpretation upon the lives of servants; they are trapped within the system they have been born into. His comparison to a rooster coop is incredibly purposeful in that it conveys the pervasive nature of this system, and the complacency it creates in the servants, or “chickens,” caught within the system.

Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column is similar in that it also focuses on the life of a family and their servants. At the end of the novel, Nandi, a titular servant, speaks similarly to the way servants are trapped: “I will not let my son become like my people, washing the dirty clothes of others, standing in the waters of ponds and rivers, winter and summer” (Hosain 293). Nandi has given any hope of herself escaping the system of servitude. However, she does not wish to let the system continue in the same cyclical fashion as it has been for her ‘people,’ and has hopes for a different life for her son.

Both Nandi and Balram exist in a system from which escape is unlikely, and both demonstrate the different ways one is shaped, governed, and dreams of escape from the “rooster coop” of servitude. In this essay, I will examine the characters of Balram and Nandi to provide juxtaposing viewpoints in order to investigate the cyclical nature of servitude– which maintains the dependency of servants on masters–making true escape impossible.

Servitude is heavily explored in Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum’s Cultures Of Servitude, which describes this culture as “one in which social relations of domination/subordination, dependency and inequality are normalized and permeate both the domestic and public spheres” (Ray and Qayum 3). Certainly, this is true for Balram, who grew up in rural India, desperately poor, whose parents never even gave him a proper name. It is simply expected that he will be pulled out of school, as have all of his family members. Balram can foresee that this will be his life; his father dies of tuberculosis from overwork, and he sees his brother turning into another version of his father. The cycle of servitude is a normalized and recognized system in Balram’s world. He takes care to make sure that Mr. Jiabao knows that India “is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness” (Adiga 12). The darkness is, of course, the rural and poorest parts of India, one of which Balram was born in. When his mother dies, and his family buries her, Balram describes her funeral and the overwhelming emotions that hit him. “The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here” (Adiga 15). With both parents dead, taken out of school and put to work, it is not hard for Balram to see the trajectory his life will take. Having no formal education and no skills other than being able to serve, Balram is destined to follow the path that many before him have taken. It is the same for everyone in the darkness, an inescapable and expected reality, because, “you can’t expect a man in a dung heap to smell sweet” (Adiga 28).

Nandi, like Balram, comes from a line of servants and has been inculcated into the system of servitude, both by her position at birth and through learned mannerisms. Her entire family lives at Ashiana and is a part of the staff that serves Laila’s family. The reader does not get Nandi’s inner monologue on her place in the system of servitude. Instead, the narration styles show the rhetoric her employers use to justify and perpetuate the servants’ position, “you just raise them an inch off the ground and they’ll be making a footstool of your head” (Hosain 45). Here Zahra, Laila’s cousin, perfectly demonstrates the role of hegemony in servitude. Ray and Qayum describe that hegemony, as that which “sees the relationship of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living” (Ray and Qayum 3). Servitude is a relationship of inherently unequal power, and Zahra’s remark precisely captures this description: a servant’s place is on the ground, not an inch above. Nandi, too, is well versed in feelings of inescapability, as a poor woman. She and Laila discuss this fact when they learn of Saliman’s fate. Nandi says, “We who are poor need no teaching. There is no one but ourselves to guard us from knowing; and that is no guard to count on, believe me” (Hosain 168). Nandi’s point is that no matter what, Saliman was going to be sent away. Laila’s “kind thoughts” and “good intentions” could not save Saliman. Nandi uniquely understands this because she, too, is caught within an inescapable situation. First, she is shunned for running off with a pedlar and is only accepted back into her family when her father has need of her, after her mother dies. Then, her family marries her to an older man, and she has absolutely no say in the matter. Being a poor woman servant, who is under constant supervision by both her own family and the servants that surround her, Nandi has absolutely no choice. This is something she more than understands. “No, Bitia, we cannot escape our destiny, or the devils inside us” (Hosain 169). The mention of destiny here is one that should be closely attended to. Not only does Nandi accept her situation; she believes that it is a predetermined fate. This sheds light on a horrifying truth of the ideology Nandi has ascribed to: as a poor woman, Nandi believes it is her destiny to serve, that as someone who has been born into an unfavorable situation in life, good things will not come to her. She thinks that she deserves this because of an inescapable destiny, the very encapsulation of cyclical repetition.

Both Nandi and Balram have been subjected to the system of servitude, but in very different ways, because of their particular situations and identities. Nandi’s gender plays a huge role in the way she is treated, including the kind of work she is expected to perform, and the ways in which it is socially acceptable for her to act. In the very first scene in which Nandi is introduced to the reader, Uncle Mohsin is punishing her for being alone with another man; the scene features Nandi physically crouching to the ground, accepting the punishment doled onto her. This punishment is a function of her status as both poor and a woman. She herself speaks directly to this in a later scene at Hasanpur, “We poor people get a bad name because we cannot stay locked up. But what of all those uncles and cousins who wander in and out of zenanas? They’re men, aren’t they? Thieves steal the best guarded of treasure” (Hosain 97). Here, Nandi explains the confluence of gender and class; because she is a poor woman servant, being caught alone with a man is looked on much more critically than if a higher-class woman was caught alone with a man. The entire issue exists in the first place because zenanas are not something poor women are allowed to use to protect themselves. They cannot afford to be hidden behind the security of purdah, because they must work. Cultures of Servitude talks about the way the domestic sphere compounds social relations, ““Domestic servitude bridges the domestic-public divide, bringing social relations of power (class, caste, race/ethnicity, gender) into the household and mirroring and reproducing these relations within the domestic unit” (Ray and Qayum 17). In an incredibly concentrated environment, such as the one of Ashiana, power tensions are constantly exacerbated because of proximity and the way the household has been organized into a strict hierarchy. The powerful grow within their roles, and the poor are continually subjugated. For Nandi, this is certainly true. She is completely at the will of a wide range of people: her father and male relations, the males she works under, and her masters. Nandi is at the bottom of Ashiana’s hierarchy, and because she lives in the same place she works, for her, subjugation due to the hierarchy is a constant, inescapable presence in her life. She feels hopeless desperation at her own place, and that of her peers. When Saliman becomes pregnant and is sent away, Nandi remarks to Laila, “Better to be my father’s mule that sometimes digs in its heels and will not move even when it is beaten, than to be poor and a woman” (Hosain 168). Her role as a servant, as a poor woman, means that Nandi has zero form of autonomy. Her decisions are made by her masters, her father, male servants who outrank her. The humor here seems incredibly dry, that a mule has more agency over themselves than a poor woman does: but Nandi is not speaking figuratively. To be a poor woman servant means that gender and class work together to create an incredibly subjugated group of people, and Nandi is a member of this group.

As previously discussed, the cyclical perpetuating nature of servitude is something Balram and Nandi have recognized in their lives. The early Balram, encouraged by the feelings of inescapability, is the perfect servant. When Pinky Madam runs over and kills a child, Balram agrees to take the blame for her, thus completing what he sees as a duty: “He was loyal as a dog. He was the perfect servant” (Adiga 145). Much like Nandi, it is as though Balram doesn’t have another choice, so ingrained into him is the notion of loyalty. This is another quality of servitude, that, “the slave exists to labor for the master,” (Ray and Qayum 5). Balram, too, understands and accepts this, almost without thought. Adding further to the fact that he feels no choice is the idea of the ‘rhetoric of love,’ a strategy employed by the Mongoose in the same scene, as he continually insists that Balram is ‘one of the family.’ This is an “ideological strategy that allows structural inequalities and dominance to be perceived on an entirely different register such that relationships of servitude are reinterpreted of mutual trust, affection, obligation and loyalty” (Ray and Qayum 92-93). The Mongoose’s insistence that Balram is one of the family carries the expectation that as a member of the family, he has an equal will and say within decisions. In fact, this is entirely untrue, and the family holds an enormous amount of power over Balram, as is shown when he is naturally expected to take the fall for his employers. His families’ whereabouts need to be constantly known by his employers, so that they “could count on my loyalty” (Adiga 57). He is bound by ‘love’ to his employers, and bound to his family by ‘love,’ both of which trap him so that he is governed by what he believes he should feel, rather than what he actually feels. This is in an incredibly important part of the cycle of servitude; “no servants can ever tell what the motives of his heart are… We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in” (160). The expectation of emotional duty to both one’s family and one’s employers is crucial to the creation of a servant mindset. It breeds the notion of absolute loyalty because a servant is dependent on their employers for a paycheck, and on their family for both reciprocal love, and the comfort of a concept of ‘home’. There is no way to give up either of these things, so strongly ingrained are they, and constantly reinforced by both emotional and physical labor performed for both ‘families.’

Nandi is portrayed very differently from Balram because of the way her story is narrated. Balram’s is told from a first-person point of view, which gives the reader access to his direct viewpoint. Nandi’s point of view, however, is narrated through Laila, one of her masters. This is interesting in that it gives insight into the way servants are perceived by their masters, rather than the other way around. Zahra often talks about the behavior of servants in a demeaning way, “The insolence of these menials that she should have dared to talk to our uncles in such a manner, and in front of everyone, of all those servants!” (Hosain 29). Insolence conveys an expectation of laziness or inaction, and Zahra here groups all ‘menials’ to the same behaviors. They are expected to be lazy, not smart enough to know what to do and always needing to be dictated to. This type of rhetoric only further encourages the servitude cycle to flourish, because it assumes an idea of dependence, that servants need their masters to tell them what to do. This concept of dependency is mentioned by Ray and Qayum because, “the structure of feeling, then, reflects the mutually dependent subjectivities of masters and servants” (Ray and Qayum 5). Zahra’s rhetoric subscribes to this concept because it is designed to make servants think that their existence is dependent on their masters. The constant insistence that a servant is sustained only by their master keeps them within a master’s employment, and the masters will continue to benefit because, “servants are essential to a well-run and well-kept household” (Ray and Qayum, 8). The rhetoric that justifies keeping servants as dependent is incredibly important because it serves to relegate servants to a proscribed place, and continues to allow their employers to benefit from the work they do.

Another product of servitude is the desire it creates within servants to be in the place of their masters. This is a desire that is clearly articulated by Balram, “See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich” (Adiga 191). This yearning for ample money, shelter, food, is especially compounded within domestic servants, constantly privy to a life they will never have. They are surrounded by the products of that life— their masters—who they have to constantly cater to. When Pinky Madam yells at Balram for scratching his groin, he is ashamed, and becomes more ashamed when he notices his own stained teeth, his paan-stained shirt, his slovenly ways. Balram criticizes the way his father raised him, “Why had he raised me to live like an animal? Why do all the poor live amid such filth, such ugliness?” (Adiga 128). He realizes that just like his brother, Kisham, he is turning into his father, into another generation who will raise the next generation to be servants. And this thought absolutely infuriates him. So Balram changes.

In order to be let into the shopping mall, Balram dresses like Ashok, complete with clothes, hygiene and mannerisms. This is the beginning of Balram’s mimicry, a term coined by Homi Bhabha. Mimicry is described as the practice of a colonized subject imitating their colonizer. Bhabha describes it as “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (Bhabha 26). Balram is performing mimicry, as a ‘colonized’ subject, colonized here meaning “the action of appropriating a place or domain for one’s own use” (Oxford Dictionaries). Given that definition, Balram’s masters have appropriated him for their own use. He is angry at his economic situation, angry at his learned social mannerisms, and at this point, angry that servitude has become second nature for him. So, he becomes the exact copy of the people he hates, by wearing their clothes, reading their philosophers, and taking his time alone to think rather than read “Murder Weekly.” In doing so, Balram has idealized his masters, an effect of mimicry that is dangerous in that it normalizes “the colonial subject” (Bhabha 126). Translating this to Balram’s situation means that he has normalized the power his masters wield over him by idealizing it, and by aspiring to it. The practice of mimicry even follows Balram to Bangalore, where the way in which he acts is a product of the way he has learned how to be rich. As a driver, Balram has been able to overhear large parts of the conversations between his employers, becoming “like a sponge” (Adiga 60). In doing so, he “digests” (Adiga 68) his master’s behavior. This is the reason he continues to bribe the police department; he has seen the Mongoose and Ashok deal with the government and knows what it takes to be rich. Servitude has forced him to directly juxtapose his own life with that of the family he serves, and in doing so, Balram begins to idolize them, imitating them, normalizing the power and status they hold, and in this way, his mimicry is a product of his servitude.

Nandi and Balram are incredibly different in their genders, historical situations, and relationships to the families they serve, but they are similar in that fact that they both dream of escape and find ways to constantly rebel against their worlds. Nandi starts out as a character who aspires to be more, and rebels against how she is expected to act. The very first time we see her, she speaks back to Uncle Mohsin, “A slut, A Wanton? And who are you to say it who would have made me one had I let you?” (Hosain 28). Not willing to stay silent, Nandi speaks up and protects herself, and for this is beaten with a cane. This is not an isolated incidence wherein Nandi makes her strong opinions known, and she is rebellious from the very start. After being confined to the ancestral village of Hasanpur, where she is beaten constantly, she runs away “with a pedlar who used to come to the village,” (Hosain 118) an action that she knows will cause her family to completely disavow her. She, however, cannot stand to continue to exist this way and again, instead of suffering silently, she runs away. When she is forced into marriage with a much older man, she continues to have affairs with other men, unwilling to simply accept a loveless arrangement.

At the end of the book, Nandi comes to Laila, to be her ayah, “I have come home, Bitia. I have come to look after my little one. I heard you were looking for an ayah. How could I allow a strange women to look after my baby?” (Hosain 291). This line of reasoning alludes to two things within Nandi’s mindset. The first being that she feels an incredible kinship to Laila, and erego, to her daughter; the second is that she feels responsible to serve Laila, to look after her progeny. As Nandi’s family has served Laila’s for generations, Nandi feels a natural claim to her place of servitude. This, for Nandi, is an escape from her life at Hasanpur, but an escape to what? To servitude—albeit in a different and more supportive atmosphere—but still in service to another. More than that, Nandi’s position as an ayah affords her a great deal of pride: “respectability had smothered her mind and spirit since she had stopped being a washerwoman and become an ayah” (Hosain 290). She enjoys the work, and enjoys being in a position higher than that of a washerwoman. An ayah, a form a women’s work, obviously holds higher social capital as a position, but it is still a form of gendered servitude.

An aspect of the perpetuation of servitude is the fact that at some point, as Ray and Qayum discuss, servants must inevitably give up their dreams and desires. Nandi started out as strong and rebellious to the idea of being a servant forever, but beaten down by time, isolation, and abuse, she has ceded herself. At this point, she hopes for her child to do more, “I will not let my son become like my people, washing the dirty clothes of others, standing in the waters of ponds and rivers, winter and summer. I shall send him to school, and one day, who knows, he may become a babu in the big office” (Hosain 291). She knows that for herself, the hope of breaking out is gone, but for her son, it is not. Her dreams of sending him to a school, though, depend entirely on Laila, and without the support of her employer, Nandi would not be able to afford for her son to receive a good education. In her dreaming, she doesn’t shoot very high, hoping, instead, for her son to become a clerk. This is again, a function of the reality that has been beaten into her, one which has forced her to see only the hurdles that will stand in the way of a servant’s son, and left her unable to dream of anything better than a clerk’s position for her child. Nandi’s “people” have all been clothes-washers, generation after generation, again, continuing the cycle. Nandi, unlike Balram, gives up on her dreams but carries hope for her son, perhaps that he can escape the cyclical nature of servitude.

An effect of the “Rooster Coop” of servitude is that it is a self-maintaining cycle in which those caught in its reaches are discouraged from stepping outside of the coop. Escape is made impossible by the collective nature of the cycle: both servants and masters ascribe to it. Balram, and every other servant, understands this, and when his fellow servants see him doing yoga in the car he is met with “a volley of thumps and blows and shrieks of laughter.” Here, he explains the duties of all in the Coop: “The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs” (Adiga 166). This reaction to Balram stems from mimicking something he has seen on TV. While Balram’s mimicry is a function of colonial ideation, it is also an attempt at escape, just as is Nandi’s “insolence”. He mimics his master for the purpose of being let into a shopping mall, and steals from Ashok in order to procure a blonde prostitute. Balram acts this way in an effort to break out of the cycle of poverty, attempting to combat the way he was taught to live and serve, “like an animal” (Adiga 128). He mimics his masters because they have the life he wishes to have, and this is the only way he can think of to at least to capture some of that life. Another incredibly important part of being contained in the Coop is education. Without proper education, job opportunities are incredibly restricted, because people have not had a chance to acquire proper skills and critical thinking. Being limited to a certain set of low-paying jobs makes it almost impossible to break out of poverty. Balram explains this in a circuitous way to the premier, “It’s when your driver starts to read about Gandhi and the Buddha that it’s time to wet your pants, Mr. Jiabao” (Adiga 145). Gandhi argued for the full rights of Indians against an oppressive British rule (Nanda, B.R.). Buddha reached enlightenment while living a simple life, which was not particularly distinguished or comfortable (PBS.org). Here, Balram is conveying the fact that the concepts of enlightenment and freedom (for poor people) were not something the masters wanted their servants to learn, because it would disrupt the institution of the Coop.

Armed with this knowledge, and becoming more and more aware of the great divide that separates him from his employers, Balram begins, with increasing boldness, to rebel against the servant’s life he has been taught to lead. The more he acts out, he realizes, “the more I stole from him, the more I realized how much he had stolen from me” (Adiga 196). This feeling grows until it attains its true crescendo: the moment Ashok offers to pay for Balram’s wedding, and changes the amount he offers to pay, until he hands Balram a 100-rupee note. Balram now feels that no amount of money would ever be enough to pay back the great debt Ashok owes him. He can no longer live the rest of his life “in a cage” (Adiga 239), like the white tiger he sees at the zoo. In a drastic turn of events, Balram murders his master, steals his bribe money, and runs away, Dharam in tow. The fact that it took a violent crime for Balram to escape his employers, and his own crippling poverty, speaks to the strength of the oppressive cycle of servitude. For Balram, there was no other option: he would’ve worked for the same masters until he died, and his children would then have taken his place in the workforce. He also has to forsake his family to the vengeance of Ashok’s family, thus becoming the exact “inhuman wretch,” (Adiga 57) he once warned against. Only true desperation, ground into a person through years of service resulting in an enormous amount of pent-up anger would cause a person to act so drastically. This is why the rooster coop works.

After making it to Bangalore, and establishing a business, the reader is left to examine if Balram has truly managed to escape the institution of servitude. Certainly, in a physical and economic sense, Balram has gotten out. In a more ideological sense, however, he seems to have just replaced a different component of the system. “I think the Rooster Coop needs people like me to break out of it. It needs masters like Mr. Ashok—who, for all his numerous virtues, was not much of a master—to be weeded out, and exceptional servants like me to replace them” (Adiga 275). The fact that Balram no longer physically serves someone does not necessarily mean he’s fully broken out of the Rooster Coop, though he believes he has. In order for the coop to continue to function, it needs masters to head servants, it needs rich people to continue using the poor. Whether or not he is now a servant doesn’t matter, because his existence in India will inevitably fall into one of two categories: master or servant. A boss is still a master, and Balram has simply moved up the ranks, rather than breaking out of them. Balram even understands this: “There is no end to things in India…” (Adiga 267). His wry observation even concedes that the system will never be fully abolished. Of course, he attempts to be benevolent, treating his employees with respect and acting honorably in another vehicular manslaughter situation. This does not erase the fact that, though servants might occasionally replace their masters, by violent crime or other means, the system will hold, and the ‘Rooster Coop,’ will continue to flourish.

Nandi and Balram are different for many reasons, but their servitude binds them together. Caught in the dependency of their servitude, each seeks a different means of escape and redress to the unfairness they perceive. Balram mimics his masters, while Nandi has extramarital affairs. At the heart of both of their existences, however, is the fact that they have been inculcated into the cycle of servitude, and taught to constantly subject themselves to the will of their master. Both have been beaten down by this unequal power dynamic, and by caste and class. The difference in their narrative styles creates a lens through which to look at the mutual dependence between servant and master. This credence is binding and pervasive, so much so that when dreaming beyond the bounds of their enclosures, neither Balram nor Nandi can dream further than the confines of their own diminished perceptions. The systems in which they live provide a way to examine the power that is held and exerted over individuals and groups. Nandi and Balram provide examples of the way the cycle of servitude is created, maintained and sustained, and the way this profoundly affects an individual and their resolve for escape.