Systemic Oppression of the Other, Systemic Oppression of the Self
Servitude, COVID-19, and “Family.”
When I was very young, my father used to regale me with stories about his childhood in East India, growing up with his older sister Lara and his younger sister Sheela* being shuttled around from small town to small town with his father, my grandfather, who worked as an administrator for the Indian Railways, responsible for the movement of goods trains in a section of the Eastern Railway, traveling throughout the system, touring and inspecting operations activity across dozens of stations. One person my father often spoke of was Bahadur, a young man who worked for his family for a few years when he was a child who became his de facto caretaker. My father idolized Bahadur, a servant who was so much more to him than that, and the stories my father told me about him painted him as an almost mythic creature with mysterious origins who had a profoundly deep impact on his life.
It’s been decades since I thought about Bahadur, but he came to mind when I recently watched The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s 2021 adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name. It’s a sharply written rags-to-riches story about a servant in New Delhi named Balram, (Adarsh Gourav, in a stunning performance in his first leading role) who gradually overcomes his station in life, raising himself up to become a successful entrepreneur through questionably moral means. Balram begins his life as a chauffeur for the wealthy Shah family; he holds the firm belief that it is an honor to perform his duty to serve them, and the family in return frequently claims that they consider him a member of their family, even though, as time goes on, it becomes clear what a disingenuous claim this actually is.
So I recently asked my father to recap his memories of Bahadur. This is what he wrote to me:
Bahadur was about 17 years old when he floated in across the border from Nepal into Sahibganj, in Bihar, where we were stationed for a few years. He came to my dad’s office at the Railways looking for work. Bapi brought him home, and he and Ma hired him as a kind of ‘utility player.’ I was about 4 years old at the time. Bahadur became my hero. He taught me about life’s everyday secrets. He taught me adventure and courage. He taught me how to revere nature. I ate wild berries with him and listened to him tell me about the behavior of earthworms in our ecosystem. When we moved to Dhanbad, I was playing in the back garden of our house and there was a cobra among the rocks under a tree – a deadly, poisonous snake – and I was poking and prodding it. Bahadur saw what was happening, brought a stick, and killed it, which saved my life. I used to ride on the handlebars of his bicycle to the bazaar, and he bought me toys. I sat with him as he sat near the manhole outside the kitchen while he ate his dinner. There was a stray dog in the neighborhood called Tutey, and somehow Tutey became Bahadur’s dog. He trained him to bring pillows between his teeth while making our beds. I felt Bahadur could do ANYTHING. Strange, but I think I learned confidence from him. Not to fear anything in life. He was family. I never saw him as anything else. When I was 7 years old, he left. I’m not sure of the exact reason, but I think it was because he wanted a permanent job in the Railway organization. Bapi couldn’t find a slot for him in the short term. Bahadur went to Nepal for a short home leave and never returned. Broke my heart. He told me he would come back someday. I’m still waiting for him.
My father is 70 years old. He has lived in the United States since 1978. He currently lives in Berkeley, CA, and works as a Vice-President of Wells Fargo Corporate. And he’s still waiting for his beloved Bahadur, who left him when he was a little boy, to come home to Dhanbad.
This made me tear up.
But I can’t help unpacking some of this story critically. This young man, an immigrant from Nepal, showed up wanting a paying job in the Railways, and my grandfather couldn’t make that happen, so he hired him as a servant. Bahadur ran errands, he took care of my father, he made the beds. My father considered him family. But there it is, right there in my dad's narrative: Bahadur didn’t eat dinner inside the house with the family. Bahadur ate outside the kitchen, seated next to a manhole. And while my heart hurts for my father losing his friend, companion, and protector, I can’t exactly blame Bahadur for leaving. Nobody with the balls to walk into a perfect stranger’s office and ask for a job, would want to remain a servant indefinitely.
In The White Tiger, Balram is from a lower-caste family, living in a village in Laxmangarh, where the Shah family operated as their landlords. Balram was a bright child who could read and write English and was offered a scholarship to a school in New Delhi. He was declared the titular “White Tiger” by his community: an exceptional creature born only once a century. However, due to his father being stuck working low-paid menial jobs with no formal education, there was not enough money to pay their landlords and a prestigious school, and so, Balram’s grandmother forces him to go to work in the village tea stall to earn money for the family. He never returns to school, and his father eventually dies from tuberculosis, because he cannot afford medical care.
When Balram becomes a young man, he aspires to become the chauffeur for the Shah’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned to India from the United States with his New York-raised wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and, he succeeds. Ashok’s father and older brother, both born and raised in India, treat Balram poorly, often asking him to do menial tasks on top of his chauffeuring duties, and they speak to him dismissively or aggressively. Balram is initially willing to accept this as his lot in life; he was born a lower-caste individual, and he considers it an honor to serve his duty to the wealthy family who provides a place for his family to live.
The dynamics shift significantly when the Shahs decide to send Ashok and Pinky to New Delhi. The elder Shahs are fundamentally corrupt, a family who has made their millions in the oil industry, and Ashok's father wants to avoid paying taxes. Their method of staying solvent (and not in jail) is bribing politicians to look the other way. Ashok’s job in New Delhi is to keep paying regular visits to various high-ranking members of Parliament, handing over literal bags of cash to them. The Shahs view this as protecting their interests and buying favor (a kind of funhouse mirror version of being a political lobbyist).
Back in New Delhi, once it’s just Ashok and Pinky to chauffeur, Balram gets a taste of what it’s like to be treated with kindness. Ashok and Pinky, influenced by their life in New York, don’t believe that servants should be treated like mere peons. Ashok demands that Balram stop calling him “Sir” or “Master.” Pinky tries to ask Balram what he really wants to do with his life, saying that she escaped a depressing future working in her parents’ bodega in Jackson Heights by going to NYU and becoming a licensed chiropractic practitioner, and she sincerely believes that Balram could do anything he wanted to do if he set his mind to it. (Although, Balram keeps insisting that all he wants to do is his duty towards his employers). Even though Ashok and Pinky both tend to speak to Balram in a condescending manner, with the privilege of their Western outlook, they don’t expect him to perform humiliating tasks like massaging their feet with oil (something Ashok’s father demands of Balram when he sees him) or shouting at him not to touch things in their home. They even invite him to celebrate Pinky’s birthday with them, and they tell him that they consider him family, and he begins to genuinely believe it.
My Sheela Aunty lived her entire adult life in Calcutta with her parents. She had a full-time job, working for one of the largest hotel companies in India, but she never quite left home. My dad and my Lara Aunty, always considered this to be a bit of a “failure to launch.” After all, my father immigrated to America after he got married. Lara moved to Paris at the age of twenty with less than $50 to her name to study at the Sorbonne, where she met my uncle Claude. When my grandfather passed away, Sheela Aunty continued to live with my grandmother, and every few years, throughout middle and high school, and well into my college years, my father and I would go to visit them over my winter breaks.
Hema was Sheela Aunty and my grandmother’s housekeeper. She was a refugee from Bangladesh who fled over the border as a child during Bangladesh’s war for independence against Pakistan. She never completed high school. She had a daughter but was estranged from her husband, and she supported herself and her daughter with domestic work. I don’t know how Sheela Aunty found Hema, but when I remember my trips to India, Hema is always a huge part of the landscape of my memories.
Hema was sharp as a tack, efficient, and sassy. I adored her. We all did. Hema couldn’t speak much English, and I cannot speak a word of Bengali. My parents used to speak it to each other but were lax about ensuring that I learn to speak it myself, only speaking to me in English. After my mother’s death when I was 12 years old, I stopped hearing the language at all at home. But having been immersed since birth around two native speakers, I understand it fluently. So fluently, that I even understand it idiomatically – there are times when I hear colloquial phrases in Bengali that are absolutely untranslatable to English in a coherent way, but on some instinctive level, I know what they mean. Some might find my relationship with Bengali to be fraught, but I’ve never felt that way. Being able to understand it is about 85% of the battle when one is in Calcutta, especially because after 300 years of British rule, most Indians know how to speak English. I get along just fine.
Hema and I were always able to communicate with each other pretty thoroughly between her broken English, my fluent comprehension of Bengali, and our mutual love of Bollywood movies. My favorite story of Hema and myself – the definitive one of our relationship – was during one of our winter trips to Calcutta, when the day after we arrived, I was so miserably jetlagged, that I could barely drag myself out of bed to eat the hot breakfast Hema had cooked before I went back to the living room to pass out again on the couch. Hema was bustling around the flat, tidying up, and she walked past me flopping around on the cushions in a semi-fugue state.
“Reeya,” Hema said in Bengali. “Reeya! You should take a bath. You’ll feel refreshed with a bath. Shall I run one for you?”
I grunted in assent, and she started chuckling. “Okay, I’m getting the water started for you, you delicate American girl,” she said, again in Bengali.
“Hey!” I retorted in English. “Don’t be using ‘American’ as an insult with me, Hema!” And then we both were cracking up. A whole conversation, a whole camaraderie, a whole relationship, carrying on a whole conversation in two different languages, with a woman I only saw every few years. When I think of Hema, I think of that moment, and it still makes me laugh.
In 2005, my grandmother suffered a major stroke and lost much of her ability to be independent. Hema really stepped up when this happened. Sheela Aunty had to go to work, and my grandmother was not safe alone in her flat on her own given her mobility issues. Hema, who used to only come in the mornings to make breakfast and clean the flat, began staying with my grandmother all day long, while Sheela Aunty was at work. She made sure my grandmother ate lunch, got her out of her chair, and moving slowly around the house, holding her by the arms, to try to maintain what remained of her flexibility and muscle.
Eventually, Hema got my grandmother to the point where they could go up to the rooftop terrace of the apartment building and walk the perimeter several times. Hema did this cheerfully and without complaint, because she genuinely loved my grandmother, and genuinely loved Sheela Aunty. If she felt it was her “duty” to help, that was never the impression I got. She gave herself to the task of caretaking for my grandmother as if she was caring for her own mother.
Hema was family. I saw her as family. We all saw her as family. She was a godsend during those years. Sheela Aunty paid her extra for her efforts. But every day, when Hema wasn’t actively helping my grandmother, she was cooking, dealing with the laundry, and often down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors of the flat.
She was family. But was she, really? My grandmother passed away a few years later, and Hema’s job description morphed back into regular housekeeper from being a caretaker. She continued to work for Sheela Aunty, but something in their relationship had profoundly changed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and I also wasn’t really in a position to speculate. The last time I visited India was in 2005, after my grandmother’s stroke. I haven’t been back since. My relationship with Sheela Aunty became strained once I graduated from college, as she seemed to fall into a deep depression that she refused to seek treatment for, which then turned into a mild form of agoraphobia and an extreme form of judgmentalism towards basically everyone. Even though no one knows more than me how untreated mental illness can have a calamitous effect on the way one treats their loved ones, talking to Sheela Aunty became increasingly unpleasant and I began ducking her calls and texts. In the last few years, I would communicate with her twice a year: once on her birthday and once on mine. The realities of being a working adult (as opposed to a student who gets nearly a month off from classes at Christmas time) made it hard to justify a 27-hour journey to visit an aunt with whom I didn’t enjoy spending time, and three cousins - my father's older brother's kids - with whom I have nothing in common. (Them: Vijaya - pharmaceutical rep turned stay-at-home mom, Robi - engineer and father, Arpita - anesthesiologist and mother. Me: unmarried, childfree by choice, no post-graduate degree, blue hair, tattoos, musician, long-winded writer of Story Screen essays, underemployed accountant, and very, very American).
As a result, I haven’t seen or spoken to my Bangla-English banter buddy Hema in over 15 years, this wonderfully funny, courageous, generous woman under Sheela Aunty’s employ who gave so much to her and to my grandmother. Was Hema ever really my family? Considering how rarely I talk to my actual family in India, it’s hard for me to say at this point.
After what turns out to be a calamitous end to Pinky’s birthday celebration in The White Tiger, Balram’s story becomes quite dark. I am purposely not going to elaborate on the circumstances of what went down because I don’t want to ruin the plot. But Ashok’s father and brother end up paying a visit to Ashok and Pinky in New Delhi after the incident. The two of them resume their humiliating treatment towards Balram, forcing him to massage Ashok’s father’s gross feet again, shoving him and even kicking him at times, and being verbally abusive. Ashok, while perfectly magnanimous towards Balram when his family isn’t present, starts mimicking their treatment of Balram, which appalls Pinky (who already finds the way her husband shrinks into himself and stops speaking his own mind in front of his father and brother to be pathetic and distasteful). Eventually, after her in-laws return to Laxmangarh, Pinky leaves Ashok and returns to New York. Ashok falls into depression, starts drinking excessively and smoking copious amounts of pot, and begins to depend on Balram for emotional support. Balram, used to serving Ashok as a matter of “duty,” is only too happy to comply. “Why are you so kind to me, Balram?” Ashok wails drunkenly one night, “You are my only true friend. You are like my little brother.”
But when Ashok’s actual brother returns yet again to coach Ashok through another round of political bribery, Ashok (in his brother’s presence) begins to mistreat Balram yet again. Balram finally begins to understand that as a servant, he will never truly be family to Ashok. And as long as he remains a servant, he will remain locked into a confining lifestyle, dictated by the realities of his birthplace and station, and by the reality of having to provide consistent income for his family back in Laxmangarh. He begins to realize that the societal system is rigged against people like him – and not just for the stereotypical reasons of caste. Balram has not just been harmed by the way the Shah family treats him. Balram has been harmed by the fact that his opportunity for an education was snatched away from him for a multitude of reasons: his father’s ignorance about money, the fact that his grandmother emotionally blackmailed him into working in that tea stall to help provide for his family, by the fact that he was conditioned to be a servant - not just by societal expectations of his caste and class - but by his own family’s attitude about where they stood within the hierarchy of Indian society. He was conditioned to believe that being a chauffeur for a rich family was the highest honor that he could achieve. The farthest up he could climb. He never once thought that he was capable of more in his life because every aspect of the world he lived in conspired to keep him down. And it is once Balram makes this realization, and remembers his childhood prophecy that he is in fact the famed, once-in-a-lifetime “White Tiger,” that he plans his escape from the fate of being a servant for life.
The way that Balram extricates himself from a life of servitude and becomes a spectacularly successful entrepreneur and business owner is also quite grim. He flees to Bangalore and establishes a fleet of professional drivers to service the booming tech industry there. (He makes a point of saying that he treats his employees like employees, with the respect an employee deserves. He has them sign contracts when he hires them, and he never once refers to them as his “family”). I am again going to purposefully avoid elaborating on how he succeeds in becoming a successful business owner, so as not to ruin the plot, because honestly, everyone should watch The White Tiger. But by the end of the film, we realize that the thesis of the whole story is that once a slave realizes he is a slave, that is what allows him to free himself. Balram makes a (very welcome, in my book) snarky comment about the fantastical rags-to-riches tale of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at one point, saying that in real life, there is no sparkly celebrity with a million dollars who will pull you out of poverty. One must take ownership of their own life in order to succeed. One must be willing to believe that they deserve better than what forces outside of their control - family, exorbitant wealth vs. extreme poverty, the entire culture of servitude that exists in India - exert on their lives. In the end, Balram is living a version of the American dream. But it’s actually the Indian dream. “White people are on their way out,” Balram tells a colleague, “It’s the brown man and the yellow man’s world now.”
On January 6, 2021, while my boyfriend and I sat dumbfounded on our couch watching CNN’s coverage of the Capitol Riot, my phone rang. It was my father. At nearly 9 pm. When my father calls that late on a weeknight, with the three-hour time difference between us, it’s never good news. But that night when I answered the phone, I assumed that he was calling to talk about the utter insanity that had happened in Washington DC that day (which, admittedly, was NOT good news).
But I was so incredibly wrong.
“Reeya,” my dad said, “Sheela is dead.”
Sheela Aunty, my father’s baby sister, had been found dead in her flat that morning by Hema when she came in to do her usual cook-and-clean. Sheela Aunty was only 67 years old.
I couldn’t believe it. “What happened? How could this happen?” And then it dawned on me. “Did she have COVID?”
“I think she did,” my dad said. He had video-chatted with her only a few days prior, and she had looked pale and drawn and exhausted. She was having difficulty talking because she couldn’t seem to catch her breath, and when she did breathe, she was wheezing heavily. My dad obviously couldn’t diagnose his sister in Calcutta from Berkeley over WhatsApp, but we had been living in a global pandemic for nearly a year, and she certainly was showing symptoms of the coronavirus.
The thing about Sheela Aunty is that well before she fell into depression and quasi-agoraphobia, she was afraid of doctors. In fact, she was always afraid of doctors, for as long as I can remember. When she got sick, she relied on a homeopath. During one of my trips to Calcutta, I was struck by a horrendous case of food poisoning, and I couldn’t even keep water down. I was so weak that I couldn’t hold my head upright. I probably should have been taken to the hospital for intravenous hydration. But Sheela Aunty was afraid of doctors, and so she popped over to the neighborhood homeopath, who gave her some random tincture that I was forced to swallow every hour, and a packet of foul-tasting electrolyte powder that she stirred into glasses of water and had my dad administer to me. (To this day I do not know why my father didn’t intervene and get me to a hospital, but no matter now; obviously, I survived. Still, WTF Dad?)
So from what my dad, Lara Aunty in Paris, and my doctor cousin Arpita in Calcutta could surmise, Sheela Aunty began showing symptoms of COVID-19 about a week prior to her death, and instead of going to a doctor (or even calling her niece, Dr. Arpita, the hot-shot anesthesiologist, for a reality check), she went to that goddamn homeopath and came home with some tinctures or powders or some such bullshit, and then she died in the middle of the night from what the medical examiner determined was “cardiorespiratory failure.” (“Yeah,” my neurobiologist godsister in Boston told me when I called to give her the news, “That’s what happens to people who die of COVID. They literally cannot breathe.”)
In their grief, Lara Aunty and my dad began to blame, of all people, Hema for Sheela’s death. Why hadn’t she intervened? Why didn’t she care enough to do anything to help? Obviously, my dad said, she didn’t give a shit.
“Why would you say that about Hema?” I asked my dad. “Remember how good she was to Dida after her stroke? Why are you insinuating that she let Sheela Aunty die?”
“Hema was a trouble-maker,” my dad said. “She was very difficult. Over the past ten years or so, she kept blackmailing Sheela all the time.”
I was confused. “What do you mean by ‘blackmail’? Did Sheela Aunty have some sort of secret life that Hema knew about or something?”
“No, no,” my dad said dismissively. “She was always asking Sheela for more and more money. Her daughter was having a baby and having a difficult pregnancy, the cost of living was going up, she was taking on more responsibility because Sheela was getting older, Hema herself had arthritis but couldn’t afford to stop working, so she was always trying to get more money. Blackmailing. Sheela would complain to me about it all the time. To Lara too – ask Lara Aunty. She felt Hema was taking advantage of her kindness and always asking for more, more, more.”
This felt truly bizarre. Why was it such an affront that Hema, who had worked for Sheela Aunty for decades, should ask for a cost of living pay increase? Especially, when she had lost the bonus payment she received during the years she took care of my grandmother? Why was it offensive that Hema would ask Sheela Aunty for support during her daughter’s difficult pregnancy? Why was it offensive to point out that Hema was taking on extra responsibility because Sheela Aunty’s mental health was taking a toll on her physical health, especially after she retired (she reportedly left her flat so rarely that walking up a flight of stairs would leave her back aching and her lungs burning)? Why was it offensive to point out that as a low-income earning domestic worker, Hema, could not afford to stop working even though her own health was suffering? That isn’t blackmailing. That isn’t even emotional blackmail. That was a woman advocating for herself to her employer. Not only that, it was a woman who went above and beyond to take care of my sick grandmother while Sheela Aunty was still working full time, and she did so from the moment of my grandmother’s stroke, until the day of my grandmother’s death. What she did was nothing short of heroic, in my eyes. Sheela Aunty never considered this fact once – that Hema took care of my grandmother when she couldn’t – and instead, she had the audacity to complain to her siblings in France and America that Hema was asking for a raise? Sheela Aunty never married, never had kids, and she lived a frugal life. She owned her flat outright and had considerable savings, investments, and a pension. She could have more than afforded to pay Hema a little bit more – or a LOT more, given what Hema had done for my grandmother.
“We never treated our servants like they were dirt,” my father told me after he watched The White Tiger. “We were not like the Shah family in this film. We treated them well. We cared for them. It might have been a little relic of that old British colonial noblesse oblige, but still, we took care of them, because we valued what they did for us. They really were like extended family.”
And yet now, Lara Aunty and my father speak about Hema as if she fucking murdered Sheela Aunty. As if by virtue of asking for a raise, Hema somehow kept Sheela Aunty from seeking treatment for COVID. (If you ask me, it’s the bloody homeopath who should be blamed here.)
I realized, at this moment, just how deeply my father and Lara Aunty had been steeped in the societal conditioning of their upbringing in India. My father has lived in the United States for over 40 years. Lara Aunty has lived in France for nearly 50 years. Most of the time, I would describe the two of them as more Western than Indian, both in outlook and worldview, especially after spending more than half of their lives living abroad. However, it's clear that on the topic of servant culture in India - a culture and practice that does not exist or function, structurally, in the West - they can't turn those cultural blinders off. They can't quite see someone like Hema as a real person. They are like Ashok and Pinky in The White Tiger: convinced of their enlightened, liberal sensibilities, they believe they acquired in America and France, but in the end, still condescending, insulting, and disrespectful of someone's humanity just by virtue of their servitude.
In the nearly six months since Sheela Aunty died of COVID-19, India has seen a horrendous surge of COVID deaths. A second wave of the pandemic has arrived in India with multiple new variants of the virus cropping up with deadly results. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member of a Hindu fundamentalist political party. He cares more about turning India, a Democratic country founded on secular principles, into a Hindu country, - oppressing its not-insignificant Muslim minority - than he does about the health of his people. He bragged and boasted last year that the COVID-19 response in India was one of the best in the world. He took credit for that claim even though he actually did nothing to prepare to see India through an inevitable second wave (because in pandemics, there is always a second wave). This is proving to be a living nightmare – supply-chain issues are causing shortages in oxygen, hospitals across the country are desperately sending out distress signals, saying they are running out of beds and do not have enough oxygen to treat the thousands of newly-infected citizens. There are so many deaths in India now that there are mass cremations. Families who lose loved ones to COVID don’t even have the ability to give them dignified end-of-life care, a proper funeral service, a measure of closure. Modi refuses to acknowledge the oxygen shortage, and members of his political party have begun to threaten activists who speak up about the calamity that is Modi’s supposed brilliant COVID response preparedness.
A month ago, in Calcutta, my cousin Vijaya, her husband, and her teenage daughter, all tested positive for COVID-19. Because Vijaya has access to one of the best hospitals in the city, (her sister Arpita works there as an anesthesiologist) she and her husband were given beds, access to the ICU, and oxygen, which they both needed. Vijaya’s daughter Malini experienced comparatively less severe symptoms and was sent to a quarantine center for ten days, followed up by another two weeks of isolation at Arpita’s house. While she was in the quarantine center, Malini texted me frequently about how scared and lonely she was, and I did my best to comfort her. “I am so angry at God,” she kept texting me, “God has ruined my happy family.”
How do you tell a frightened ninth-grader who lives a very sheltered life in Calcutta (compared to the life I lived in San Francisco when I was 15 years old) that she’s angry at the wrong person, without sounding like a fucking asshole? As much as I desperately wanted to say “Malini, I don’t believe in God. There is no God. Modi is the problem. Modi is the one who has done this to your family. Be angry at Modi,” I just couldn’t. It wasn’t going to make her less scared. And it wasn’t going to make a lick of difference. We already had one relative die of COVID this year; I don’t think this kid wants to hear a political rant from her absentee righteous American Reeya Aunty right now.
Vijaya has since been released from the hospital and is with Malini at Arpita’s house. I hear that Vijaya’s husband is on the mend as well. They are lucky because Arpita is a doctor. All over Facebook and Twitter, I see desperate pleas from Indian friends of mine from college: “Does anyone know if there are any beds in any hospitals within a 50 km radius of Pune right now?” “Does anyone know if there are any hospitals in Mumbai with oxygen?” Asking for family, they all said. I went to college with wealthy-ass motherfuckers; you don’t get into the kind of dubiously prestigious name-brand school that I went to, as an international student, without coming from money. They were resorting to social media to save their families. Their wealth cannot help them now.
This is a full-blown catastrophe. In a recent editorial by Arundhati Roy in The Guardian, she wrote:
On the night of 22 April, 25 critically ill coronavirus patients on high-flow oxygen died in one of Delhi’s biggest private hospitals… where shall we look for solace? For science? Shall we cling to numbers? How many dead? How many recovered? When will the peak come? On 27 April, the report was 323,144 new cases, 2,771 deaths. The precision is somewhat reassuring. Except – how do we know? Tests are hard to come by, even in Delhi… if Delhi is breaking down, what should we imagine is happening in villages in Bihar, in Uttar Pradesh, in Madhya Pradesh? Where tens of millions of workers from the cities, carrying the virus with them, are fleeing home to their families, traumatized by their memory of Modi’s national lockdown in 2020. It was the strictest lockdown in the world, announced with only four hours’ notice. It left migrant workers stranded in cities with no work, no money to pay their rent, no food, and no transport. Many had to walk hundreds of miles to their homes in far-flung villages. Hundreds died along the way. This time around, although there is no lockdown, the workers have left while transport is still available, while trains and buses are still running. They’ve left because they know that even though they make up the engine of the economy in this huge country, when a crisis comes, in the eyes of this administration, they simply don’t exist… these are villages where people die of easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea and tuberculosis. How are they to cope with Covid? Are Covid tests available to them? Is there oxygen? More than that, is there love? Forget love, is there even concern? There isn’t. Because there is only a heart-shaped hole filled with cold indifference where India’s public heart should be.
"India..." Balram says more than once in The White Tiger, his words dripping with the venom of bitter cynicism, "...the biggest democracy in the world." As I hear more about what is happening in India right now, I keep thinking of those words. India has always been so proud of its status as a democracy after centuries of colonial rule, and yet, the foundation of Indian society is still built on the principles of feudalism, racism, and colorism, and the man currently in charge is a fascist demagogue who is literally watching the dead bodies of his citizens burn in mass cremations.
The workers Roy is writing about in her editorial are people like Balram. They are people who have realized that no one cares to truly take care of them. While Aravind Adiga certainly had no idea when he was writing his novel that 12 years later there would be a global pandemic, nor did Ramin Bahrani know while he was directing The White Tiger that the film’s release would be pushed back almost a year due to said global pandemic, here we are, just like with The Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, and Judas and the Black Messiah – being presented with a film that inadvertently resonates with the current political moment. I have to wonder if the workers Roy is referencing in her piece are having a similar awakening to Balram’s? Are they beginning to understand how they live in a country that doesn’t see their humanity, or that they are trapped in a system that perpetuates a culture that keeps certain classes of people down and self-reinforces that oppression? Do they realize they need to truly recognize their own fate, as low-income workers, in poverty, that reduces them to the level of slavery, and that only by recognizing their slavery can they change things?
I find myself thinking about Hema. I don’t know where she is now that she no longer has Sheela Aunty as her employer, now that my father and Lara Aunty have turned on her. I find myself remembering that time she jokingly called me a “delicate American girl” in Bengali, and I wonder what she would think of me now, writing an essay that might result in me getting canceled by my entire damn family. I worry about her because someone has to. I hope she’s okay. I hope she’s found another job. I hope she doesn’t get COVID. If she does and she dies of it, that news will never reach me. I will never know what happens to her now. I have to live with that.
And then this gets me thinking about my father’s beloved Bahadur. The mythical tough Gurkha, the young man from Nepal who wandered into my father’s life and changed it so profoundly. The man who abandoned my father nearly six decades ago. The man my father says he is still waiting for. The man my father says was family to him, even though he ate his dinner next to a manhole outside the kitchen. The man whose reason for leaving is still somewhat of a mystery to my father.
But I know why Bahadur left. I am certain of it. Bahadur came to my grandfather looking for a career in the Railways. He left because he likely realized that as long as he stayed, he would always remain a servant. He knew that no matter how well my father’s family treated him (and I know my grandparents; I know they never abused him), no matter how attached my father was to him, no matter how much he loved my father, that if he stayed, he was signing up for a life he did not want. Whatever he was escaping from in Nepal when he first walked into my grandfather’s office was preferable to a life of servitude, of self-reinforcing notions of “duty,” of conditioning himself to believe that this was the best he could do with his life. But instead of resorting to the extreme measures Balram does to free himself from this fate in The White Tiger, Bahadur did the only thing he could: he went home. He took his power, and he walked away. And after watching The White Tiger and seeing the way that COVID has destroyed the people of my mother’s land, and witnessing the vicious way my father and Lara Aunty turned on Hema after Sheela Aunty died, I can’t help but admire Bahadur for his courage. He got out before he slipped too far in. I don’t know if Bahadur is still alive now, but if he is, I wish I knew how to reach him. I need to tell him that I believe he is that once-in-a-lifetime creature. That he is, indeed, the OG White Tiger.
*Names of family members have been changed throughout this piece.
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.