On Bearing Pain

I don’t remember exactly how I came across this video, and when I first clicked on it, I thought it was a cold-blooded backyard science experiment hidden away on some obscure YouTube account. But a few minutes of research informed me that this is a typical experiment in the study of analgesics, medicine for pain relief. The small, white rat in the video was likely administered an analgesic before being placed inside the glass jar, and the amount of time it was willing to endure the pain of its hands and feet burning must have then been recorded and measured against other such experiments. The cruelty of trapping an animal and then turning the heat up beneath its feet elicits immediate revulsion, but by the end of the video, the white rat does the unthinkable by leaping to the top of the glass jar, escaping the heat of the hot plate. Wikipedia informs me that this act – jumping up and away from the hot plate – is a classic response in this particular scientific experiment.

I watched until the end of the video, and the rat’s response ultimately struck me as profound because the option of leaping upward was available to it throughout the three uncomfortable minutes it spent rubbing its hands together to distract from the painful hot plate it sat on. While it scampered around the edges of its clear prison, it never knew that it was capable of propelling itself so far, and while watching the video, I was also convinced of its inability as the seconds ticked by and the rat grew more and more uncomfortable. Its situation seemed hopeless, and like the animal itself, I never even considered that it had the power to leap out of the jar until I saw it happen in the last few moments of the video.

It made me think about how the human animal licks its own mental wounds in daily life. Unlike the rat, we have much more complicated responses to even minimal amounts of pain or boredom: bags of salty potato chips, or our favorite television shows. I’m not against any of those things in principle – I found this very video by wandering into the more remote corners of YouTube, after all – but such activities rarely carry rewards beyond the time we allow ourselves to indulge in them, and they often allow us to escape from the discomforts of living. Low-level pain is bearable for a very long time, and as we are confronted day to day with painful moments, we opt for our usual methods of coping with discomfort rather than taking a more drastic leap into the unknown to separate ourselves from the source of our pain.

It also seems important to remember that the rat gained no special ability to overcome its pain by enduring it. The pain was in no way necessary for the rat to learn its lesson. From the very beginning, it could have jumped to the top of the jar, but the prospect of leaping so far seemed impossibly terrifying compared to the immediate comfort of licking its fiery hands and feet. It was only when the heat became unbearable that it was willing to put itself in a precarious position at the lip of the container, lost and terrified at what would have to come next but surely in a better place than it was before.

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Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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White Tiger by novelist Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, is a short epistolary novel from acclaimed Indian author Aravind Adiga. The brisk tale opens up as a series of letters written across seven late nights in Bangalore, India, where the novel’s narrator, Balram, sets down the story of how he rose from his humble beginnings in a poverty-stricken village to become the owner of his own taxi business in the heart of India, a subcontinental rarity on par with the birth of a white tiger which occurs only once a generation.

The novel details his path from indentured servant to successful entrepreneur, giving the reader a tour of both Indias, old and new, through the eyes of one of India’s enterprising poor. The central conflict of the novel is the collision of India’s ancient caste system with its oncoming status as a modern economic superpower. Adiga has written a satire of India as a fledgling democracy, filling his book with wealthy hypocrites and corrupt politicians. There are numerous clever, entertaining passages where Balram uses animal metaphors, consistent with the rural farming environment of his third-world birthplace, to describe India and its pragmatic entrepreneurs. The landlords of his small village are the selfish long-legged Stork and the gluttonous sharp-tusked Boar. The secret to the centuries-old success of India’s caste system, even within a rising modern democracy, is “The Roost,” an internal system of blackmail which threatens the entire family of anyone who attempts to climb his or her way up the social and economic ladder.

“Why does the Rooster coop work? The pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice…the Indian family is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.”

At times, descriptions of the settings of the novel alone carry the book along, as Adiga takes us across India from the diseased village of Laxmangarh, Balram’s birthplace, to the dichotomized sister cities of Old and New Delhi. For Western readers, the novel works simply and effectively through this notion of exploration, as we are allowed a glimpse of India through the eyes of an enterprising but poverty-stricken Indian boy. India should rightly be considered the chief character of the novel, and its growing pains are broken down into simple juxtapositions of images through Balram’s narrative.

The novel’s main problem, though, is that while India is displayed evenly throughout the book, India’s people are not given much room to breathe. Adiga wants to show us the pitiful struggle of India’s lower class as they face this cultural transformation, and some of the more interesting passages allow us to listen in on Balram’s difficult attempts to define the changing landscape. However, while guiding us through new and old India, Balram never really offers up any complex human drama within himself. Very rarely does Balram allow us inside his mind, opting instead to paint the action of the novel from an external perspective with simplistic prose laced with ironic or sarcastic humor. When it comes to Balram’s first sexual experience, at the climax of the passage we get, “My first time!”

Adiga has said that he wanted to write about India’s lower class “without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually.” (NYTimes) What portrait do we, the readers, get without such sentimentality? Balram is clever and observant of India’s daily pulse, but we never see much more of him than the convenient flashes of ingenuity he uses to move the plot forward. Though the story is told from a first-person perspective, Balram rarely writes about his own thoughts behind the hardships we see him struggle through and around, instead describing the action from a distance. It is possible to avoid sentimentality and yet still portray compelling, touching humanity. This is particularly disappointing at the climax of the story. What should be a powerful moment where Balram chooses to transgress his caste by murdering his employer, almost surely sacrificing his entire family still suffering in Laxmangarh, comes along with the simple, removed prose that guides most of the novel with a speed that doesn’t allow us to feel the full effect of the crucial act.

“I rammed the bottle down. The glass ate his bone. I rammed it three times into the crown of his skull, smashing through to his brains. It’s a good, strong bottle – Johnny Walker Black – well worth its resale value.”

We can see the action clearly, but what is the feeling here? Seemingly, Adiga refuses to allow us to sentimentalize Balram as he commits murder to climb up the social ladder, instead targeting the irony of using an empty, expensive bottle of liquor to kill his wealthy employer, but the lack of a feeling of true transgression and transformation in our main character in this moment must be considered problematic. No doubt, this sort of unaffected prose enhances the sarcastic humor of the story through its simplicity multiple times throughout the book, like when Balram tells us how he avoided complacency in his first job as a tea servant:

“I did my job with near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity – and so the tea shop was a profoundly enriching experience.”

But when we need to feel the weight of the story, the style doesn’t quite deliver.

The narrative moves quickly most of the time, the pacing slowing down only a couple of times throughout its 300 pages. The frame of Balram writing the novel as a series of letters to a Chinese politician seems to drop off after the introduction to Balram in the first chapter, and because its purpose never feels fully realized, the frame itself feels weightless when it returns at the end of the book. Altogether, the book is successful as a polemic critique of the optimistic rhetoric that comes out of India through its new rich and powerful politicians and businessmen, but it is less successful as the story of one of India’s own struggling through that complex landscape itself.