“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga
Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
Free Press, 2008, 304 page The winner of this year’s prestigious Booker Prize focuses on a young man’s rise from the slums of modern India. Balram Halwai is the owner of a taxi fleet; he is also a wanted killer. He tells his life story through letters (written in English) to the Premier of China who is soon to visit Balram’s city of Bangalore . Outsourcing for American companies is the main industry in Bangalore, but Balram explains that this sort of entrepreneurship is not available to India’s lower classes, who do not receive proper education, and very rarely have electricity. Balram suggests to Premier Jiabao that there is another, darker form of entrepreneurship alive and well in India in the form of criminal activity.
As a boy, Balram excelled in school, a rarity for boys of his caste. His family dubbed him “The White Tiger,” then pulled him out of school to work. Balram’s station in life seems fixed, but Balram continues his education by eavesdropping on customers. Eventually, he ingratiates himself to a wealthy family of landlords and moves to Dehli to become their driver.
Balram is treated as an object of convenience for his despicable masters. Balram lives in a tiny, filthy room, and is on call at all times. He is expected to give foot massages, care for the master’s lap dogs (who are better fed than he is), and endure any humiliation the employers see fit. His immediate master, Ashok, was educated in the West. At first, Balram admires Ashok’s worldly ways, but soon learns to despise Ashok’s inability to stand up to his father, his failure to hold onto his sophisticated wife, and his weakness for whiskey.
When Balram is expected to take the blame for a hit-and-run which killed a homeless child (Ashok’s wife was drunk behind the wheel,) Balram confronts the lack of humanity with which the rich are allowed to treat the poor. Balram describes life as a servant in India as “the Rooster Coop.” The entire class system is devised to keep him in. He laments the complacency of the other servants and the arrogance of their masters who fear no retribution for their abuses.
Balram is aware that India is changing, being influenced by Western capitalism. But, despite promises by the Socialist government, the prejudices of an ancient caste system are still in place, and a stupendous gap between rich and poor remains. Balram, recently saddled with a young nephew sent to him by his grandmother, becomes desperate for a way out. He decides to murder Ashok, steal a bag of money Ashok plans to use to bribe an official, and drive off in his master’s air-conditioned Honda to a new life.
Adiga has created a sympathetic anti-hero in Balram. Balram is decidedly not sorry for murdering his boss, or for stealing, or for abandoning his family who will probably pay with their lives for his crime. How else, Adiga seems to asks, could Balram escape the poverty and oppression caused by India’s caste system? The problem is not necessarily Balram’s lack of scruple: it is that a man locked in cage may try to tear his way out.
Balram’s ambivalence is complicated by the fact that Balram’s murdered boss, Ashok, is not a cruel man. He is spoiled and weak. He bribes officials, sleeps with prostitutes, and drinks English whiskey because that is what men of his station do. He is unable to relate to his thoroughly modern wife, or to be with the woman of a lower caste he once loved. Ashok seems as trapped in his life as a landlord as Balram is in his as a servant.
There is nothing magical or sensuous about the India of The White Tiger. The author, through Balram, offers a scathing portrait of a country rife with gritty poverty, corrupt officials, and elitist mores. Adiga’s Dehli is drawn as two very different cities. For the rich, Dehli is a land of swanky malls and nightclubs. Meanwhile, the poor keep warm with fires set in trashcans and urinate in the gutters. The existence of each world is dependent on not looking to closely at the other. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, Ashok visits Balram’s room in the servants’ quarters and is shamefully unaware that such squalor exists in his very own home.
Adiga-as-Balram is irreverent and sly. He uses language that is suitably coarse and without poetry, a counterpoint to more lyrical literature by Indian writers like Salman Rushdie or Bharati Mukhergee. Overall, the effect is a smart, engaging, and entertaining read.
The novel’s one flaw may be its utter lack of surprise or suspense due to the narrative framing device; Balram admits to murdering his boss at the beginning of the book. Luckily, the novel echoes the mystery magazines enjoyed by Balram’s fellow drivers, promising “Rape, Murder, and Mayhem:” Though the outcome is foretold, the interest lies in the lurid details.