The White Tiger
All I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder was enough.
The White Tiger is an Indian success story, a model for local entrepreneurs and start-up dreamers – or so would Balram, our narrator and main character want you thinking for the first page or so. It quickly becomes obvious that it is, in fact, a story of extreme poverty, corruption inhumanity and murder. The social gap between East and West, between India and Europe (or India and fellow Asian Japan) is quite staggering. To think that this one country, a rising economy, contains about one sixth of the world population, a high percentage of which lives in The Darkness makes you wonder if it won’t eventually implode – like anything else built on an unsound foundation.
The contrast drawn between the darkness (mainland India, villages around the river Ganges – where Balram is born) and the light (coastal India, the big cities – Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai) is stark; but then again, there’s contrast even within the light: malls, office buildings, a whole “Electronics City” standing alongside widespread slums. Of course, none of this is actually news – but well-known facts about the world we live in; but to immerse in this world, even through a book, can be somewhat hard to digest and can certainly throw a new light on your own lifestyle.
Balram is by no measure an extraordinary character. His destiny is that of millions from the lower casts, a life of poverty, illiteracy and servitude to masters and elders of his family (Granny is quite the character; it would be easy to judge her as an evil witch on first sight, but if you delve deeper into her own background, you can see she hasn’t much choice but to be this way; it’s not a land where grandmothers make cookies and tell stories by the fire). As his US educated master would say, Balram is a half-baked man, but you can’t really hold that against him. The irony of fate is that, in order to become a man (a free man, on his on feet, as his father had once hoped he would), he has to slay another.
The tale of how he came to murder his master is put forth through letters he writes to China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, after hearing of his impending visit to India (of course, they are nothing but a literary device). In doing so, he describes many of the social injustices that have been infringed on him (or the likes of him), the corruption that flaws any aspect of public service (government, public health & education systems, elections etc), and his burgeoning thoughts of revenge in a darkly funny and straightforward manner. Sure, perhaps some characters are sketchy and somewhat grotesque (the other driver in Buckingham towers, the men shitting at the entrance in a slum) – but this doesn’t steal much from the authenticity of other episodes. It’s a bit like Crime and Punishment, but without the crippling guilt (which actually is the whole point of Crime…); Balram feels his killing was justified, he feels he’s been enlightened enough to see the bars of his cage of servitude and, in doing so, he sacrifices his entire family to escape (the remaining relatives of his master will have killed them).
Though insisting the big city corrupted him, Balram was never exactly an epitome of morality. The more he learns of the world, the more choices he has to make – and he usually makes them for his own advantage, not for any higher sense of righteousness or duty (denouncing a colleague’s Muslim faith in order to get ahead in a household he knew despised Muslims, not sending money to his family, calculating which attitude would bring him most advantage etc). So he is not “fallen” he is just a man who’s learnt what he was allowed to, and who one day rebelled.
My favorite metaphor was definitely the rooster coop, symbolizing the mindless enslavement of the lower castes: they are all aware of their fate and take it as is, without ever entertaining the possibility of change – just like chickens before the slaughter. This is really all that sets Balram apart.
By no means a perfect book (it starts off strong and then wavers a bit towards the middle and end), Mr. Adiga’s debut won him the Booker last year. I assume there’s got to be a bit of pressure on him to deliver the second time around and, personally, I’ll be looking out for his next book, since I definitely enjoyed this one.
Reviews: The Guardian, India Today, The Telegraph (-> I’m not so sure about their real India; but I liked what Mr. Adiga said in an interview: I simply wrote about the India I know, the one I live in. It’s not “alternative India” for me! It’s pretty mainstream, trust me)