Even as The White Tiger broke into the hallowed shortlist of the Booker, I remained ignorant of it, dismissing it as just another okay work by a debutant novelist that would eventually lose out to The Sea of Poppies, which was deservedly enjoying good reviews. Then suddenly one day I saw a balding man, with an unassuming personality wearing a bow tie, looking at me from the front page of news papers holding the coveted prize in his hands. The captions screamed that Aravind Adiga had won the Booker for The White Tiger.
We underestimate the first timers, don’t we?
As The White Tiger started flying off the shelves, I avoiding further delay brought my copy of The Tiger home.
The White Tiger, at one level, can be thoroughly dismissed as another India-bashing book. It takes a grim view of everything Indian and slams every Indian evil – caste system, poverty, poor-rich divide, etc. – that has already undergone enough literary battering by several Indian authors writing in English. Sometimes the book makes you feel bad for being an Indian; sometimes the book makes you feel bad that you are reading it despite being an Indian.
But, sadly, each time you put it down, the what-happens-next curiosity gets the better of you and you start reading it again. There lies the strength of The White Tiger. The novel is a breath-taking piece of storytelling: it is a fun read with simple language, minimal plot detours (the subplots have been skillfully weaved into the main narrative and don’t keep the reader waiting to know where the main plot is headed) and wry humour.
The story is in first person where the protagonist, Balram Halwai, the son of a Rikshaw puller, is writing an autobiographical letter to the visiting Chinese Premier. Being from the ‘Dark’ (Dark being the poor India and Light being rich), Balram goes through all kinds of privations and denials – premature stoppage of education, menial jobs, early loss of father to TB, etc. – and laps up an employment as a rich man’s driver. As a quick learner and keen eavesdropper, Balram starts observing the depravities of the rich and learns to get things done without being observed. Balram manipulates the head driver and wangles up the opportunity to be the driver of his master’s America-return son, Ashok, who is going to Delhi with his wife, Pinki Madam.
Delhi is a new world for Balram which exposes him to new lessons in life. It is in Delhi that Balram understands the clear divide between the poor and rich.
As Ashok and Pinki Madam settle into the city of boulevards, manipulation and corruption, Balram acquires ‘education’ in how the rich city dwellers live their lives. Delhi also teaches Balram that although the ‘Dark’ alleyways will sometimes intersect the ‘Light’ lanes for their survival, they will never merge and become one.
It is in this heatless city that Balram decides to crossover – from slavery to entrepreneurship. And he commits every sin – murder, stealing, betrayal – on his way to entrepreneurship.
The White Tiger is unlike a Booker-winning book: it’s readable and entertaining with the occasional doses of intellectual snobbery wrapped in the fine coating of humour.
Balram, now a successful entrepreneur and ‘social pillar’ in Bangalore, ends his letter to the Chinese Premier justifying the amoral acts he committed on his way to success. He writes, “ Even if they throw me in jail and have all other prisoners ‘dip their beak’ into me – even if they make me walk wooden stair to the hangman’s noose – I will never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat”.
“I have made it! I have broken out of the coop (of slavery)!”