Aravind Adiga, Atlantic
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008, White Tiger certainly harbors a
lofty ambition within its storyline of trying to illuminate a foreign leader on a modern nation.
In a series of letters to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai purports to tell his life story and in the process, explain the dynamics and faults of his country.
Over seven nights, Balram, son of a poor rickshaw puller in a wretched rural village, describes his gradual change from a village boy to a driver for a wealthy landlord’s family to a successful entrepreneur.
Giving his vast observations laced with wit and bluntness on issues such as politics, caste and religious prejudice, class inequalities and India’s great divide between the well-off (“the Light”) and the rest of the country (the “Darkness”), Balram explains how he overcame barriers in life through guile, determination and some luck. Plucked out of his primary schooling to work breaking coals in a tea shop, to help pay off a loan for a cousin’s marriage dowry, he moves on to another town and decides to learn to drive and become a driver. By a twist of fate, he gets a job in the household of a landlord from his village. From there on, he winds up in Delhi with the landlord’s son, where he slowly and decisively plots to break free from his lowly station in life.
Modern India is portrayed as inefficient, oppressive and obstructed by a useless democracy driven by corruption and uneducated and easily-manipulated mass voters.
There is also a systematic and ingrained sense of subservience which keeps the masses under control- the “Rooster Coop” in which millions of Indians are trapped in perpetual servitude. As to what makes it work, the author gives a somewhat puzzling answer on the Indian family.
In short, the image of India that arises is the complete opposite of the rising, sophisticated and booming Asian power, often described as a potential rival to China, by some media and academic circles.
The writing is humorous, blunt and entertaining though it lags too much in the middle on Balram’s time in Delhi and his inner transformation and the ending, as well as the buildup, seems too contrived. Add in a degree of smugness throughout the narrative and it is almost like there’s no real anguish with the main character, just a detached formulaic recollection.
White Tiger ends up being a very decent read but it is no classic, despite its Booker prize accolade.