If I were making a country, I'd get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy, then I'd go about giving pamphlets and statues of Gandhi to other people, but what do I know? I'm just a murderer!
The White Tiger won the Booker Prize in 2008 and I've read many good reviews about it, so I've been waiting to get my hands on the book for some time. The story of a lower-class entrepreneur, driving cars for the rich in India was bound to be interesting.
The White Tiger consists of a series of letters, written by Balram Halwai (alias "Munna"), also known as 'The White Tiger', a Thinking Man and an entrepreneur. The letters are addressed to His Excellency Wen Jiabao, Chinese Premier, who is coming to India for an official visit to "know the truth about Bangalore" by hearing the success stories of Indian entrepreneurs. Balram Halwai takes on the challenge of introducing Wen Jiabao to the life of a self-made entrepreneur in India, because, as he says, "If anyone knows the truth about Bangalore, it's me."
Balram's letters take the reader on a trip from his childhood village of Laxmangarh (where the most important member of the family is the water buffalo) to Dhanbad (with a hospital that houses cats and goats instead of doctors) to Delhi, where he drives the Honda City of Mr. Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam. Balram's job is to drive the couple to business meetings (to bribe politicians), shopping malls (where the poor are not allowed inside) and night clubs (where booze flows freely).
When Balram isn't driving, he's either waiting for his employee to call him or waiting for him to return back to the car. When Ashok says he'll be gone for thirty minutes, he might appear four hours later. So Balram sits on the side of the road with the other drivers as they gossip about their employees, chew paan, read sleazy magazines about murder, rape and revenge, come up with ways to cheat their employees and chew some more paan.
The novel reveals a glimpse of one section of Indian society: the underdogs, the servants, those who come from the "Darkness" (i.e. the poor countryside) into cities to try to make a living. The inequality between social classes, the corruption of the rich and the helplessness of the poor is highlighted. However, the servants have no illusions about their masters. They know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors of bedrooms and government offices. They just can't do much about the situation.
In the end, Balram allows his frustration take over and becomes a murderer. In my opinion, his deterioration and decisions at the end of the novel seemed rash and illogical. But despite its dark sides, the novel feels light and humorous, and Balram is a witty and observant narrator.
I was not wowed by this novel, but it was an interesting read.
Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger. Atlantic Books. 2008. 321 pages.
Guardian: "Roars of Anger"
Wikipedia: The White Tiger