The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
I enjoyed this book without finding it a masterpiece. Perhaps because of the Booker Prize, I was expecting too much. The novel is a first person narrative by Balram Halwai who was a poor kid from “the Darkness” (rural, undeveloped parts of India) who wangled a job as driver in Dehli for one of the landlord class from his village. He’s supposedly writing memos to the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, who, it’s been reported in the Bangelore (where Balram currently lives) newspaper, will shortly visit India. Balram writes to “advise” on things Indian and to express his solidarity with an important leader of the yellow and brown peoples who are destined next to run the world. The Chinese premier never replies.
Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
Balram is clever and amusing and calls himself an entrepreneur. He always write his memors in the middle of the night. The reader suspects he’s running some company that provides technical or customer support for US companies in the middle of the night in Bangelore. Which is correct, but not exactly what the reader is initially led to believe. Relatively uneducated, from a school where the teacher embezzles the money for uniforms, food and books, Balram was supposed to be the son who lifts the family out of the darkness into the light. His skipping school seems to put an end to that. He’s put to work, with his brother, in the tea shop. There, though, he uses the ambiance provided by the customers to begin understanding the “light” world (that of the educated Indians living in cities) and finagling a job for himself as a driver for the son of a land owner who has just returned from the US. Throughout, Balram refers to Indians from the poverty-stricken rural places as from the “darkness” and those middle class Indians from the city as from the “light”. The dichotomy is frequently also expressed in terms of those with big bellies and those with small bellies. Social mobility does exist for the fortunate—or ruthless enough—few and Balram not only yearns, but feels it his duty to his dead father (who died in a government hospital waiting for a doctor who didn’t come), to move up.
Balram’s is a sordid tale, as becomes apparent even before we learn that he’s killed his former boss, but his charm—and his social criticism—keeps us reading and reassures us that author and narrator are not the same. In Balram’s world, servants lie, cheat and steal to get and keep jobs and to assert themselves, however pathetically, in the face of appalling condescension on the part of their employers, and the employers are involved in bribery and corruption the like of which Ashok, Balram’s boss who returned to India with his American wife, finds distasteful and degrading—at least at first.
The problem with the novel is that while the charming tone is sustained to the last, Balram leads us into some pretty dicey situations. He’s proud of the wanted poster on which he appears looking like just about every other Indian and about the fact that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be caught, but evidently 17 members of his family have been killed in retaliation and he muses that he may eventually have to kill the nephew who lives with him—when he finds out. There’s a limit to how much violence his charm will allow us to swallow, even when we know his social criticism is justified.
I had a hard time with the book because although I sympathized with Balram initially and even managed to hang on through his confession that he killed Ashok, by the time he described how he actually did it and certainly when he told us (indirectly) that 17 members of his family were killed for what he did and that he may have to kill his nephew, I've turned against him. I felt the author couldn't sustain sympathy to the end, but as I've mulled it over in my mind, I'm thinking that my reaction is just what Adiga wanted. HIS goal is to highlight the corruption that runs India and show how it perpetuates itself.