The White Tiger book review
Balram Halwai’s fate was decided before he was born. The son of a rickshaw puller, he was meant to be a sweet-maker, according to his name and caste. But Balram has the heart – and cunning – of an entrepreneur, and he uses them to transcend his lowly state in life and pull himself out of the Darkness (the name given to the impoverished rural villages of India) and into the Light of the big cities: Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. How he goes about it and what he sacrifices along the way make for one of the most engaging works of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the angriest books I’ve read, and one of the funniest.
Published in 2008, The White Tiger made Aravind Adiga the second-youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize. It begins with the news that the Premier of China, Wen Jabao, is due to make an official visit to India. Balram Halwai, a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore, decides to write to the Premier, and fill him in on the “real” India, the one his Indian handlers are unlikely to show him. Over a period of seven nights, Balram writes a long letter to the Premier, narrating the story of his life. And, in doing so, the story of his country.
Balram’s India is a messy, complicated, colourful place, where the wealthy flaunt their luxurious lifestyles while the poor slip further into the mud. One of Balram’s earliest memories is attending his mother’s cremation on the banks of the Ganges River. As her body is enveloped by flames, he has a moment of epiphany:
“Soon she would become part of the black mound… And then I understood: this was the real god of Benaras—this black mud of the Ganga into which everything died, and decomposed, and was reborn from, and died into again. The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here”.
“Here” is the Darkness – in particular, the village of Laxmangarh, where Balram is born. The region is controlled by four landlords, known locally as the Wild Boar, the Stork, the Buffalo, and the Raven. These men, by means of corruption and extortion, have their fingers in every conceivable pie; nothing that happens here is beyond the range of their control. By taxing fishermen and farmers, goatherds and shopkeepers, they ensure that the “Rooster Coop” keeps the people trapped, unable to escape their fates.
Balram lives with his parents, his brother, Kishan, and his formidable grandmother, Kusum, as sly and controlling as any matriarch who ever lived. His brother is taken out of school to work in a tea shop but Balram, being exceptionally quick and intelligent, does well at school and his father pins his hopes on him. The school itself is wretched, the teacher is drunk, but somehow Balram learns to read and write. When a school inspector drops in for a visit, he sees the potential in the boy, describing him as that rarest of creatures, a white tiger. Tigers, especially white ones, symbolize power, freedom, and individuality, and Balram is more than happy to see himself in that light. Eventually, though, a female cousin gets married and Balram is taken out of school and sent to work with Kishan, in order to pay for her dowry. At the tea shop Balram spends more time eavesdropping on the customers than doing any real work. By his own admission he’s a bad servant but a good listener.
When their father dies of tuberculosis, Kishan gets married and he and Balram move to the city of Dhanbad to look for work. There, Balram learns that drivers earn better money than other servants, so he pays someone to teach him how to drive and lands a job as a driver for Mr. Ashok, the son of the Stork. Ashok is kinder than his father – he’s spent time in America and is appalled at the corruption he sees all around him. He trusts Balram and defends him to his wife, Pinky. But he’s weak, and in his own way he’s as trapped as Balram by society’s expectations. He professes to care for Balram but when his wife kills a child with the family car, Ashok goes along with the plan to have Balram sign a confession, saying he was the one driving, not Pinky.
It never occurs to Ashok that Balram might rebel. He takes it for granted that his driver, who earns a pittance, will deliver large amounts of cash for him without touching a single rupee. The master is, after all, the master, and in India servants are resigned to their fate.
Balram experiences another epiphany when he visits the city zoo. Standing in front of the cage of the white tiger, watching the trapped animal pace back and forth, he faints, just as he did at his mother’s funeral. When he comes to, he realizes that life is not worth living if you live it in servitude. He murders his employer, steals a bag of money, and flees with his young cousin to Bangalore, where he uses his ill-gotten gains to build a successful business. Knowing full well that his description on the “Wanted” poster would fit half the men in India, he has no fear of getting caught, and only a little guilt. His entire extended family will be murdered by the Stork’s henchmen; any not killed will be shunned by the rest of the community and driven out of the village. Unlike Balram, they were content to remain slaves. He wasn’t.
In Balram’s view, this is what it took for him to become a man and control his own destiny. The sacrifice is the price of freedom.
In an interview after the book came out Adiga was asked why so many poor people remain honest and faithful to their masters:
“It is, like, basically you follow your dharma or code of life because who you are depends on the economic well-being of your family and the name your family has. You cannot take the money and run because that will put your entire family in peril or in disgrace.”
The White Tiger is an attempt to answer the question: What kind of man would be prepared to break with tradition, to put his family’s reputations, even their lives, at risk, in order to rise out of the mud? The answer, it appears, is only a man who is, at heart, essentially ruthless. As Balram himself says, “Only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed … can break out of the coop”.
Adiga believes the centuries-old social structure is beginning to break apart. So The White Tiger, besides being hugely entertaining, should possibly serve as a warning.