The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Reviewed by Rima Walker
The White Tiger is told in powerful prose with a good amount of raw, biting black humor in a series of letters to a Chinese diplomat coming to India to interview entrepreneurs. Our anti-hero, Balram Halwai, describes India as a place where technology has soared, creating wealth and privilege for some but leaving the mass of people still poor, without clean drinking water, electricity, hygiene, and everything else the entrepreneurs take for granted. In short, this is about the injustices created by the powerful and by India’s caste system and how one lower caste Indian tries to fight it.
In this picaresque novel, in which the picaro (the rogue anti-hero) goes from incident to incident learning from each how to rise, not always honestly, from poverty to prosperity, we realize that Balram is such a rogue. Caught up in the caste system, Balram manages to rise by committing an act of evil that we learn about early in the book. How Balram gets to that point intrigues us and teaches us how to succeed in business with a lot of trying in modern India.
In an arrogant, sometimes sarcastic, but always witty tone, Balram talks about his corrupt country using examples of a lowly school teacher who doesn’t teach because he hasn’t been paid in months, rigging elections and paying bribes to the police and the powers that be. But he also describes the Rooster Coop, his name for life as an underdog who gives in to the wicked game of appeasing the masters and thus seeing to the continuance of a life of near slavery. That the workings of the Rooster Coop include the families of the poor, should come as no surprise. When Balram is in trouble with the law, trouble foisted on him by the family he works for, his own family, who expect him to send all of his wages home, give him no help. Instead, they urge him to take the blame, hoping for better things for themselves. And as he begins to succeed with his master’s family, his grandmother foists his nephew, Dharam, off on him. Dharam becomes the center of one of the greatest ironies in the book.
Balram is a fascinating character. He is uneducated but learns shrewdly from his experiences; he is racist, anti-American, and irreligious because religion is a curse holding back his people. In his youth he is an innocent but later reaches the heights of corruption and degradation, blaming others and his master, Ashok, for his fall. Balram is the White Tiger, a rare animal he sees at the zoo causing him to faint from a vision. When he revives, he knows he cannot live in a cage and this leads him to the utmost treachery which may result in horrible consequences for Balram’s family.
Does Balram escape the Rooster Coop? Has he become as bad as the entrepreneurs he grew up among, all of whom have animal nicknames so we don’t miss the point? He has succeeded in his goal, but is he free? Does he repent of the crimes he commited to get where he is?
The novel is filled with symbols and foreshadowing and themes that reveal where the author really stands in terms of his two Indias that have to work side by side but in reality collide. Adiga deals with corruption, injustice, the uses of influence and power as well as the evils of the caste system in which families exploit their own flesh and blood in order to make some headway in their restricted world.
If you want to learn more from another point of view, read A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, and for a graphic view of conditions, see the film Slumdog Millionaire, both of which are in our library. I look forward to Adiga’a second book, Between the Assassinations, and hope it is as well written, and has characters just as real, strong and arresting.~