Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” is a story of a man, Balram Halwai, born in some village in north India who goes on to become a driver in Dhanbad, robs and murders his employer and establishes a cab business in Bangalore. The story is narrated in the form of a letter written by Balram to the premier of China (Weird literary device, that). The only noteworthy thing about the novel is the utter ugliness of the story, the characters and the life it portrays. The language is crude and vulgar, well suited to the tale. There is not much of a story.
Balram born in a poor family in a feudal village wants to make something of his life. He goes to Dhanbad, takes driving lessons from some taxi driver and is able to find a job as a driver (actually an all-purpose servant) in the household of a landlord from his own village. He is expected to behave like a feudal servant. The landlord’s son, Mr Ashok, who has recently returned from America is the only person to treat him with any sort of respect. There is another driver in the household, Ram Persad. Balram resents his seniority, and upon discovering that Ram Persad is actually a Muslim pretending to be a Hindu for the sake of his job, threatens to expose him. Ram Persad escapes and Balram becomes the senior servant. Mr Ashok goes to Delhi to bribe some minister and takes Balram with him. Mr Ashok’s wife, Pinky madam, wants to return to America and is angry with Mr Ashok for having lied to him about his intentions to stay in India. One day, after Mr Ashok and Pinky madam have got drunk, Pinky madam runs over a child on the streets of Delhi. Mr Ashok and his brother get a signed statement from Balram stating that he is the only one responsible. The matter, however is never investigated by the police as there are no witnesses. This is the last straw for Pinky madam and she leaves her husband and returns to America. Before leaving, she gives some money to Balram, who spends it on a prostitute. Mr Ashok sinks into a depression and starts drinking. Balram who has until then worked honestly, starts drinking and stealing. One day, as Mr Ashok is going to some minister’s place to bribe him, Balram murders him and runs away with the bribe to Bangalore, where he establishes a cab business, catering to call-centers.
The story serves as a prop for Aravind Adiga to describe the feudal village life, rigging of elections, corruption among the socialist leaders, the brutal repression of the poor by the landlords, superstitions, family burdens, treatment of servants, abysmal living conditions in the city slums, etc. By making Balram the narrator, Adiga seeks to present a poor man’s perspective of modern India. For Balram, human life is and always has been all about class conflict – a struggle between the rich and poor, each class seeking to defeat the other. At several places, there is a mention of the cliched idea of two Indias – a modern, Western, rich India and a feudal, poor one.
There can be no doubt that most of Adiga’s descriptions are accurate. This should be no surprise to anyone who has looked at a slum in any Indian city. The motives and ideas that he gives to his characters are questionable. He describes the poor (in the cities) as living in anticipation of an insurrection. Really? There is a naxal threat in several places in rural India, but insurrection in the cities?
Finally, the book seems quite pointless. Why describe that which everyone knows and sees if you have nothing new to say? The wikipedia entry on Aravind Adiga says “At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society (Indian). That’s what I’m trying to do – it is not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination.” First, the great changes seem to be over. After a decade of some much needed economic reforms (in the 90s), India seems to be settling back into a slumber. The political situation has already hit rock-bottom and there are no signs of any improvement. Yes, there are brutal injustices and everyone knows it. With Adiga having nothing new to say, “The White Tiger” comes across as poverty porn (a phrase coined after the release of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which I haven’t yet watched).