I am surprised that Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is on the shortlist for the Booker Prize but not Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. Would anyone want to read The White Tiger a second time?
No doubt it’s a clever book but I was repelled by the details.
What makes it unusual is that it’s written as a series of letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, of all people, by an Indian explaining how he made good, rising from a servant cum chauffeur to a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. It’s a satire, I guess, about the corruption, exploitation and poverty that exist in India. But there’s nothing funny about this book beyond the smart-alecky style in which the letter writer addresses the Chinese leader.
The letter writer, Balram Halwai, has every reason to be cynical from all that he has seen in life. His own success is built on a crime – the murder of his employer and the money he stole from him. Instead of being caught and punished for his crime, he ends up with the police on his payroll, bribing them to help him in his business.
The author’s success lies in his ability to make us look at life from Balram’s perspective.
He is a killer and a corrupt businessman. But in the world he grew up in, only the fittest survive. His employer was the son of the landlord who oppressed his family. His rickshaw-puller father died spitting blood, suffering from tuberculosis, in a hospital where there is no doctor to attend to patients.
Life is no better for the poor even in Delhi, where Balram’s employer goes around bribing ministers and officials to protect the family business.
Life in a chicken coop
We see how life corrupts both Balram and his employer. Ashok, recently returned from America after completing his studies, hates the bribery and exploitation but is too weak to defy his father and his brother, who tell him what to do. Balram pities his master for his weakness and is devoted to him until his own livelihood is threatened — then he doesn’t hesitate to kill him.
Adiga compares life for the poor in India to the chicken coops in butchers’ shops in Indian bazaars. The butchers pluck out the birds and slaughter them in front of the others, but the chickens don’t try to break out of the cages. The poor similarly continue to be oppressed and exploited, writes Adiga.
Adiga, who read English literature at Columbia and Oxford and writes for Time magazine, tells the story like a journalist in a reader-friendly language with a fast pace.
He zooms in on little details like the chandelier in Balram’s office, where he writes to the Chinese leader. He conveys Balram’s naivete when, newly arrived in Delhi, Balram asks other drivers if the women in the city don’t have hair on their armpits and legs like those in the villages. The village where Balram grew up is vividly described.
The author is a little too successful perhaps in capturing the squalor for readers to want to read the story a second time. Balram’s sexual urges and his craving for whisky are described in sordid detail — and the murder scene is bone-chilling.
Perhaps, the author realised Balram was becoming too repulsive, so he is shown not to be a complete monster in the end.
But, coming from a journalist, the story is a little far-fetched in some ways.
Is it really possible to become a successful Indian businessman with just 700,000 rupees ($15,000) — the money Balram stole from his employer? That will buy a couple of Maruti cars. But how did he end up owning a fleet of cars, renting an office, hiring staff, and keeping the police happy in Bangalore, one of the most expensive cities in India, starting with that kind of money?
And what’s the language of the letters he writes on his silver Macintosh laptop to the Chinese leader?
After all, his very first letter starts with the words:
“Neither you nor I speak English…”