The White Tiger: fiction from India, cautionary tale for US

The White Tiger, the novel by Aravind Adiga which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, has been described as black comedy and a hilarious look at the insanities of life in modern India, but to this reviewer it is chilling as well, because it reveals a society in which the poorest classes have little hope of ever improving their lives. This is not a society that any of us would choose to live in, but sometimes we appear to be headed in that direction. If I had read The White Tiger when it came out in 2008, I might not have thought it had any parallels to our country or any political significance to us.  But now, unfortunately, I do.

The narrator and hero, Balram Halwai, begins the novel with a letter to the Premier of China, a man Balram expects to visit Bangalore within the week.  He has heard that the Premier wants to meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their successes, so Balram writes:

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.  Thousands and thousand of them.  Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs – we entrepreneurs – have set up all of these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.

Balram identifies himself as “half-baked” which means that he was never allowed to complete his schooling.  But he considers himself advantaged in the sense that while very well-educated people tend to take orders from others for the rest of their lives, “Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay.”

He loses his mother to sickness and death before he is eight years old, but is raised by a grasping grandmother and by a father whom he reveres as a man of honor and courage, in spite of his humble occupation as rickshaw-puller. Although his father chooses not to fight the system himself, he determines that his son will have an education.  Balram remembers his father’s words all of his life, “My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey.  All I want is that one son of mine – at least one – should live like a man.”  Although he does not understand exactly what his father means, Balram decides to be a white tiger – the creature who comes along only once in a generation, a person who takes advantage of every opportunity without exception. Sadly, within a few months Balram’s father succumbs to tuberculosis in a hospital in which there is no doctor to attend him.  The doctors are all attending wealthy patients.

Balram keeps his eyes open and learns the bitter truths about his society.  He misses no chance to move ahead in a very unfair world by watching everyone and seeing what they do, not what they say. He astutely observes the way the wealth in his district has been divided between four men, and he manages to be employed by one of them.  In moving ahead as quickly as possible, he has to leave behind his own beloved older brother.  After a visit home, he agonizes, “They were eating him (the brother who cares for the family) alive in there!  They would do the same thing to him that they did to Father – scoop him out from the inside and leave him weak and helpless, until he got tuberculosis and died on the floor of a government hospital, waiting for some doctor to see him, spitting blood on this wall and that!”  Sadly, Balram knows he must move on and not go back home.  Meanwhile he grows more cynical and ruthless, although the reader cannot help admiring him for his savvy humor and determination.  And he does have his standards, although he is willing to betray others in the servant class in order to get a better job, that of driving his boss in Delhi, a city where he has even more opportunities to learn hard lessons.  The book entertains the reader beautifully, in spite of its harshness, because Balram essentially sees truth is a totally unsentimental way and amusing way.  The reader slowly succumbs to the seduction of a lovable and funny fictional character, one capable of both empathy and murder.  At the end of the novel, Balram owns his own company with a fleet of cars and driver/employees whom he claims to treat with respect. True, he has made some ruthless decisions to get there.

So . . . Balram maneuvers in a class system that has a wealthy, powerful group of people and an underclass who sees little hope of bettering themselves; at least he is surviving and enjoying his success at the end of the novel.  However, none of us Americans envy the two tiered society in which he lives.  In fact, we fear such a way of life.  As the author Aravinda Adiga himself says in a Q and A at the end of the novel:

India is being flooded with “how to be an Internet businessman” kind of books, and they’re all dreadfully earnest and promise to turn you into Iacocca in a week.  This is the kind of book that my narrator mentions, mockingly – he knows that life is a bit harder than these books promise.  There are lots of self-made millionaires in India now, certainly, and lots of successful entrepreneurs.  But remember that over a billion people live here, and for the majority of them, who are denied decent health care, education, or employment, getting to the top would take doing something like what Balram has done.”

The White Tiger entertains, absolutely, but it is also a cautionary tale.