Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life -- having nothing but his own wits to help him along.
This novel starts off as a letter from Balram to the Premier of China explaining how he reached his present position. Of course, we the readers are taken along on this adventure being narrated by Balram. It’s a joyful ride, though, as his way of expressing himself is forthright and deeply entertaining, although one needs to tread a bit lightly while reading so as not to take offense.
I can detect much love by the author for India in his writing. By bringing some of his native country’s more pervasive problems to the forefront, perhaps he is also sending out a plea for attention and possible resolution to at least some more troublesome ongoing issues. Despite the author's fairly blatant message, his story is powerful in its own right because of his independent-minded, saucy protagonist and descriptive writing. I heartily endorse this book for anyone who enjoys reading about India or works of fiction by Indian authors.
Adiga brings the contradictions of Indian society to vivid life. Although there's a lot of anger in this book, there's also compassion for the Indians trapped by their society and government, no matter what their level of of wealth or social status. An amazing plus to this sad story is that it's also full of humor, some of it laugh-out-loud funny.
I loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone.
An Indian entrepreneur, Valram Halwai, tells the story through a letter that he writes to the Chinese Premier who is slated to visit and has suggested he would like to speak to an Indian entrepreneur because China does not have any at this point. This is pointed out on page 2:
“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 thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology.”
This sets the stage for the book and introduces one of the main themes, which is the lack of basic necessities in India and this leads into the book’s major premise, India’s caste system and the world of difference between the haves and have nots, “The Light and The Dark”.
Valram is born into a very poor family. His father is a rickshaw driver, his family lives in a shack and they have absolutely nothing. He has a couple of years of school but it becomes apparent that he needs to go to work to help support the family. His caste is meant to be producers of sweets so his grandmother determines he should work in the tea shop. However, Valram sets his sights much higher. He wants to be a driver for the wealthy and that is how he ends up working for Mr. Ashok, his wife Pinky Madam, his father The Stork and his brother Mukesh. This is where Valram learns the lessons of life that determine the course he eventually follows.
Examples of the sad state of affairs in India today are prevalent throughout the book:
1. Government officials and politicians must be paid off by businessmen in order for commerce to take place
2. Those stuck at the bottom layers of the caste system seldom escape from it and are actually held down by others who are in the same strata
3. Corruption among the police is widespread
4. Although his boss complains that because of Halram’s limited education, “he probably has what…two, three years of schooling in him? He can read and write, but he doesn’t get what he’s read. He’s half-baked. The country is full of people like him, I’ll tell you that. And we entrust our glorious parliamentary democracy to characters like these.” (page 8) Yet the fingerprints of the illiterate are taken from them to use on ballots at election time and they never actually get to vote themselves.
5. The “servants” of the rich are treated with disdain and are not able to maintain their dignity
Valram finally decides that there is only one way for him to escape his circumstances and therein lies the crux of the situation. The reader must decide if he was justified in doing what he had to do to escape. The author provides a lot of opportunities for moral lessons but leaves the reader holding the bag. Cynical, irreverent and very, very funny. 2008 Man Booker Prize Winner. Highly recommended.
The story is told in a very flippant way, but what transpires is a fairly dark story of poverty and the ingrained injustices that make up the lives of millions of rural poor people. Our 'hero' is weighing up his duty to remain in his place as a poorly paid worker with a master, and his need to fight his way out of that very cage. His self-proclaimed status as a successful entrepreneur tells us early on that something has happened that has enabled him to break free, and the story of his life pads out this big break for freedom.
Criticisms? The light hearted telling of the story doesn't mirror the intensity of the events, so it is hard to take it all seriously. I guess this was meant to add to the darkness of the tale. But it distracted me. Also, this book confirmed my fears that Indian society if rife with corruption, and it seems that fair and just people will get nowhere. I found this sad. 3.5 stars
Still, I really enjoyed the book and I agree with other reviewers who have noted that it has more layers and more complexity than the tone would suggest. As a reader, I found myself questioning the "veracity" of the narrator's story and that was part of the fun -- trying to figure out his motivation(s) given the frame of the letter he's writing.
The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals - the creature that comes along only once in a generation?”
I thought about it and said:
“The white tiger.”
“That’s what you are, in this jungle.”
- from The White Tiger, page 30 -
It is this inner view of himself - a rare creature in a savage world - which drives him eventually to murder his master and take charge of his life.
,i>Even as a boy I could see what was beautiful in the world: I was destined not to stay a slave. - from The White Tiger, page 35 -
Adiga has created a not wholly likeable protagonist to narrate the story of an India which is sharply divided between the very rich (and corrupt) and the very poor. The cynical voice of Balram jeers at democracy and uncovers the dark, corrupt world of the wealthy upper class. He pokes fun at China who despite their triumphs ‘in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy.‘
Adiga uses an analogy of roosters in the coop to describe the servant’s (or poor man’s) inescapable status in India.
They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. - from The White Tiger, page 147 -
But for Balram, there is a way out - one of his own making. He resists the pull of family obligation and loyalty to his master and plans his escape through cold-blooded murder.
[...] only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed - hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters - can break out of the coop. - from The White Tiger, page 150 -
Rage is what fuels Balram to break free of his caste and become a successful businessman. He takes his destiny into his own hands and does what he feels he must to become a free man. And in the end, he concludes there is really no difference between a man and a demon - only that one has woken up and the other is still sleeping. The message seems to be that there is no good anywhere in India. It is no wonder that Indians have been critical of this novel.
The White Tiger is an interesting story - one that is compelling and blackly humorous despite its negative message. It is a scathing commentary on the divide between the poor and the rich, the benevolent and the corrupt - but, it is ultimately just a very good yarn.
For all its atmospheric bustle, the novel is filled with the empty promise of change; a feeling that our narrator only partially acknowledges. Having titled himself 'The White Tiger', he views his own rise to the top of the food chain with a satisfaction that Adiga quietly subverts. As the wheels of this society continue their foul cycles – crime, poverty, betrayal – the reader comes to realise that its progress is not progress at all, and that the jungle will always be just that: a jungle.
As engaging as the subject matter is, it is Balram's narration above all that gives this study of modern India its twisted charisma. His straight-to-the-bone comments about everything from religion to democracy to the behaviour of Westerners will elicit wry smiles from the toughest of readers. Somehow, these 'life lessons' manage to be amusingly oversimplified and remarkably incisive at the same time. Whether you love him or hate him – or an indecisive mix of the two, as is more probable – the way Balram keeps the novel speeding along is difficult to resist.
Eye-opening on so many levels, The White Tiger is literature as it should be: topical, memorable and completely readable. Adiga's densely packed portrait of Indian society unravels in the mind for days afterwards. If it is half the country he paints it to be, urgent intervention is definitely called for.
Darkly comic his story is told in a series of letters to the Premier of China about his transformation from a hardworking boy in rural India until a time when his rage reaches boiling point where he commits an act of revenge and then his personal luck and fortune improve dramatically.
Insightful as to the social and economic inequalities of contemporary India.
"Go to the tea shop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that tea shop - men, I say, but better to call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven, in their thirties or forties or fifties but still "boys." But that is your fate if you do your job well - with honesty, dedication, and sincerity, the way Gandhi would have done it, no doubt." (p43)
If you are from India, grew up there, were born there, or even know a thing or two about life there, this book will definitely make you feel guilty. (I was born there but moved to the US when I was 2, but I do try to keep abreast of what's happening there, and I have family there as well, who fall anywhere from the lower middle to middle class range - no one is poor.)
I'm really finding it hard to put to words how this book affected me. It was like seeing both sides of the coin - the book is told from the viewpoint of a poor, lower class driver (aka servant) and what he goes through. And he's one that ends up doing better than most!
I think what I feel is sort of equivalent to "white guilt" but in this case it would be "upper class" or "higher caste guilt." I've always been highly sympathetic to the plight of poor people in India - the division between the poor and the middle class is huge and grows larger every day. Whenever I go there, I'm so uncomfortable with the "servants" and in general, waiters, drivers, anyone who is in a service industry, because they are, in essence, servants and they definitely act (at least in front of your face) like you are higher than them, better than them. But what do you do in these situations?
I'm totally going off topic here but I remember when I was younger and my family and I were visiting India. I was with my mom and she saw a guy on the street selling some trinkets, one in particular was a sort of wind chime thing made of shells. He was selling it for 100 rupees. If you're familiar with India, you know that you bargain for practically everything. So my mom was trying to bargain him down and wouldn't go past 50 rupees. He kept trying to convince her, saying things like how would he feed his family, etc, but finally ended up selling it to her for 50 rupees. After we left the area, I made my mom feel SO guilty for not giving him the full amount (it was maybe $3 US at the time) that she went back and tried to find him, but he was gone. She still remembers the incident.
So what's the point? I guess... Well, my mom's family would probably be lower-middle class in India (and she could have more than afforded to spend $3 US) yet she would still do this kind of thing - there are always divisions no matter how high or low your class is.
I might have more to say later, but I'm not sure if what I've said thus far was coherent. Either way, this is a highly recommended book. I'm definitely planning on reading Aravind Adiga's other works.
To end, a couple more of my favorite quotes:
Now there are some, and I don't just mean Communists like you, but thinking men of all political parties, who think that not many of these gods actually exist. Some believe that none of them exist. There's just us and an ocean of darkness around us. I'm no philosopher or poet, how would I know the truth? It's true that all these gods seem to do awfully little work - much like our politicians - and yet keep winning reelection to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year. That's not to say I don't respect them, Mr. Premier! Don't you ever let that blasphemous idea into your yellow skull. My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time. (p6)
One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing. (p12)
Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.
These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India. (p16)
Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books. (p218)
There are probably a bunch I missed, because I got so engrossed in the book at one point. I finished it in less than 24 hours, which rarely happens these days.
"They remain slaves because they can't see what is beautiful in this world"
-The Poet Iqbal, as quoted by Balram, the protagonist of the book.
To read this book is to leave with the impression that India is a mess. It is 99% of the 2nd most populous nation on Earth being kept in chains of servitude by themselves. Adiga has written a compelling first novel on the liberation of a man born to be a servant of the rich. It describes the way that Balram, a boy born in the Darkness - small villages away from the coast, is sold into indentured servitude to pay off the dowry debts associated with marrying of a daughter. Balram, told by a school inspector that he is a White Tiger - something born once a generation, rises through sheer ambition to become a driver for a local landlord. Through his cunning, he is brought to Delhi to serve as driver for Ashok - the son of the landlord.
As a driver, he begins to understand the relation between master and servant in his culture. The servant is nothing more than a throwaway item to be used and discarded.
A pivotal moment of the book occurs when Ashok's wife demands to drive after a wild night out with her husband. On the way home, she hits and kills a young child. No one saw the accident. Yet, to be safe, the landlord's family arranges for Balram to confess to the hit-and-run accident. It is a source of pride for Balram's family - that he would do this for the master!
From this point, Balram begins a series of rebellions leading up to the murder of Ashok and the theft of millions of rupees. This is not a vicious murder of a hated landlord. Rather, it is an amoral killing of the system that Ashok represents. It is the death of the old system. Yet the old system did not know it was dying. Balram runs away to the southern coast - to Bangalore, the tech capital - and sets up a taxi system for tech companies with the help of bribery of the police. When one of his drivers accidentally kills someone, he uses his connections in the police to sweep it under the rug. He protects his driver. Yet he insists on going to the family's house, paying his respects, giving them thousands of rupees, and hiring the killed boy's brother. The system is not dead, yet Adiga suggests it is changing as the few servants who free themselves change it from within.
This is not what westerners would call a morality story in the Western sense. There is a man willing to kill to get ahead. This is a man held up as honorable. The beauty of Adiga's writing is it opens a window into the culture that lets you root for Balram, hold him as honorable, even as he does dishonorable things.
So, we learn that Indian politicians are corrupt, that votes are sold, that the police are corrupt, that the rich "eat" the poor and the poor cooperate in their own oppression. Now you know it all. No need to read the book.
If you want to read about these issues and actually have a story line to follow with interesting characters (at least some of them), I suggest Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Much more interesting.
How this won the Man Booker Prize--I assume for fiction--is beyond me.
Belram Halwi, The White Tiger, tells the story of his rise to power in a series of letters to the premier of China, Wen Jaibao, who is visiting India to see its economic success first hand. Belram is Horatio Alger's darker brother; the story of his rise from lowly laborer, that of a coffee pourer in a cafe, to private driver for a weathly businessman, to the owner of a prosperous taxicab company, could have been an example for all young people to follow. Work hard. Obey your elders. Be loyal to your bosses. You will be rewarded with success. Belram worked hard. He obeyed his elders. He was loyal to his bosses. Then he murdered one of them, stole his money, set himself up in business and became rich. Not a lesson Horatio Alger would have approved.
Mr. Adiga is clearly not out to praise India's success story. It is clear to Belram, and soon evident to the reader, that Indian society is designed to keep him down, to make sure the servant class stays in its place. Religion, family, democracy, all come under Mr. Adiga's critical and satirical gaze. No stone is left un-thrown, and there a plenty of stones to throw. While there are laughs to be found in The White Tiger, this is not Jhumpa Lahiri's India. There's nothing in The White Tiger that the tourist board will brag about: no beautiful scenery, no delicious food, no colorfully dressed people, no high-tech wonders to behold.
This novel presents a low-caste, servant's perspective on class and society in India. Balram is a driver for a coal entrepreneur, Mr. Ashok. In cynical, unromanticized and sometimes humorous prose, the author describes the life of the servant class and their masters.
At the beginning of the novel, we are told that Balram's rise from abject poverty and servitude to riches and success as a businessman are the result of his killing his master. We later learn that his success is also a product of abandoning his family and bribing the police. He is Horatio Alger's worst nightmare!
Balram, like all the other characters, are complex and not easy to like. They are very real people, and that is what drew me deep into this amazing story.
I actually found the blurb on the back to be more interesting than the book.
The story started off interesting, but then never lived up to premise at the start that he was some sort of deranged killer. His life story was rather banal, and too long, and the deaths were a rather mundane explication of the saying, behind every fortune there is a crime (neither are worthy of the word 'great').
The book was written in the style of the POV writing a series of seven letters to the Premier of China, who is going to visit India (not that the POV knows or will ever meet the Premier). What follows is a rather ho-hum recitation of the life of the letter writer, who is poor. There are occasional comments from the modern day when he is writing the letters.
There are some insights and actions that are meant to be shocking and twisty, but other than the occasional bit of humor it really doesn't work.
The POV is angry at the rich, and the officials who have designed the system to keep him, and most of the rest of the poor down. It is impossible to rise above where you are born, and do better for yourself or your family. In fact he thinks the family structure of Indians is used to keep the poor down. He likens the situation to the Rooster Coop that keeps Roosters imprisoned at the market until the are taken out and slaughtered.
Of course the POV never seems to notice that escaping from the Rooster Coop of the poor, only leads to a larger Rooster Coop that keeps the well off performing what is socially expected of them as well.
And while he has great outrage at the injustice of life for the poor, he gives little thought for the Untouchables, who are treated even worse than the poor, and are even lower. It reduces the whole exercise to one person being pissed about his ox being gored, rather than a serious book about social injustice.
Apparently there is controversy about Adiga's portrayal of India in a negative light. There appears to be those who are taken in, want to be taken in, want others to be taken in by the Potemkin Villages quality of modern India. Globalization has brought growth, wealth, and prosperity but only for the privileged few. Their stranglehold on political power, and the corruption of the officials insure that the good life is only a veneer, not a deep part of the reality of modern India.
It's a mystery to me how this book was winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize. I struggled through the first 100 pages, mainly because of the awkward premise that the first person narrator style was in a letter to the Chinese premier before his impending visit to India. The main character is despicable, as are all the characters in this indictment of Indian society. By the end of the book I was gripped by the corruption of India and the untrustworthiness of almost every individual appearing in the story. That is to say that the subject matter of a society alien to Westerners remains interesting and it is well written. Where it fails compared to Q&A or Colours of the Mountain is that the pretext for telling the story is flimsy and the general plot inconclusive. There must be a million tales like this out there.
Balram is, he proudly tells the Premier, one of India's great new entrepreneurs - a man born into crushing poverty who succeeded against all odds and now runs a company in Bangalore. He is only half-educated, and has some strange ideas, but on the whole he seems witty and well-spoken and deserving of his place among India's new upper class. Until he admits that he is a murderer.
In its early chapters - even with the admission of murder - The White Tiger seems to be a typical Indian rags-to-riches story, similar to "Slumdog Millionaire." The bulk of the novel, however, concerns a fairly limited time and place - Balram's employment as the driver for wealthy young Mr. Ashok, over a span of less than a year in New Dehli. We know to begin with that Balram is fated to kill Mr. Ashok, yet we do not yet know why. The little steps taken towards this event - the way Balram gradually becomes aware of the utter injustice of his station in life - is one of the best character development arcs I have ever read.
Balram is fated to be a servant, one of the perpetual have-nots born in a village at the edge of the Ganges. He is lucky enough to learn how to drive a car and land a job working for Mr. Ashok's family, who own most of the land around his village and eventually take Balram with them when they move to New Dehli. Balram is at first delighted by his luck, because this is as high a position as he ever could have dreamed of when he was a poor dirt farmer. Yet he slowly begins to realise that this once coveted occupation is nothing compared to what some have - compared, in fact, to what his masters have. He works harder than they do, suffers more than they do, yet will never have anything to show for it. He lives in filth and poverty and misery, while his rich, corpulent employers want for nothing. He begins to find himself disgusted with his fellow servants, with how they are satisifed with their lives, simply because they cannot imagine anything better - even though it is right in front of their noses. Mr. Ashok is kind and friendly - having been to America, he has egalitarian Western ideas and takes some interest in Balram's life. Yet his words never amount to actions, and Balram struggles with the servant/master dynamic - feeling like a valued member of the family, but more like a dog than a son.
The injustice of the divide between rich and poor is hardly a ground-breaking concept, but it's one that has bothered me greatly since I travelled through Asia last year and was daily exposed to abject poverty while I was withdrawing hundreds of dollars every time I went to an ATM. In clear, simple prose, Adiga addresses this subject in an original and unpretentious manner. By the end of the novel, Balram is a character who has murdered an innocent man in cold blood. Yet the reader is wholly sympathetic with him (or at least, I was). Was it fair to kill Mr. Ashok? No. But is it fair for hundreds of millions of people to live in abysmal poverty, under a corrupt system designed to keep them downtrodden, powerless and miserable forever? For the same reasons I found it hard to get angry at the persistent touts and beggars and scam artists and even thieves that I came across in Asia, I found it very easy to agree with Balram's justifications for murder.
Is Balram a good man? Perhaps not, but he is not a bad man either. The response I eventually felt towards Asia's endless poverty was powerless resignation - I became well aware that my own first-world life exists at the pinnacle of a pyramid of misery, but I have no idea how to effect any kind of change, and ultimately I am, like Henry Goose, simply merciful that my maker cast me on the winning side. Who among us truly knows what horrible things we would be capable of doing to escape Balram's fate?
Who among us has the right to judge him?
Balram Halwai is The White Tiger. Until he went to school, he didn't really have a name. His father, Vikram Halwai, a rickshaw puller, called his son Munna, the Hindi word for boy. It was the school teacher who named him Balram when he enrolled him at school. Similarly his date of birth had never been recorded. It was eventually given to him when he was enrolled to vote during a scam by a village politician to get as many 18 year olds on the roll as possible. Despite being identified as an intelligent child and singled out for special treatment by a school inspector, Munna's schooling is cut short when his family sells him to become a tea shop spider.
Munna writes nightly to Premier Jiabao, telling him the story of his life: how he, a half-baked man, has become an entrepreneur who employs more than a dozen men. The letters describe for the reader an India that we can barely imagine, where corruption is rife, a nation of entrepreneurs, particularly in the field of technology, although things regarded as the essentials of life like clean drinking water, electricity, and adequate sewage simply don't exist.
THE WHITE TIGER is not really crime fiction, although I counted 20 murders. But the murders are not the focal point of this book. It is the social and economic circumstances revealed in Munna's letters. It lays bare an India that is failing it's citizens, where landlords and socialists alike bribe officials, and human life is regarded cheaply. The winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, it is an eminently readable book.
So the bottom line is that The White Tiger is worth reading. Consider a piece of stubborn resistance to of the most dominant social trends of the last forty or so years: The rise of multinational capitalism and the challenge to traditional concepts of “the individual” that it seems to entail. Since both Adiga and his narrator are fighting the tide, it probably isn’t surprising that they will both strike some of their readers as intensely bitter. As a child of first-world parents who grew up in the global south, the depiction of our disenfranchised narrator’s experience made me pretty uncomfortable. Still, I can’t help thinking that books like this one are useful, and maybe even necessary. The preservation of this sort of experience, this sort of memory, is one of the things that good literature is supposed to do.