I have openly admitted my Goodreads bookswap addicition. While they say admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery, I can't seem to take step number two. At any rate, I was browsing one day when I came upon The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. I've recently grown more interested in south Asian literature, and this one sounded interesting. I made my request and eagerly awaited its arrival. Well it arrived alright-in CD form. Apparently in my mindless bookswapping high I had requested an audiobook. Arrggghhh...I am not a fan. I realize that many people love the audiobook, but to me it feels like cheating. Like if someone asked me, "Have you read The White Tiger?", I would be lying if I said yes. But, with a couple of long drives coming up, I decided to get over myself and listen to it in the car. Lucky for me I did, because The White Tiger is one of those rare titles that shows life exactly how it is, with all of its warts and ugliness exposed, and still manages to make it into something beautiful.
The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halway, a rickshaw driver's son from "the darkness"-the small, poor, rural villages in the north of India. He manages to escape his own small village by becoming a driver for a wealthy family in Delhi. Balram is constantly aware of the wide gulf separating him from his wealthy employers, despite the mere inches of space that separates them in the car. Through letters to the Premier of China, who is slated to come to India for a visit, Balram shares his life story, as well as his thoughts in class, caste, Eastern vs. Western values, and entrepreneurship. Balram believes that the poor in India are caged in a rooster coop, and that every time one of the roosters tries to break free, he is pushed back in by the masters, even as the other roosters try to peck him to death.
Balram is the perfect narrator for this tale. Smart, though uneducated, he brings to life the inequities that continue to exist in modern Indian society. We watch as he becomes more and more dissatisfied with his lot in life. As a child he seemed to believe the lie that the poor are told-that they are not as smart/talented/good as the rich, and that they should not seek to rise above their predetermined station. But as he spends time with his wealthy employers, he begins to see the petty, ruthless way in which they treat the poor as something ugly and unfair. While he starts out admiring his master, Ashok, he comes to despise him for having the same weaknesses and flaws that plague all humans. As his rage grows, he is led to dramatic action-an action that will change not just his life, but the lives of his entire family.
Adiga's portrayal of Balram, his employers, and the dual nature of Indian culture could be a metaphor for just about any family or society. One the one hand, India at the beginning of the 21st century is a place of corporate offices, call centers, luxury apartments, and glittering shopping malls. But leave the walled compounds of the rich and successful behind, and you enter the India of the slums. Dirty, full of people scraping whatever living they can out of the underbelly of the city-a place where dreams and hope go to die. Beggars living on the streets, entire families living in tents beside rivers of sewage. At times Adiga's descriptions of the living conditions literally make you hold your breath to hold off the stench that you can imagine must exist in these poor neighborhoods. What Balram calls "entrepreneurship" seems to me to describe not a knack for business, but a knack for survival, a knack for finding a way to be a "man" in a society that wants you to remain an animal. As Balram says, for 10,000 years the rich and the poor have been at war, each trying to bring down the other. If only all poor Indians had the "entrepreneurial" spirit, they could smash the rooster coop. But Balram doesn't really believe that this is possible. Only once in a generation will someone (a white tiger) be born that has the ability and strength to break free.