Originally posted on my blog Guiltless Reading
.Poverty, ambition, amorality: what a murderous combination.
Balram Halwai introduces himself as "The White Tiger, a Thinking Man and an Entrepreneur." This book -- a letter written to the president of China -- is his autobiography written from the light of a chandelier in his 150-square-foot office. He has no qualms about announcing that he is a murderer. With a beginning like that, yes, I was hooked!
Flashback to Balram's childhood when he still carried the generic name Munna (which simply means "boy") and renamed by his schoolteacher out of convenience of having a "real name." Hailing from an poor yet tightknit family, his rickshaw-pulling father has grand plans for Balram to escape their living hell.
But how does one defy the life and destiny of sweetmaking and tea dictated to him by his Halwai caste? How does one outsmart those big powerful landowners with their oppressive rules and demands?
It is Balram's ambition, his matter-of-fact amorality, and his plain hard work that propels, maneuvers him into the entrepreneur caste, the caste of his choice. He becomes the chauffeur of American-educated son of the huge landowner of his community. With the grotesque side of impoverished India as the backdrop, Balram recounts his heartbreaking relationship with a master who is as lost as he is in the changing India, the incidents that lead to murder, and how he comes to be a successful small business owner.
I was conflicted by Balram's character: I alternated between pity and compassion; how can I feel for him yet be repulsed by at the same time?
I felt for him and his family. I felt for him wanting a better life ... yet run up against so many obstacles: poverty, the injustices foisted on them by the powerful and moneyed, and the corrupt systems.
Balram seemed to always be in desperate circumstances, painted into a corner with seemingly no options. But did he really have no choice?
*A spoiler follows because I can't not say something about this!*
One particularly powerful metaphor that I loved was that of man and life as is the rooster to its coop, in this case "The Great Indian Rooster Coop":
Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench - the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above the coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark red blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. 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.
What a sly, sly writer Adiga is: graphic and disturbing, this could very well be a commentary for many poor countries where the rotten and corrupt systems condone and breed rotten and corrupt citizens wanting to play the system ... lest the system eats them alive.
As conflicted as I am about Balram, I am moreso conflicted with our society has done to shaped its people, or how do we shape our society?
Verdict: Forget the Incredible India commercials; The White Tiger exposes the dark side of an impoverished India where the small are eaten up by the big, moneyed and powerful ... if they let them. A provokingly realistic read which I highly recommend!