Book #20

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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 us 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. Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers; the prostitutes and the worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is (almost) impossible, the white tiger. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem -- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

This is a story themed solely around corruption and social inequalities in India. Our protagonist, Balram Halwai, was born in 'the Darkness' - an area of India which is overpopulated by the poor and poverty-stricken, and where the rich regularly oppress and use the poor as they deem required. The story is a a rags-to-riches tale of Balram rising up from the Darkness and becoming an entrepreneur. Along the way, we are treated to a great deal of social commentary from Adiga, and mostly unsubtle bashings of the Indian political system.

I liked the portrayal of two Indias in the novel - the Darkness and the Light. The first, a world of poverty and gloom filled with people who can't seem to break out of their chains, succumbing to the demands of the rich, and sacrificing basic privileges to try and get ahead. The Light is inhabited by a different type of human - corrupt politicians and businessmen with endless wealth, doing everything they can to ensure their own luxury, and constantly exploiting those from the alternate India entirely without shame. Adiga highlights the impact living in the Darkness can have on a person's health, opportunity, and basic human rights.

Although Adiga's view of humanity here is presented in a mostly comical way, ultimately the novel is pretty depressing. To rise from the slums, Balram killed his own boss (or 'master') and stole a bag of money which was originally to be used to pay off a poltician. Being introduced to Adiga's poor characters in comparison to his rich ones, the only difference was their sheer lack of opportunity. They were still sleazy, vile, selfish, and cruel. I didn't engage, nor like, a single character.

I understood, and enjoyed, the themes Adiga was trying to chastise here, such as politics, corruption, the caste system, and sexual relationships. In the end, what the novel has left me with is a sense of selfishness, individualism, and a complete scorn of community and family relations. Not once in this book did one character help another without somehow gaining something from it. Balram was quite happy to allow his family to struggle, and even be beaten or murdered, as long as he was where he wanted to be. My judging eyes were on our protagonist, rather than the corrupt political forces I was supposed to be directing my contempt towards.

Overall, this is an entertaining read. It's very much a satiric information giver rather than a work of art, but with good perspective, and brings India's societal issues to the fore.