Aravind Adiga, Time Magazine’s Asia Correspondent, in his debut novel takes us on an unexpected journey of emerging India through his protagonist Balram Halwai. Now, just the choice of his protagonist sends tinkles to us that this book is going to be something different. Balram is not a politician, philosopher, high school graduate, lover, sportsperson, lawyer, thug or any other common characters that we read about often. He is a driver. Yes, the protagonist is a driver, our White Tiger.
Balram is a driver to Mr. Ashok, the son of a rich landlord whom Balram refers to as the ‘Stork’. ‘The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian’ is what Balram calls his life story. Born in the village of Laxmangarh to Vikram Halwai, a rickshaw puller, Balram talks about living in ‘Darkness’ till he sees the light of the capital city of Delhi when he is sent with his master Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam. Being in servitude, ‘Rooster Coop’ as he calls it, he exposes the rot beneath the glossy front of the so called rich.
Balram begins his story in the form of seven letters to the premier of China, Wen Jiabao who is to be coming to India to hear the success stories of some of the Indian entrepreneurs. Balram, a self accomplished entrepreneur, feels that this is the time when he needs to narrate his story and expose the truth behind several things that exist in our country.
In his crude voice, he very flatly states that there are only three nations that he admires: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia as they never let themselves be ruled by foreigners. He, of course doesn’t has any admiration for his own country. The sarcasm in his voice can also not be ignored as he says, “future of the world lies with the yellow man and brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse.” It is this sarcasm, crudeness, cynicism, and wit that makes the readers keep the pages turning.
He gives us an account of how poor people die in government hospitals due to endemic corruption, how the people of the “Darkness” are always ruled by powerful landlords, he also gives an account of rigging of elections, and the votes of the poor being cast by their masters. They are aware of the exploitation and the unfair means but nobody wants or perhaps doesn’t have the courage to break out from the ‘coop’. The main reason he begins writing letters to the Premier of China is that he wants to educate the premier to not be fooled by any of the promises that politicians make to him on his visit to India.
Balram is determined not to rot in the tea shop that he started with his cousin, Kishan. Instead, he learns to drive and lands a job with the local landlord. When landlord’s younger USA returned son Ashok, moves to Delhi in order to easily bribe government officials, Balram stays back in Delhi with him. He often overhears his conversations and decides that he will do anything to not be a servant anymore. For achieving this, he makes some immoral decisions, and kills his master Ashok. He runs away with his money and makes a break for freedom. After escaping without getting caught, he moves to Bangalore where he starts his own taxi company. The lessons of bribery that he had learnt from his master are well utilized by him in order to become successful.
The picture of India that is shown in the White Tiger is of cruelty and unfairness. The message that the author is trying to shout out loud in this book is that though India has gained freedom in 1947 but still majority of us are in servitude. Be it the rich landlords, politicians, employers, we are just serving others. Everything is on sale for a person who has rolls of green bundles. The author has portrayed a very realistic picture of India and that is what makes this book different from the others that talk about the Shining India.
The character of Balram is very believable. He tries hard to live up to his nickname of White Tiger (name given to him in school during inspection as he was the only one who could read and write). His character and his grit are very strong. He is not on a lookout for India’s reformation, all he wants is to live to the name of white tiger and break free. He may be uneducated but he knows perfectly well how the world works. The author takes us inside Balram Halwai’s mind and also succeeds in showing the reality of middle and lower class households. The book is sheer fun. There are times when you hate it but it definitely touches the deepest chords of the readers. It’s an eye opener!