The White Tiger
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
This book was the 2008 winner of the Man Booker Prize, and its black, sardonic humor belies the shocking theme: that of a lowly servant who murders his employer and runs away with his money (not a spoiler; that’s the book jacket’s synopsis).
The story is told in the first person as Balram Halwai writes a series of letters, each titled “The First Night”, “The Second Night”, etc., to the Premier of China, whose much-publicized upcoming visit to India inspires Balram to spill his guts to someone he thinks might appreciate what he’s been through. Balram calls himself a “social entrepreneur”, having taken his destiny into his own hands by a violence he himself deplores and is struggling to explain to himself as much as to the Premier.
Adiga’s detailed description of the caste system in India is profoundly disturbing, all the more so for its continued existence today. The poor are so shockingly so that they live in conditions far worse than any animal, their fates laid out for them in a predestined, hellish cycle of poverty and misery. In Balram’s caste and family, the very best a man can hope for is to live as an enslaved servant to a richer family. One wonders how any human being can even maintain the will to live in the environment Adiga describes.
As dark as it sounds, I didn’t find it as depressing as it could have been. Adiga tells the story with such darkly comedic talent that you tend to forget the underlying outcome, although the abysmal conditions of Balram’s life are never far from the surface. But what a talent this writer is! I really felt as if I were reading a firsthand account of Balram’s life; that I’d picked these letters up somewhere and become privy to one man’s unique, incredible story. Balram himself is such an intriguing, humorous and yes, even endearing character that you can’t help but like him even though you know what he’s going to do.
I had trouble putting it down once I started it, and will definitely read it again. It’s a rich and unsettling tale that made such an impression on me that I dreamed about it two nights in a row.