The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, is narrated by the charming but complex, Balram Halwai, a personal chaffeur, who is simultaneously traditional, religious and devoted, as well as rebellious, bitter and corrupt. The entire book is in the form of a long letter, written over seven nights, addressed to the Premier of China who happens to be planning a visit to India. The reader is left only to speculate why Balram feels the need to write along drawn out letter telling his life-story to the Premier of China, of all people. The letter is prefaced with the admission that Balram’s wealth and success is solely due to the fact that he cold-heartedly murdered his old Master. According to the cocky, yet charismatic Balram, the murder was an essential and necessary evil, the only way to climb out of the “darkness” and into the light.
Adiga gives a clear picture, not of the India in spiritually tranquil books describing yogis in lotus pose, but of the complex, often lost and sad India, plagued with a resurgent economy, and ridden with corruption, inequity and hardship. The White Tiger, won the 2008 (Man) Booker prize, despite critics claiming that it unevenly labelled India as a morally corrupt to the bone. Adiga, born in India, but raised and educated in Australia and America, gave a very grim portrayal of India today, claiming to have painted this picture based on his observations of Delhi’s slums and inner city streets. However, there is something to be said about the lack of humanity and morality in the novel, human qualities which are unrealistically, if not unconvincingly never observed in any of its characters.
Although the novel’s themes are serious in nature, they are riddled with a macabre sense of humour. It is easy to be charmed by the charismatic murderer who justifies his every act with the evidence of his shocking upbringing and past.
The White Tiger is certainly worth a read if you are interested in a modern day version of India completely opposite from colourful Bollywood sets or spiritually laden self-help books. It captures a nation that is struggling to find an identity separate from the West, and that is all at once traditional, spiritual and loyal, as well as modernized, corrupt and back-stabbing.