Book Review: The White Tiger

The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga
HarperCollins, 2009
321 pp

“Sweet-maker…that’s my caste, my destiny,” says the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in Aravind Adiga’s novel, “White Tiger.” Another character in the novel asks the question, “Do you think sweet-makers can manage fourth gear?”

Western readers are not used to reading about castes, an historically rigid class system in India for centuries. Historians tell us, however, that in urban India, the caste system is breaking down, even though it remains entrenched in rural India.

Adiga’s success-driven hero gives his own succinct overview of caste, describing it as a “clean, well-kept orderly zoo. Goldsmiths here. Landlords there,” a system where “untouchables clean faeces.” Everyone and every caste neatly arranged in their economic and social niches.

Balram appears to be fatalistically doomed to the underprivileged and economically destitute. His father’s family lost its small tea-and-sweets restaurant, forcing the father into lower-class employment as a rickshaw-puller. Balram’s brother, Kishan, leaves school to work in a tea-and-sweets shop and eventually takes Balram out of school to smash pieces of coal for the oven in the shop.

“Working in a tea shop. Smashing coals. Wiping tables”—all appear, at first glance, to be Balram’s irrevocable destiny. In the same breath, Balram reminds us of the “entrepreneur’s prerogative”: “to turn bad news into good.”

And, by hook or crook—in this case, the slashing of his boss’s throat—Balram is to become an eventual entrepreneur with his own fleet of SUV-taxis, a Macintosh laptop, a chandelier he can sit under, garages and mechanics for his taxis, and, of course, enough stolen money to pay off the local police.

The journey Balram takes is a self-propelled, self-determined, Darwinian path from tea-and-sweets shop worker and destitute son of a rickshaw-puller, to personal driver for a wealthy boss, to nouveau riche respectability as the owner of a small, thriving business.

It is a world fraught with desperation and a world not without its tragic, amoral effects—a revenge murder of Balram’s entire family as a consequence of his frenetic rush to get to the top of the economic pyramid.

Balram’s personal quest is merely symptomatic of a larger social malaise in the new-but-still-very-old India—a land of political corruption where the police can be bribed, politicians can blackmail their constituents for money and votes, the upper-class bourgeoisie can live out their lives in shopping malls, and poverty lingers like the chronic pain of a brain tumor, metastasizing into generational poverty.

If we are to take anything from Adiva’s scathing portrait of the modern/ancient social bifurcation in contemporary India, it is that only the furniture has been arranged on this Titanic-of-an-economic nightmare—in this instance, Balram’s name-change to Ashok Sharma may boojie up his status, but he is still the avaricious, amoral, Donald-Trump-of-a-kid willing to do anything to become another economic arriviste.

And like the new and shiny-faced outsourced India employee in a white cubicle giving advice to a harried American Verizon customer, Balram is just another one of the very “few” who is going to make it in India. But it is those few who will benefit from the mad influx of new money; it is the few who will grab the baton-of-success from an economic mentor; and it is this privileged minority who will quickly become the Balrams of the world, the “white tigers,” the anomalies, the new capitalist-driven sociopaths who will succeed by an means necessary, as the saying goes.

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