The White Tiger, written by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Our book club host chose it because it is set in India, where she had grown up in but left many years ago to live in the West. She wanted us to take a glimpse into the new India as it was known since the influx of western technology and without doubt, we were fascinated by the India that was depicted in the book.
Balram, the protagonist, was a self-made entrepreneur who ran a taxi company driving employees of call centres to and from their work in Bangalore. He rose to this position in society from the darkest dumps in India among poverty and dirt, but not without his desire to escape what he was born into in order to climb in society combined with a bit of cleverness and a ruthless criminal mind.
We were all interested in the characterization of Balram Halwai. When the story began, we were reading his letter to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, full of sarcasm and scorn and then came an open slash out on his employer and his home village. As the story unfolded, Balram brought the readers through retrospective narrative following his journey to success in the India we know of today, where there was uncountable riches among some people in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore, and rotten poverty in the smaller villages. Balram was proud that he had made it.
His employer, Mr. Ashok. joked that he was “half-baked” due to his lack of formal education. We reckoned that as a village boy, he only knew what he had been taught, but there was so much he did not know. However, Balram did not stop educating himself. He eave-dropped. There was a street-smartness in him which enabled him to watch his surroundings, and picked out cues to please the people who had authority over him. He found his break when he learned how to drive, and got into his chauffeur job by back stabbing the one in service at the back. He had no qualms. He was an opportunist. The only sign of goodness in him was his care for the little boy who joined him to work in the big house.
He was a complicated character, and one whom none of us liked. We however were trying to imagine if we had been in his position, would anyone of us had done something similar. It was one thing to understand what Balram’s development, but another matter to sympathize with what he had done.
Funny though in places, this was a tragic story to most of us. Our Indian host confirmed the rigid class system in which some human beings were treated with contempt by others and the bullying around the place for survival. It was hard to imagine Balram being sent off by his grandmother to make money, and when he stopped doing so, she threatened to marry him so as to get the bride’s dowry.
We questioned the value of human life as revealed by this novel. The wife of Balram’s boss ran over somebody. They did not care for the victim, and they made Balram signeda paper to admit that he committed the offense. That seemed to be the moment of revelation to Balram, a turning point where he began to set bigger goals. He killed his employer and ran away with the money. He gloated about his achievement, He was blatantly exposing the inequalities in his society, the lack of respect for fellow human beings and the value of life.
We began to wonder the intent of the author in portraying such a character. One member suggested the author was writing from outside of the Indian society from a lens of a western educated journalist. The economic success of the modern Indian did not pass the gauntlet of his critical eyes which searched for social equality. The rich tread down on the poor, and Balram, symbolizing the poor, justified the murder of his employer as an act of vindication.
Personally I was drawn to how Balram address to the Chinese Premier throughout and his irreverent and pointed remarks he made. I opined that there was a political agenda in the context of the tense Sino-Indian relationship alluded to by the author. There is such irony that the two most populated countries in the world are going through economic development with the unprecedented polarization of the rich and the poor, measured in monetary terms. Do we not know that within both societies, there is bribery and corruption, and in both societies, outsiders and foreigners are treated with greater respect than one’s own people, and human life is never valued? China has always portrayed itself to be a better place than it is. Here comes Adiga, speaking to the Chinese Premier in the face, short of accusing his target as a hypocrite through the voice of the protagonist, Blaram Halwai.
We all liked the book. Adiga’s may not have fulfilled all the requirement of the novelist in giving due treatment to the various characters in the book, but his acumen in perceiving the dilemma of Indian society today (and his clever reference to China’s parallel situation ) is a winner.
At the end of our book club, we felt we should all continue with some Indian flavour by arranging a date for an Indian meal and to visit a temple in Toronto. My dear readers, please keep an eye out for my post.