In a letter addressed to His Excellency Wen Jiabao of China, Balram Halwai confesses, “To give you the basic facts about me—origin, height, weight, known sexual deviations, etc.—there’s no beating that poster.The one the police made of me.”
So begins Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, in which Balram, a self-taught entrepreneur, writes his story in a letter to the Premier of China before the Premier’s visit to India.
The Premier’s mission is to hear about the successes of India’s entrepreneurs for, as Balram drolly explains, “Though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, [India] does have entrepreneurs.” And who better to explain “the truth about Bangalore” than Balram, “one of its most successful (though probably least known) businessmen”?
Balram’s notions of “how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed” come directly from life experiences because, as he notes, “In terms of formal education, I may be somewhat lacking. I never finished school, to put it bluntly. Who cares!” Balram certainly does not.
The White Tiger comes to life in one seemingly breathless episode through Balram’s sincerely hilarious and brutally honest voice recalling how these very characteristics have propelled his ordinary self, on more than one occasion, into extraordinary circumstances.
Balram’s letter recountsthe entire story of his life, during the course of which he has been a chauffeur, an investigator of sorts, a philosopher, a servant, a murderer, a fugitive, and an entrepreneur, though not necessarily in that order.
In nearly every situation, Balram seems headed for near-disastrous collisions with corrupt laws, employers, government officials, and police, but his witty nature also comes conveniently equipped with determination, cleverness, and an excellent talent for blackmailing.
Though Balram oftentimes mocks these obstacles by using, as he says, “the phrase in English that I learned from my ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok’s ex-wife Pinky Madame…: What a…joke,” Adiga calls careful attention to the problems of corruption, racism, and ignorance that plague India and the rest of the world during this “glorious twenty-first century of man.”
Adiga’s commentary on these matters never slows the narrative for one moment. It is always subtle, hidden in a background “of rice fields and wheat fields and ponds in the middle of those fields choked with lotuses and water lilies.” When Balram moves to Delhi, it is mixed in among the “buses and jeeps all along the road…bursting with passengers who packed the insides.”
Though it is summer reading only for seniors who have elected Faultlines, an English IV offering, The White Tiger, recipient of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, is raucously funny and deserves to be read by everyone.Take Balram’s own advice: “Don’t waste your money on those American books.They’re so yesterday.I am tomorrow.”