What becomes apparent soon into The White Tiger is its anger. This is the voice of the post liberal India, the generation after Rushdie and Mistry. While the principals of Mistry’s Fine Balance are crushed in subhuman surroundings, the one here rises in protest using the very system which keeps countless others like him in “darkness”. The novel brings to forefront the apparent anomalies in India’s economic growth, driven principally by a burgeoning outsourcing industry. Perhaps no where else in the world are the differences in social strata so stark – glittering edifices of the elite on one hand, and the destitute defecating in the open on the other.
The narrative is unique and extremely engrossing. Balram, a successful entrepreneur in booming Bangalore, tells the story of his life, with a lot of his native wisdom and insights about India included, to the Chinese premier Wen Jibao in a series of letters he writes late at night. Born in the impoverished rural India (a village called Laxmangarh), he has left his past behind to emerge successfully in a new avatar. It is a story of his transformation, his gruesome leap to alter his destiny.
Adiga paints India in two shades. One is Darkness, where Balaram and his ilk are taken advantage of generation after generation by a deeply unfair social system, by the corrupt political class. Then there’s the India of Light, which is still as corrupt, but with a glimmer of hope.
“This city has its share of thugs and politicians. It’s just that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. In Laxmangarh, he doesn’t even have this choice. That is the difference between this India and that India: the choice.”
The work is searing in its criticism of the fatalistic belief system that keeps millions in hopelessness, in the “Rooster Coop” of degeneration. It celebrates Balram’s release, albeit the criminal means.
I’ve made it! I’ve broken out of the coop!
But his freedom itself is a question mark on the system of law and order and corruption in modern India.
“I have switched sides: I am now one of those who cannot be caught in India.”
Balram is one of the few who make it over from one world to the other. A rarity, like the “White Tiger”.
Scathing and irreverent, the book questions the very foundations of India’s democracy, much touted in the image presented to the rest of the world. It is reminiscent of Khushwaht Singh, only Adiga is more incisive.
But regardless of its profound implications, the novel succeeds also as a great entertainer. Hugely readable, it is a page turner, with a thriller like pace at times. It should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker, for which it has been shortlisted. Kudos to Adiga, for such a refreshing and delightful read.