The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008) 321 p.

After reading some recent Booker prize winners that were good but not great (The Blind Assassin, True History of the Kelly Gang) – not to mention some Indian novels that I quite disliked (Midnight’s Children, Kim) – it was a pleasure to read one that I can say is a really, really great book. Narrated by the self-styled White Tiger, Balram Halwai, in a letter he is composing to the Premier of China, The White Tiger details the story of his life and his rise from poverty to wealth.

Balram is, he proudly tells the Premier, one of India’s great new entrepreneurs – a man born into crushing poverty who succeeded against all odds and now runs a company in Bangalore. He is only half-educated, and has some strange ideas, but on the whole he seems witty and well-spoken and deserving of his place among India’s new upper class. Until he admits that he is a murderer.

In its early chapters – even with the admission of murder – The White Tiger seems to be a typical Indian rags-to-riches story, similar to “Slumdog Millionaire.” But Adiga reveals himself to be capable of a story much deeper than that. The bulk of the novel concerns a fairly limited time and place – Balram’s employment as the driver for wealthy young Mr. Ashok, over a span of less than a year in New Delhi. We know to begin with that Balram is fated to kill Mr. Ashok, yet we do not know why. The little steps taken towards this event – the way Balram gradually becomes aware of the utter injustice of his station in life – is one of the best character development arcs I have ever read.

Balram is fated to be a servant, one of the perpetual have-nots born in a village at the edge of the Ganges. He is lucky enough to learn how to drive a car and land a job working for Mr. Ashok’s family, who own most of the land around his village and eventually take Balram with them when they move to New Dehli. Balram is at first delighted by his luck, because this is as high a position as he ever could have dreamed of when he was a poor dirt farmer. Yet he slowly begins to realise that this once coveted occupation is nothing compared to what some have – compared, in fact, to what his masters have. He works harder than they do, suffers more than they do, yet will never have anything to show for it. He lives in filth and poverty and misery, while his rich, corpulent employers want for nothing. He begins to find himself disgusted with his fellow servants, with how they are satisifed with their lives, simply because they cannot imagine anything better – even though it is right in front of their noses. Mr. Ashok is kind and friendly – having been to America, he has egalitarian Western ideas and takes some interest in Balram’s life. Yet his words never amount to actions, and Balram struggles with the servant/master dynamic – feeling like a valued member of the family, but more like a dog than a son.

The injustice of the divide between rich and poor is hardly a ground-breaking concept, but it’s one that has bothered me greatly since I travelled through Asia last year and was daily exposed to abject poverty while I was withdrawing hundreds of dollars every time I went to an ATM. In clear, simple prose, Adiga addresses this subject in an original and unpretentious manner. By the end of the novel, Balram is a character who has murdered an innocent man in cold blood. Yet the reader is wholly sympathetic with him (or at least, I was). Was it fair to kill Mr. Ashok? No. But is it fair for hundreds of millions of people to live in abysmal poverty, under a corrupt system designed to keep them downtrodden, powerless and miserable forever? For the same reasons I found it hard to get angry at the persistent touts and beggars and scam artists and even thieves that I came across in Asia, I found it very easy to agree with Balram’s justifications for murder.

Is Balram a good man? Perhaps not, but he is not a bad man either. The response I eventually felt towards Asia’s endless poverty was powerless resignation – I became well aware that my own first-world life exists at the pinnacle of a pyramid of misery, but I have no idea how to effect any kind of change, and ultimately I am, like Henry Goose, simply merciful that my maker cast me on the winning side. Who among us truly knows what horrible things we would be capable of doing to escape Balram’s fate?

Who among us has the right to judge him?

The White Tiger at The Book Depository