A metaphorical white tiger caged inside a rooster coop, and how he breaks free is the story of ‘The White Tiger‘. This book by Aravind Adiga was called a ‘masterpiece’ by The Times and it won the Man Booker Prize 2008. This book depicts the issues of poverty and class discrimination grappling the 21st century India.
Adiga focuses on the ‘darkness’ – the areas where development never reached – the rural areas and the urban slums. The narrative rests on Adiga’s satirical writing, highlighting the gaps in the social and economic development of the country and the utter indifference of the rich towards the poor and weaker sections of the society.
The premise of the story is the letter written on seven consecutive nights by the protagonist to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is about to visit India. It is an autobiographical account of the protagonist’s life from the beginning until this point (when he is sitting in his office in Bangalore under a chandelier writing these letters).
Balram Halwai, the man from a remote village called Laxmangarh in Gaya, Bihar wants his story of entrepreneurship to be known to the Chinese Premier. He desires the Chinese Premier to take back an honest impression of the country and not the one that will be served to him by the Prime Minister’s office or through tourism brochures. There is always a superior tone in all the communications as if the Chinese Premier is about to gain immensely from these revelations.
“I wanted to hear more about this Castro, but for your sake, I’ve turned the radio off. I’ll resume the story…”
Balram Halwai is ‘The White Tiger’ because he turned out to be the only boy with the ability to read and write during an inspection at his Government School. Hence, the inspector named him the White Tiger – “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. He is promised of a scholarship and a future to study in Dhanbad. However, in ‘darkness’, the poor boy’s dreams are shattered. He is pulled out of the school, put to work at a tea stall to pay off a loan that his family had taken for one of his ‘cousin sister’s’ marriage, from the village landlord.
It is intriguing how Adiga knits the issues of rural education, health care, police investigation, coal mining malpractices, democracy and urbanization in an interesting and smooth narrative. And, he builds the story with nuances of how to drive on Delhi roads, the difference between Maruti 800 and a Honda city!
While you read, (ofcourse you have to be Indian to have this feeling) you realize that your thoughts synchronize with that of the author. For example, Adiga brings up the black and smudged pictures of the wanted criminals on the posters pasted by police in public places to nab them. The face reduced to pixels could be ‘half the men in India’. On how a driver in India is also a cook, servant, masseuse when he is not driving the car.
The rich are not named but denoted as animals/ birds – stork, raven, buffalo, wild boar, and mongoose according to their traits. With all the difficulty, Balram somehow manages to become a driver at the Stork household. This becomes the first step for Balram to come out of ‘darkness’. He then becomes the driver of Ashok and Pinky Madam, Stork’s younger son and daughter-in-law who have returned from America. In the first chapter or the first letter itself, Balram admits that he slit Ashok’s throat but for the eccentricities so far, you still looked forward to a possible twist in the story or an improbable end.
Now there is an explanation of how Balram, born to the Halwai caste meaning the sweet maker could become a driver in modern India. On 15th August 1947, British left India, ‘the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced the zoo law.’ The ones with big bellies would eat up anyone and anyone could rise. In the earlier times, there were one thousand castes but now only two exists – men with big bellies and men with small bellies. The theme of paunches is quite a nuance as it later crops up like the rich going for ‘walking’ to reduce fat while the thin servants stand with a bottle of water and towel for them.
Kusum, the grandmother or the matriarchal head of the Halwai family is a potent villain in the context of ‘darkness’. Such characters are very less explored in Indian fiction hence adds so much colour to the narrative. She strongly supports putting the young boys of the family at work rather than study, and ensures that the income from men and dowry money are brought to her. She ensures that the vicious cycle of marriage, children, and death continues.
The book widely explores the ‘servant’ culture that runs in India. It is the slavery of a different kind. I remember reading ‘Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru’ where Nehru boasts how India should be proud of, for unlike the West, we never had the slavery system. But, this book details the inhuman conditions in which the servants live and how they are called upon to work at any time of the day, with no respect for either their work or their privacy. An interesting link is drawn between Lord Hanuman as the faithful servant to his master Lord Ram; and how such mythological references instill a deep-seated servitude amongst its population.
Another interesting take is on democracy in India. In one of the letters, Balram writes to Jiabao, “…despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic medals, still don’t have democracy….If I were making a country, I’d get the sewage first, then the democracy.” He elucidates that there are three deadly diseases in India typhoid, cholera, and election fever. We get our handful on fake/ forced voting, candidates with criminal cases, socialist versus the current party in power, etc.
The concept of ‘Rooster Coop’ is introduced mid-way through the book. The appreciated quality of trustworthiness in Indian servants is explained through the working of the ‘Great Indian Rooster Coop’. It works because of the importance of the family for Indians, the persistent threat to keep one’s family safe from the wrath of the masters makes the vicious cycle to continue. The structure ensures that even when the masters commit crimes, the innocent poor servants take the blame upon them and take the punishment.
An interesting picture of servants’ lives is also painted – servants putting down each other, squeezing some benefits out of their masters and eavesdropping a conversation. The drivers who huddle together at the parking outside the mall and read murder mystery weeklies sold at Rs. 4.50 only.
I think somewhere around mid-way the book loses the pace. So we have encounters with a prostitute who poses as a white, an Urdu bookseller telling poetry and remembering English book titles by its cover, and Balram taking a dump with the slum dwellers behind the Gurgaon mall.
I gather Adiga’s favourite words have to be clavicles and beaks, metaphorically sitting well with the narrative. After Rushdie’s ‘hit the spittoon’, comes the pan spitting act of the teacher at Laxmangarh school and the murals on the three walls painted by this act. Beautiful imagery is created throughout the book, for example, the boys working at the tea stalls as spiders, with multiple hands doing multiple chores.
Our narrator – Balram Halwai – is a school dropout, son of a rickshaw puller, born to a family of ‘halwais’ – the one whom his parents called Munna (common word for a baby boy), christened by his school teacher as Balram and given the title of a White Tiger by an inspector. We await the story that reveals his final avatar as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, ‘the Silicon Valley of India’.
‘The White Tiger’ is essentially a fantastical tale of entrepreneurship that could elevate a man from social and economic drudgery but is a morally incorrect example.