The White Tiger defies conventions; shatters myths of a new India shining. Almost abuses the most fertile landmass on the banks of the holiest of holy rivers of an ancient and extremely religious country: he calls the Ganga belt The Darkness. Before the dust settles, the book attacks the very essence of Indian existence—our family system—because the protagonist, Balram Halwai, ruthlessly describes it a Rooster Coop, where millions are trapped like chickens.
The book won this year’s Man Booker Prize for the right decision of a debutant author to portray a ‘wrong’ India. This India doesn’t have those mystics, nor the enlightened middle class, who are fast growing to reach the portals of the global elite. This shockingly fresh, yet depressingly redundant ‘reality’ of an India in English writing is opening up another layer of a sublime Indian literary experience to the outside world. This surprise element, surely, is one of the catalysts behind The White Tiger winning the prize, surpassing even grandeurs like The Sea of Poppies by a very seasoned award-winner Amitav Ghosh.
The title itself glares at the reader as out of the box and almost revolutionary in its attempt to dare the hierarchy and nick-name a lowly-placed, servant-class protagonist by the rarely-found, ever-elusive genetic wonder, called the white tiger.
And to think that he didn’t even have a name at the time of enrolling in his local school. The journey of Munna to Balram to The White Tiger marks the milestones of the novel, to put the story in a traditional nutshell.
This tiger chooses to play devil, challenge the system—only to climb on top of it and get sucked into its soft upper crust and enjoy the promised icing of a luxurious lifestyle and allied exigencies. This tiger writes a letter to none other than the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and preaches to him the great Indian entrepreneur trick, during the course of seven nights.
“In my way sir, I consider myself one of your kind,” he says. He is so sharp-witted as to laughingly express his complete disdain for the All India Radio in the very second page of the “first night”. He goes on to say that the only three nations he admires in the whole world are China, Afghanistan and Abyssinia—for the singular reason that these countries never let themselves ruled by foreigners. And he has no false-pride when he reveals, “I was a servant once, too, you see.”
It is very interesting that the novel begins and runs along till the end in the form of a letter, that too, addressed to a living leader of an emerging tiger of an Asian country. We readers, in our day-to-day lives, are repeatedly bombarded with reports on China and India pitching to be the next world leaders—be it politically, economically, culturally and technologically. While India braces to be a China, it is also a known fact that China does not even look at us. She wants to do a US, at any cost—the recently concluded Olympic Games may be a pulsating example speaking for itself. But Balram the sweetmaker does not buy the myth of the West. For him, as long as Indians are out of the Darkness, we, together with the yellow-skinned, will rule the world.
The most enchanting chapter of the book, the First Night, is very refreshing with plenty of imageries thrown in. It owes a lot to the wall poster announcing that Balram, the murderer is missing. The power of its sentences—rather the powerlessness of it, for had anybody been heeding any interest in its content, Balram wouldn’t be writing this letter in the first place—is so potent that we begin to wonder how much information and enlightening a wrting-on-the-wall can contain.
In another characteristically non-benevolent action, Balram kisses all the 3,60,00,004 arses of all Indian gods, 3 among them Christian and one, Muslim. While conforming to the ritual of pleasing gods before starting any venture, he describes that in the most embarrassing fashion for the devout Indian living in our time and space, irrespective of classes.
The narrative grows quite poignant in many a turn. It shoots an arrow of guilt-pang directly to any normally higher-educated middle-class Indian who reads it—“no boy remembers his schooling like one who has taken out of school, let me assure you,” he tells Jiabao. But the hero is quick to come out of his past with a self-righteous, unapologetic, “entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay.”
The philosopher in Balram comes out first when he as a boy goes to cremate his mother on the banks of Ganga. There the corpse’s toes refuse to be licked up by the pyre and he realizes why: “this was the real god of Banares, this black mud of the Ganga into which anything dies, and decomposed and was reborn from, and dies into again. The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here.” With that, the cunning entrepreneur in him leaves Ganga to the American tourists!
Balram’s world has just a few women in it. And in his opinion and experience, they just serve to perpetuate the permament misery the Indian lower-class willingly submit themselves to. His mother comes across as an intelligent woman, but she hardly stays to influence Balram in any pious way. Although it is she who instills the yearning for an education and knowledge in his tender mind that his father takes on as his duty after her death. “I have always been a big believer in education—especially my own,” he says later. Kusum, his grand mother, is a nagging presence in the entire story. She is the one to send him to work in tea shop for an extra buck, from where he eavesdrops on a conversation and decides to learn driving and subsequently moves to Delhi. His cousin-sisters are a burden, for whose dowry the family has to tie themselves to the vicious circle of debt and servitude.
Some of the observations that this half-baked Indian—who considers himself educated through overhearing conversations in the tea shop, his master’s car and the roadside—make are disturbingly accurate. For example, how he sums up caste system and class struggle for Jiabao: “In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up.”
And he makes no attempt to hoodwink the Chinese leader about the true nature of Indian democracy. Because, in The Darkness, people often say: “I have heard the people in the other India get to vote for themselves.”
The novelist caricatures Indian slums in a different light. In his lines, they almost become one of the characters in the novel—the way he describes workers, who build up big malls and apartments in Gurgaon, sit in a line to defecate and does not even bother to look at a stranger joining them.
It is often said, “society makes a criminal.” Adiga seems to hint, in the Indian context, that it is a crime to be poor and getting out of it requires the sheer grit and mindless ambition to do whatever it takes to come out of an animal-like existence in The Rooster Coop with destinies burnt hard into the foreheads.
Balram doesn’t pause to think and shudder at what would have happened to his family back in Gaya following his master’s murder. They must have been destroyed, hunted, beaten, burned alive by the masters. But he being “a freak, a pervert of nature social entrepreneur” will never say he “made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I will say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means to be a servant.”
And as we shut the book, realizing for a brief moment our numbed complacence with life, we also feel a déjà vu, and continue feeling the same for the rest of our smug lives, in all prospects. May be this mild itching will grow into something of a larger scale, and quite literally, we may challenge the rotten system, however convenient it seems now for the average middle class. Whether that achieved or not, White Tiger has surely left a lasting roar in the hallowed portals of Indian English literature.