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The Tiger Roars At White Indians

By Jasbeer Musthafa M

19 November, 2008

There are lots of self-made millionaires in India now, certainly, and lots of successful entrepreneurs. But remember that over a billion people live here, and for the majority of them, who are denied decent health care, education, or employment, getting to the top would take doing something like what Balram has done.- Aravind Adiga (The Booker Prize Winner)

Balram Halwai is born into a family of erstwhile sweet-makers in a poor village in Bihar, the most underdeveloped state in India. Balram gets a job as a driver for an upper-class family in Dhanbad, one of Bihar's more prosperous towns (owing to its coal mines). The family's patriarch, called the Stooge, is a ruthless man who runs a shady coal business. From there Balram gets a "promotion" as driver for Ashok, one of the Stooge's sons, and Pinky, Ashok's wife. The couple lives in Gurgaon, Delhi's swanky suburb that houses sprawling malls and glittering offices of American giants.

He begins by detailing his childhood spent as the son of a rickshaw-puller in the village of Laxmangarh, which he sarcastically describes as failing to meet any and all standards set by 'the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends'. The majority of the citizens in Laxmangarh live impoverished existences, and all of the valuable land and business is owned by just four landlords, known colorfully as the Buffalo, the Stork, the Wild Boar, and the Raven.

This dichotomy had already resulted in violence, with one of the landlords' infant sons kidnapped and killed by Naxals, Indian communist rebels. Public animosity between the politicians and the people, the haves and have nots will lead, later in the book, to the rise of "the Great Socialist" and the defeat of the ruling party.

Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers; the prostitutes and the worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is (almost) impossible, the white tiger. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem—but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life—having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

Here he comes face to face with the two Indias: As Adiga aptly puts it: The dreams of the rich and the dreams of the poor - they never overlap, do they? See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor. Living in a big city with bright lights on the one hand and teeming poverty on the other. Balram starts questioning many things he has taken for granted while growing up in his small village. Things get gloomy when his master attempts to frame him for an accidental murder committed by his wife. Balram is forced to question his undying loyalty. His awakening eventually turns him into a successful entrepreneur.

Adiga is so good at imagining the life of the outcast that the novel is an often scary reminder of the pitfalls of overlooking the plight of the underprivileged. When Balram drives his master around Gurgaon, the sight of scantily clad women is a shock to him — not just because women in the Darkness do not dress provocatively, but also because he is humiliated by his inability to have a slice of the "fast life."

The novel is an exhilarating, side - splitting account of India today, as well as an eloquent wail at her many injustices. It is couched as a confession from a deceitful, murderous philosopher who has the brass neck to question his lowly place in the order of things. His disrespect for his elders and betters is shocking -- even Mahathma Gandhi gets the lash of his scornful tongue. This novel is a witty parable of India's changing society, yet there is also much to ponder. The country is invariably presented as a place of brutal injustice and sordid corruption, one in which the poor are always dispossessed and victimized by their age - old enemies.

A quarter century after Salman Rushdie drew the world's attention to the story of the midnight children, and 11 years after Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things spurred interest in Indian writing in English, both in this country and elsewhere, Adiga's tale of the son of a rickshaw-puller who dreams of escaping poverty and goes to seek his fortune in the big cities draws the world's attention to a very different side of India.

The problem is, there is little sense to why Indian continues to sustain this inequality. Adiga relies heavily on these correlations, the Light and the Darkness, or the chicken coop, which undoubtedly mask a greater complexity in this country of a billion people. Many of the characters Balram encounters are mere caricatures, from the landlords to the police looking for bribes to the young revolutionary who instantly converts to greedy self-interest once he tastes power. Can all of India's ills be explained away by pointing at corrupt politicians? Even the overthrow of the ruling party simply changes the destination of the landlord's bribes. Is the only solution an individual one, whereby the White Tigers of the world muscle their way into "the Light" by any means necessary? This seems an unsuitably narrow view, but it is all the novel offers.

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