Balram Hawai, the narrator of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, sees himself as an important man, so important that when he hears that the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is planning a visit to Bangalore, he decides that he must write to him and share the real story of entrepreneurship in India. This book is his letter to the premier, in which he shares his story of how he rose from living in poverty in “The Darkness” to becoming “The White Tiger, A Thinking Man And an Entrepreneur Living in the world’s center of Technology and Outsourcing.” We learn early on that he killed his employer, but what we don’t know is why he did it and how that led to his success (or even what exactly he’s doing that makes him such a success).
Balran’s voice, which conveys his overwhelming sense of self-importance, pulled me into the book immediately. His attitude makes for some moments that are both hilarious and revealing:
Oh, I could go on and on about myself, sir. I could gloat that I am not just any murderer, but one who killed his own employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probable death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer.
But I don’t want to go on and on about myself. You should hear some of these Bangalore entrepreneurs—my start-up has got this contract with American Express, my start-up runs the software in this hospital in London, blah blah. I hate that whole f—ing Bangalore attitude, I tell you.
(But if you absolutely must find out more about me, just log on to my Web site: http://www.whitetiger-technologydrivers.com. That’s right! That’s the URL of my start-up!)
As you can see, Balram may not be the most reliable of narrators, and he has a mixed-up sense of morality, which is one of the things that made this book enjoyable. This is a subversive sort of rags-to-riches story. Balram speaks at length about how the people of the servant class in India are like roosters sitting in a coop who never attempt to escape. Balram escapes, and the natural thing to want to say is “good for him,” but his way of escaping is as morally questionable as the social system he calls the “Great Indian Rooster Coop.”
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. Balram himself is entertaining, and I liked reading about so many different aspects of Indian society: village life, the servant classes, the streets of Delhi, the growth of shopping malls, the influence of American culture, and the gap between rich and poor. It’s a satisfying concoction.
This is the third book on the Booker Prize shortlist that I’ve read. (And it will probably be the last I read before the winner is announced, given that the others are hard to come by here in the U.S.) I didn’t like it quite as much as I did A Fraction of the Whole, but I found it much more enjoyable than The Secret Scripture (a contrarian view, I know, but I like what I like). I’ve heard consistently good things about some of the other shortlisted books, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book entirely take the prize.