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Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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It’s probably safe to say you can’t go a week these days without reading at least one article talking about the economies of China or India. It seems there is someone in some business section of some newspaper always willing to write another breathless installment in the rise of the East as economic powers. The majority of the writers seem torn between their amazement that countries like India and China can actually have an economy, citing them as examples of how great the Free Market is.

What most of these articles fail to mention is the cost being paid for these great economic miracles. In China the majority of the labour being supplied to fuel the motor of the economy is as close to slave labour as you can get and still be paid for your work. People work long hours for little pay in conditions that would close plants in North America in a second. These are merely technicalities; nothing for us to worry about. It’s not like we live there.

India has become the call centre to the world it seems. Whenever you phone a company for technical support these days, no matter what country you’re calling from, you’re likely to end up talking to someone in Mumbai or Bangalore. Call centres and a burgeoning IT class doesn’t hide the inequities that still exist in Indian society or that huge numbers of people still live in poverty so abject that we wouldn’t even begin to comprehend its depth.

The only place you’re liable to read about the reality of life in India today is on the pages of one of the many books making their way out of India to the shelves of book stores in North America. Joining those ranks is The White Tiger, written by first time novelist Aravind Adiga, published by Simon & Schuster, and just recently released in North America. In his book, Adiga not only peels back the gloss of the economic miracle to expose the rot beneath, he instructs us in the means by which a small minority of the population are able to subjugate the majority.

A white tiger is the rarest creature in the jungle, only coming along once in every generation. When Balram Halwai was still able to attend the excuse for a school in his village, he was singled out by a school inspector as being the white tiger of his contemporaries for being able to read and write when nobody else could. The inspector promised that Balram would be given a scholarship to attend a proper school so he could fulfill his potential. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. His family were forced to pull him out of school to help pay off their debt to their landlord.

We learn Balram’s life story courtesy of letters he has taken upon himself to write to the premier of China. He wrote these letters to educate the premier so that he wouldn’t be fooled by any of the false pictures the politicians he meets might paint about life in India when he comes for his official state visit. Balram decides the best way for the premier to understand what life in India is like is by telling him the story of his, Balram’s, life.

The first lesson Balram has for us is the reality of rural life in India. In his small village everybody is beholden to one of four landlords. If you want to grow anything you have to pay money to one person. If you want to graze animals you have to pay money to another. If you want to use the roads to make money as a rickshaw driver, you pay 10% of everything you earn to a third. Finally, the fourth one owns the waters. If you want to fish or use the water to transport goods, you pay him.

It’s after Balram’s family is forced to borrow money from one of the landlords to pay for a cousin’s dowry that he has to leave school and start working in teahouses. Balram is destined for greater things, though, and his grandmother comes up with 600 rupees so he may learn to drive and get a job driving for a wealthy man. Through blind luck he happens to show up at his landlord’s compound on the day the youngest son has returned from America and needs his own driver. This begins his long climb out of the darkness of poverty.

aravind_adiga_.jpgBalram is not just a driver. It turns out he’s expected to cook, clean, and do whatever else his new master needs him to do. When his master moves to New Delhi, Balram moves with him and drives him around the capital as he greases the palms of all the various political fixers and parliamentarians that need greasing in order to ensure the family business survives. One hundred thousand rupees here, two hundred thousand there, and Balram sits in the front seat seeing nothing, but witnessing it all.

At one point Balram asks the premier why he thinks servants are so loyal to their masters. Why don’t they demand a cut or threaten them with the police, or at the very least stand up to the masters who they outnumber by at least a thousand to one? Balram calls it the Rooster Coop syndrome. In the markets in New Delhi, hens and roosters are stuffed into wire cages where they spend their days pecking and shitting on each other fighting just to breathe. According to Balram, it’s the same for the poor of India. They are so busy fighting among each other for the chance to breathe that they will never be able to escape their cages.

The threat of violence against their families if they misbehave is a factor as well. Balram recounts how a servant of one of the landlords in his home village did something wrong, and the landlord had his entire family killed in retaliation. Balram says it would take a unique individual, a White Tiger even, to be depraved enough to risk the lives of his entire family to steal the seven hundred thousand rupees his employer is carrying in a red leather bag to bribe a politician.

In The White Tiger we watch Balram suffer humiliation after humiliation and is expected to take it. His employer’s wife gets drunk one night and forces Balram to let her drive and she kills a child. They make him sign a confession saying he was driving just in case the police decide to press charges. It’s taken as matter of course that, as their servant, he would only be too glad to go to jail for them. After all, you can’t really expect them to go to jail, now can you?

Balram’s letter to the premier of China is like the confession of a Catholic penitent to his priest, save for one detail. He’s not seeking absolution for any crimes he has committed; he’s just using himself as an example to let the premier know the facts of life in modern day India. Bribery and corruption are what grease the wheels of the great economic miracle of India, wheels that are still being turned by slave labour. Underneath the statues of Gandhi and behind the pictures of the beautiful temples is corruption so ingrained that it’s taken for granted as being the way things are and always will be.

The picture Aravind Adiga paints of India in The White Tiger is of a nearly feudal society disguised as a democracy. If even a tenth of what Balram describes as normal operating business is actual, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, then India’s economic miracle is as much a lie as China’s. The country might have gained its independence from the British at the end of the 1940’s, but the majority of people in India are still trapped in servitude.

In the end, what makes the events in the book so believable is the character of Balram. He is the perfect servant. He worries whether his master is eating enough, takes pride in him when he behaves honourably, and is disappointed with him when he is weak. For all his protestations about the system, he is still as much a part of it as anybody else, and it takes an enormous amount of strength and luck for him to live up to his name of white tiger.

When he does, he shows he’s learned his lessons well and knows how to grease the wheels with the best of them. He’s not some reformer advocating change, although he dreams of opening a school where children get a real education so they too can be white tigers. There’s no room for mercy in the jungle that is Balram’s India, and the more tigers he has on his side the better.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster or from an online retailer like Indigo Books.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • The only way a white tiger is born is through inbreeding. Many breeders in India and throughout the world mate brother and sister to produce a white tiger. White tigers have poor vision and coordination, and are equivocally retarded. Breeding to produce white tigers is animal abuse. They are not a subspecies but a genetic mutation, the same as a child with down syndrome. This means they are not “endangered”, yet extinction should be a goal. White tigers are bred solely for the purpose of zoo visitors and fur production.

  • laxmi deginal

    dis book is really really good……….2..nice 2 read …i think all should read it…


    This is good and mindblowing novel

  • Equbal Hussain

    It amazes me why this new cash-rich middle class can’t digest The White Tiger. Every age in every place of the world has shown the ugly face of the society – Balzac, Dickens, Premchand, Anand, Manto & many others. Do we not have a social responsibility? What is wrong to dream of an India free from poverty and corruption? From our petty temporal gain we must rise and help build up an India where there is light everywhere and which does not remain a strange mixture of 21st century and 19th century. Halwai may be morally wrong but this is what he learns from the contemporary culture- to beat ruthlessness with ruthlessness.

  • Rachna Agarwal

    Dear All,

    I found the story to be a real timepass and nothing new. The plot is very cliche…same old dark pic about india…

  • Ricky singh

    I read an article in Times of India by Aravind Adiga which says: I appeal to all Biharis/ UPwallas to respect Kannada culture by learning Kannada language, and behave themselves in our state”!!!! What do we make out of this author’s intentions now?

  • Devang Rangani

    Dear All,
    To me, the novel lacks the action. I dont find anything new or fresh. The Plot is completely similar to typical Indian(Bollwood)Movie.
    In fact, I am preparing a research paper based on the comparative study of Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid and The White Tiger.In my view Moth Smoke is better and much appelaing and I certainly believe that Mr.Hamid should be awarded and not Mr.Adiga (This is what I do believe Firmly and very Personally as You know, we need to fear from Shiv Sena). Stiil I like the mental movement of Balram. I also prefer the way Mr.Adiga expresses the Psychological trauma.
    Yet I am completely disagree with the view that the novel talks about the real India but what is so new and different in it? Everybody talks about the Politics and corruption. I acknowledge that everytime it is not possible to deal with the different subjects and themes but atleast the treatment can be innovative, new and different. I dont find the Book(due to the Average Treatment) eligible/qualified for the Man Booker Prize.

  • Ashutosh Singh

    I survived the city but couldn’t survive the women in my home- This statement made by Balram Halwai raises certain pertinent issues related to exodus of people towards cities as well as pathetic condition of women in rural areas that curbs their intellectual and social skills. This can be seen through the case of mall construction in Gurgaon which is forcing huge number of natives to move along with their cattle’s to other places but being dependent upon land for generations, they don’t have any other skills to survive and hence are forced to go for unskilled jobs such as construction-labour in bigger cities that brings other problems that we are witnessing in the name of regional chauvinism in Maharashtra. Their pathetic condition is evident from the magic realism weaved by Arvind adiga while describing servant quarters. Women folks in rural areas are not allowed to work and are forced to live inside their home and be dependent upon their husband or sons for their day to day life. This crushes their spirit and converts them into someone who is always greedy as is reflected in the character of Balram’s granny.
    There was some trouble with communist guerillas then,Pinky-Nuxulite movement was started in the 60’s from a village named Nuxulbadi but has taken into its grip almost half an India within short span of 4 decades which is an indication of the kind of times we live in.One of the reasons why Bihar is most affected by Nuxulite movement where as neighboring state UP is not has a lot to do with Land reforms which were not allowed in Bihar owing to tremendous pressure exerted by Upper caste leaders such Bhumihar and Rajputs.Socialist movement that claimed to express concerns of the downtrodden also turned out to be a farce.There is an incident in Shanti parv in Mahabharata where legendary character Bheema asks tribal leaders to leave the plains and go and settle in Jungles and Hills. Some 3000 years later, they are being asked to leave that place too. They have nowhere to go but despair which is accompanied by weapons.
    The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body in a sharp pen-We need to look at the psychological spin out due to poverty when we try to see the corruption that Balram is destined to follow when he reaches Banglore.One of the most important benefit of Globalization has been globalization of inequality which can be traced through the revival of communism across the globe especially after global economic meltdown. Great socialist leader Ram Manohar lohia had declared in parliament in 1964 that 25000 Rs is spent on a prime minister in a day where as 3 Anna is the daily average income of a person. Four decades later, things are still very much the same. So much in the name of egalitarianism.
    We don’t drink, we are Halwai sir-People are poor in many parts of the world but what makes this poverty excruciating in India is Caste. Aforementioned statement by Balram halwai says it all. The motive behind opting for a protagonist from Gaya has a lot to do with caste as Gaya is the place where Buddha attained Nirvana and he was first of the million mutinies of India who stood against this social evil.Also, worshipping Hanuman is something that is often associated with lower castes because according to legendary story he was a devout servant of Ram who represented Aryan race and hence, upper caste. The White Tiger comes to an end with the story of Buddha which serves as a reminder to us that caste is a social evil that continues to reverberate in the chronicles of our conscience and hence haunt the society at large, even today

  • Karan

    I’m glad when books like these are published. They expose India for what it truly is. In all the idiotically nationalistic reviews that I’ve read from Indian reviewers, not a single person has been able to dispute the reality presented in this book.

  • Dhruvin

    Rubbish..is the only word for the book.
    Simply negative,hopeless book

    All indian youth must not read the book.
    Just know india then write about it Mr.Adiga.

  • shikha katiyar

    The story could be the story of poor Sicilians, Zimbabweans or Ukrainians.The book seems to make out that this life that Balram lives is unique to India. The poor getting buggered, corrupt politicians and some soul making it out of the quagmire…the story is as old as time.

  • D

    and as to ms smita….we indians may not find stories like slumdog millionaire,and this white tiger too gr8 to win a booker/oscar coz..(DONT U REALISE)IT HAPPENS ALL AROUND US!!we dont need a book to tell us…in india it is like that..my father has like 50 times the income and comfort his father gave him..!we r used to coming up and up away from being poor to rich…and that needs determination…so such stories r there everywhere around us…

    and the west r already rich arent they…they just have to continue that…so they really dont see this rags to riches story everyday and so they just get wonderstruck on hearing/reading stories like that which to us indians is so common..

    Adiga wrote a decent book..but the humour was excellent.and i m sure he dint write it with any motive of pleasing east or west or south or anything.
    his book is sure to create a dent and make ppl think abt the society like how Dicken’s works did in england back then..

  • D

    i think what Adiga wrote was pretty much reality based.it was a good novel in terms of humour and potrayal of india….(though not sooo much as to get d booker,i accept)and remember….THERE WAS NO EXAGGERATION…THIS NOVEL IS FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF SOMEONE WHO SUFFERED-BALRAM..were we ever in his place? then who r we to judge that the suffering and poverty n blah blah has been exaggerated??

  • debmalya

    This book really speaks of India.I can tell you for sure as my parents hail from villages.I understand it is difficult for urban rich & middle class,which all internet users in India are,to identify themselves with the bare truth about the vast majority of our own country,as we are carried away by the falsified claims of media propaganda about ‘India Rising & India Shining’ which is actually ‘RICH India Shining & RICH India Rising’,whereas ‘DARKNESS’ looms large among the majority.This has become so more because the polished media houses tend to cater the readers,mostly the educated urban rich..Get hold of a copy of TEHELKA(only media that speaks about people at large,bold and fearless)

    Well done ADIGA…go on with your activism..

    But the irony is,people whom Adiga wanted to break from their ‘COOP’, can’t read english…

  • leena

    I cannot agree more with the review that India is a feudal society disguised under the garb of Democracy. One only looks at the number of Dynastical politicians we have in India.

    It is time that more such writings emerged in India and made people feel uncomfortable and think.

    White Tiger shows some hope ….. however dark the path. My initial reaction to the book was negative however that was quickly altered as it got me thinking on each aspect that it talks about and it all rings so true.

    The fact that this maybe the truth in many emerging countries doesn’t mean that a civilisation as old and mature as ours can’t take a different path.

    The fact that we keep our masses uneducated and uninformed is the reason we can get away with the masses of blatant corruption and abuse in our society. I take as much blame for not educating India …… Its time you should too and do something about it. Great writing Mr. Adiga

  • Toby

    justice is not done with character balram halwai and ashok. right from the start of novel writer has paid a great amount of stress on enterpernourship, but nothing came out, uptill end.arvind, simply tried to show poor side of INDIA.

  • pathikrit

    You put the book down with a horribly uneasy feeling inside you. The book is a slap across the face of the reader in the most subtle yet prominent way. The book takes you over for the days you spend reading it, and creeps into your system like a disease, making you more bad-tempered and misanthropic than you will ever be…this book is an experience – a morbid tryst with the maggot-infested underbelly of civilization and sophistication.

  • Prachi Kagzi

    After hearing so much about the book, I read it and kept waiting throughout for the story to take a form or to see that write with a spark which everyone talked about, Adiga possessed.

    None of that!

    Plain story about the domestic help in India which is splashed everyday in the papers.Mundane and downright boring for this is not what I call entertainment nor enlightenment!

  • smita

    the book is basically an outsiders view. Take a tour of the country, talk to a few autowallahs and you think that you know India? that you kno its ppl?? I dont think so. I belong to the same part of this country that balram comes from and trust me those feudal atrocities are a thing of the past. I do not deny that the poor in India do get a very raw deal and the corruption is also there but India is much much more than just that. India should not be seen in comparison or by contrasts to the west. our problems, our society and our life is totally different. I cant help feeling that adiga’s novel is a bit overdone more so to please the western readers who love to c the poorer side of india

  • Archita Kumar

    The book was a bit of a dissapointment quite frankly

  • sitesh kumar soni

    this book is realy good

  • Sunil Nandlall

    I would like to say that nothing Aravind Adega has written is not known throughout the world. The world which he writes of exists not only in India but Africa, Europe and the Americas. The story could be the story of poor Sicilians, Zimbabweans or Ukrainians.The book seems to make out that this life that Balram lives is unique to India. The poor getting buggered, corrupt politicians and some soul making it out of the quagmire…the story is as old as time.

  • well, you don’t understand – these writers just expose the beautiful country called india to west, to let the west run their tounge and eyes over her belly. Look at kiran desai – who reads her -but she has a booker – now this guy. Teh only good writers india had are vikram seth and salman rushdie – uptill now – well tomorrow, an unknown, depleted genius might spring fro nowhere, without awards, and fame – and he will change literature