In Laxmangarh, a boy is born. There’s definitely no big star in the sky on that night, showing people where to go: his parents don’t give him a name, nor remember his birthday. He’s called munna, or ‘boy’, for the first years of his life. Eventually, the government bestows these missing birthrights upon him, but the flavour of their choices is decidedly off. His new name, Balram, is the name of the god Krishna’s sidekick: one stir of the cement settling the boy’s inheritance of servitude. Balram’s birthday is decided on election day since the government’s corrupt methods requires another 18-year-old voter. Welcome to the Darkness of India.
Holy nuts, I enjoyed reading this book. The internet must be full of information about it, so I won’t bore you with more plot details or anything like that. It definitely deserves a wide readership: it was very engaging, and Adiga is a skilled writer who has created a fresh, light voice capable of discussing anything from fear of lizards to the insane magnitude of the socio-economic gap between India’s rich and poor.
The White Tiger proffers plenty of exquisitely appalling moments illustrating this repugnant power differential. One of these is the scene a few days after a drunken driving spree by Balram’s master’s wife, Pinky, results in the death of a young boy. The family which Balram serves frames him for the crime. It turns out that there were no witnesses, so the death gets buried by the police, but Balram is not informed that he is off the hook:
The Mongoose and Mr Ashok were sitting in front of a TV screen, playing a computer game together.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Pinky Madam came out. She had no makeup on, and her face was a mess – black skin under her eyes, lines on her forehead. The moment she saw me, she got excited.
‘Have you people told the driver?’
The Stork said nothing. Mr Ashok and the Mongoose kept playing the game. ‘Has no one told him? What a fucking joke! He’s the one who was going to go to jail!’
Mr Ashok said, ‘I suppose we should tell him.’ He looked at his brother, who kept his eyes on the TV screen.
But just as Balram was a recusant escapee from the prison of poverty, I never gave in completely to the book’s charm. I guess I’m a slightly captious reader, because, as laid out above, there’s plenty to like about The White Tiger. Balram has just enough emotional depth to make him an amiable narrator, but not much more. Like The Life of Pi, my least favourite Booker winner I’ve read so far, The White Tiger recounts traumatic events, but in the denouement is almost too flippant about what went before. Balram is certainly disconcerted by the murder he’s committed: ‘I am not a politician or a parliamentarian. Not one of those extraordinary men who can kill and move on, as if nothing had happened. It took me four weeks in Bangalore to calm my nerves.’ But what he did in those four weeks, you’re going to have to guess. I don’t think Balram should necessarily have been more apparently wracked. It just meant that I didn’t get so close to him. But a greater meaning is served by this absence of emotional turmoil: whether you are from the Darkness or the Light, India will bring out the brutality in you.