Winner of the Man Booker Prize last year, Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger is a darkly comic story of one man’s twisted path of upward mobility. Balram Halwai is born in the country village of Laxmangarh to a family of rickshaw pullers. His mother is so sick that she doesn’t have the energy to name him — so he goes by “Munna,” which means “boy,” until his schoolteacher names him Balram. The family is so poor that Balram’s idea of someone to look up to is Vijay the bus conductor, mainly because of his khaki uniform and shiny whistle. If this sounds bleak, it’s because it is, but Adiga’s black humor makes it a little more bearable.
The book is structured as a series of self-serving letters from Balram to the visiting Chinese premier, after he’s committed a crime which we gradually learn about as the story progresses. Along the way, we get a picture of Indian society as seen from near the bottom of the heap. Here, Balram describes the loyalty of the servant class:
Every day, on the roads of Delhi, some chauffeur is driving an empty car with a black suitcase sitting on the backseat. Inside that suitcase is a million, two million rupees; more money than that chauffeur will see in his lifetime. If he took the money he could go to America, Australia, anywhere, and start a new life. He could go inside the five-star hotels he has dreamed about all his life and only seen from the outside. He could take his family to Goa, to England. Yet he takes that black suitcase where his master wants. He puts it down where he is meant to, and never touches a rupee. Why?
Because Indians are the world’s most honest people, like the prime minister’s booklet will inform you?
No. It’s because 99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market.
The Rooster Coop doesn’t always work with minuscule sums of money. Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two — he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny…
Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench — the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.
White Tiger is a memorable slice of life from lower-class but upwardly mobile India. The film Slumdog Millionaire follows the life of an child growing up in the slums, but this novel’s protagonist is considerably less innocent. His upward climb is as riveting as a car wreck: hard to look at but impossible not to.
author photo: Mark Pringle / Irish Times