Behind every great fortune there is a great crime. This paraphrase from Honoré de Balzac provides the epigraph for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, but could just as easily have fronted Aravind Adiga‘s Man Booker Prize-winning story of Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai. The book presents Halwai’s bleak vision of India as a rising economic powerhouse, centered around the story of his sudden rise to fortune.
Halwai’s clear-eyed view of Indian society recounts the excesses and corruption of the upper class, which rules from generation to generation despite claims to democracy and egalitarianism. He also takes to task his own poverty-stricken class, which he views as complicit in their own exploitation, providing leverage for their oppression through loyalty to family.
Halwai, whose nickname is The White Tiger, has found a way out of this cycle, and he wants to share his success story with China’s leader, Wen Jiabao. The Chinese premier is coming to visit Bangalore, having expressed interest in India’s economic and democratic spirit, and Balram sees himself as Wen’s ideal guide. Over the course of several nights, Balram drafts an autobiographical letter that almost immediately lets the reader know that Balram got his entrepreneurial start the old-fashioned way: he murdered for it.
Halwai is a study in contradictions – although he has rebelled against his master’s family, he still talks in the vocabulary of an obsequious servant. He criticizes the official corruption that greases India’s economic boom, but uses it for his own ends. And, most interestingly, although he divides India into the Darkness and the Light, and believes he has moved into the Light, the reader gets the feeling that the Darkness still surrounds him.
But this isn’t an entirely dark story. Halwai is in some ways a naif, as seen in his addresses to Wen, in which he innocently sets himself up as an equal and claims he can teach the Chinese about democracy. His descriptions of standing in a crowd to buy liquor for his master, getting a job as a driver in a totally unfamiliar city in which survival is the only rule of the road, or evading his grandmother’s dictates provide occasional moments of levity in a difficult story.
Adiga immerses the reader in the physical India, from the rural villages ruled with an iron hand to the cities where laws exist for the benefit of landlords and the enrichment of political leaders. As one reviewer points out, this is not the India of recent popular fiction; no saffron and saris, but armed guards at the entrance to the malls and clubs frequented by the upper class. This small book (276 pages) is more than equal to serve as a counterweight to those optimistic, sometimes sentimental novels that have been emerging from India.
Check the WRL catalog for The White Tiger