Thursday, July 7, 2011

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

I just finished recording this book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind, and I think it will be popular, particularly with the Indian and Chinese Malaysian readers, many of whom have never visited either China or India.  The novel takes the form of a rambling letter from Munna, AKA Balram, AKA The White Tiger (a chauffeur turned entrepreneur) to Premier Wen Jiabao (the leader of China, on the eve of his state visit to India.)

It's a comic novel -- Balram gives us India through a driver's eyes, and his misconceptions about China are entertaining -- but he makes it clear that India is a land gripped by poverty and corruption.  He wants to be sure that Wen Jiabao sees the reality beneath what his Indian hosts will show him on the official tour.  And, as it turns out, Balram gives the Premier about the best armchair tour he might hope for.  It doesn't cover much geographic territory, but Balram is going for depth rather than breadth; he describes his childhood in "the Darkness" (one of India's poorest states in the north), his tenure as a rich man's driver in Delhi, and finally, his entrepreneurial ventures in Bangalore, where the hot word of the day is outsourcing and life is lived during American business hours.

Balram also mentions fairly early in his correspondence that he has murdered his former employer.  He was very fond of the man, to be sure, and Mr. Ashok wasn't the worst master an Indian driver might have, but Balram used his idle time (while Mr. Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, were in the malls of Delhi) not sitting with all the other drivers chewing paan and reading the weekly crime tabloids, but philosophising.  Over time, Balram came to realise that India is for the servant class nothing more than a rooster coop. The employers, the other servants, family members, politicians -- everyone conspires to keep the roosters in the coop.  Balram is that rare rooster who, first of all, sees the coop that contains him, and second, is unwilling to remain in it.

I wonder if the real-life recipient of Balram's fictional correspondence ever read this book, and if so, what did Premier Wen Jiabao think of it?  Did he wince and shake his head and laugh, too?  Did he look differently at his driver on his next state visit to India?


  1. Sounds interesting, I'll look out for it. It is, after all, about both my cultures!

    I was just going to ask Crumpet whether her slave had time to read recently...

  2. This makes me happy! This is the first time you have written about a book I've also read. I really enjoyed this book, not least of all because I now work for a Nepali employer alongside Nepali staff and can reconginse many of the dynamics between Balram and his employer in the relationships around me.

    I also felt that his 'half baked man' theory succinctly summed up the position into which many on the sub-continent find themselves.


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