In the Man Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger, I visited interior rural India (The Darkness) and Delhi and Bangalore (The Light), exploring issues of class and culture in present day Indian society. My guide was a murderer and entrepreneur, and oddly, I kind of liked him. Here is my review of this book, which is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list as well. Oh, and I’m going to use this as an excuse to eat some delicious Indian food soon. Definitely.
One night, Balram Halwai sits down to write a letter to the Chinese Premier who will soon be visiting India. He tells the Premier, who is coming to learn about Indian entrepreneurship, that he can give him insight into the REAL India, not the whitewashed details he will get from the government. He introduces himself as a poor man from “the Darkness,” son of a rickshaw driver, who has broken out of “the rooster coop” of the servant class in India. He is a self-confessed murderer, he appreciates poetry, and thinks quite a bit about issues like class, and economic development. He writes for seven nights, explaining his journey from his small village to wealth in Bangalore, slowly revealing the details of his life and his escape from servanthood. A bright boy who is nicknamed White Tiger by a government official visiting his local school who notices his intelligence and interest in education, he is promised an academic future at a better school, but is unable to enroll because of expensive family weddings which must be paid off by all the children working in a local tea shop. Still, Balram continues to educate himself by eavesdropping whenever possible on the powerful whom he encounters in the tea shop and later positions. He is an ambitious boy, with limited concern for his family, and yet he is strangely likable. If you have ever visited India, the book will take you back to images of tragic class discrepancies which are so apparent in the country. Whether or not you have visited, you will be sobered by the portrayal of these class divides. This is a very contemporary novel, but the class relationships it portrays feel like something out of a much earlier era; although, they are probably more prevalent in many first world nations than we would care to believe.
The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and is one of the books featured in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The reviewer there points out the difference between the mystical, romanticized India of Salman Rushdie‘s work and the grim reality presented in this novel. He finishes his review with the statement “This is a very angry book that manages, remarkably, to be very funny indeed.” I completely agree and heartily recommend it. I listened to the audio version of the book, which was excellent.