The White Tiger has been lounging on my desk for over two months now. Since Danica lent it to me, it has changed addresses twice: from her house to mine, from my parents’ house to my apartment. The book consists of ten letters dictated by Balram Halwai—self-proclaimed Thinking Man, social entrepreneur, murderer, eavesdropper extraordinaire. Addressed to the Premier of China, these messages contain Balram’s life story, a tale of an aberrant Indian servant who—by hook and by crook—rises above caste and class to become part of a new bourgeoisie.
Pages flipped quickly, but I didn’t feel invested in this story. Actually, I was more interested in the plot than in the characters. It’s not that Balram isn’t an intriguing enough fellow (or an engaging narrator, for that matter). It’s just that this novel isn’t about Balram, really. It’s about the system (otherwise known as the “Rooster Coop”), the social mechanism that chains a whole nation of Indian servants. Balram just happens to be the man Adiga chooses to tell this tale. “The face of half the men in India,” our protagonist says of his wanted poster.
Thinking Man, Balram calls himself. But as a driver, he spent nearly all his time coming up with plans to cheat his employer and eventually murder him. The system of slavery is bigger than both servant and master, but it’s so distressing that even with a relatively kind employer, Balram still had to murder just to have a fresh start in life. If the Rooster Coop is indeed India’s greatest brainchild, then it is a most horrible invention. Crime is the only way out, and only then if you’re willing to sacrifice your family.
Balram separates India according to Darkness and Light (the provinces versus the cities), but is there any real difference? In both areas, life hardly goes beyond material concerns. Even post-murder Balram knows that he cannot beat the system, so he merely positions himself where it is most advantageous. “We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.” Until the end, he asserts: “…it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.” Who can blame him? In a world where the man with the “biggest belly” wins, only one rule prevails: eat or be eaten.
The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.
Here’s a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his foetus, but you know his corpse.