Thursday, 21 July 2011

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw puller and chauffer to his rich village landlord, who was born in the rural darkness of India, but his dream is to escape into the light of riches and freedom.

Narrating his story in a long rambling missive to Wen Jiabao, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Balram sketches out the humble background of a half-baked Indian, taken out of school to work in the local tea shop, locked in the great chicken coop of a society that keeps the poor enslaved.

His luck starts to change when he gets a job as a chauffer, a role that also involves washing his master’s bad feet, looking after two small dogs and getting sent out on errands:

At least once a week, around six o’clock, Ram Persad and I left the house and went down the main road, until we got to a store with a sign that said: ‘Jackpot’ English Liquor Shop. Indian-Made Foreign Liquor Sold Here. I should explain to you, Mr Jiabao, that in this country we have two kinds of men: ‘Indian’ liquor men and ‘English’ liquor men. ‘Indian’ liquor was for village boys like me – toddy, arrack, country hooch. ‘English’ liquor, naturally, is for the rich. Rum, whisky, beer, gin – anything the English left behind... Coloured bottles of various sizes were stacked up on the Jackpot’s shelves, and two teenagers behind the counter struggled to take orders from the men shouting at them. On the white wall to the side of the shop, there were hundreds of names of liquor brands, written in dripping red paint and subdivided into five categories, Beer, Rum, Whisky, Gin and Vodka.

Passed on to look after his employer’s son Ashok, who has come back from America with a new wife, Pinky Madam, Balram moves from Dhanbad to Delhi, where he lives in the cockroach infested basement while his new boss lives in a plush apartment in the tower block above. As American born Pinky realises that Ashok isn’t going to take her back to the US, the marriage collapses, and Ashok hits the sauce. It’s the chauffeur’s job to clean up the mess:

“Stop the car,” he said. He opened the door of the car, put his hand on his stomach, bent down, and threw up on the ground. I wiped his mouth with my hand and helped him sit down by the side of the road. The traffic roared past us. I patted his back. “You’re drinking too much, sir.” “Why do men drink, Balram?” “I don’t know, sir.” “Of course, in your caste you don’t... Let me tell you, Balram. Men drink because they are sick of life. I thought caste and religion didn’t matter any longer in today’s world. My father said, ‘No, don’t marry her, she’s of another...’ I...” Mr Ashok turned his head to the side, and I rubbed his back, thinking he might throw up again, but the spasm passed. “Sometimes I wonder, Balram. I wonder what’s the point of living. I really wonder...” The point of living? My heart pounded. The point of your living is that if you die, who’s going to pay me three and half thousand rupees a month?

Balram realises that he has to make his move in the ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor and turns on the hopeless Ashok. An empty bottle of Scotch provides the perfect murder weapon:

I rammed the bottle down. The glass ate his bone. I rammed it three times into the crown of his skull, smashing through to his brains. It’s a good, strong bottle, Johnnie Walker Black – well worth its resale value.

Balram finishes his visceral account of 21st century India as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, running a taxi firm funded by stolen money. He has finally made the transition from darkness to light...

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