Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw-puller in India, is feisty and ambitious. He succeeds in his quest to get a job as a rich man's chauffeur, and we know from the beginning that he kills his boss and becomes an entrepreneur. This set me up to want to find out why he did it and how he got away with it. Balram tells his story in the form of a (very long) letter to the premier of China who is coming to visit Balram's city of Bangalore, ostensibly to find out how to bring technology and entrepreneurship to China. Balram begins by describing the paradox that is India—the high-tech outsourcing companies surrounded by slums with open sewers and contaminated drinking water. Then he proceeds with the story of his life, including his father's death from TB at a public hospital with no doctor. This sounds incredibly bleak, and it gets worse, but Balram's voice is laced with dark humor and sarcasm, and I found myself ashamed to be laughing. I love that Balram justifies the murder of his boss by observing that we often honor our murderous leaders with statues. The author seems to enjoy pointing up all the dichotomies that exist in India. For example, graft and election fixing are rampant in a country that considers itself a democracy. The rich are corrupt, while their poor servants are scrupulously honest to avoid the wrath of their masters. Sadly, the book offers no hope that India will ever be able to dig itself out of this situation, and certainly the author is not suggesting that the country needs more Balrams. The irony is that Balram escapes poverty by emulating the every-man-for-himself attitude of the men in power.

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