The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is not an easy book. It’s not difficult to read, the pages go by at a pretty quick pace, but the experience left me feeling uneasy. That’s what this kind of dark satire is supposed to do.
Belram Halwi, The White Tiger, tells the story of his rise to power in a series of letters to the premier of China, Wen Jaibao, who is visiting India to see its economic success first hand. Belram is Horatio Alger’s darker brother; the story of his rise from lowly laborer, that of a coffee pourer in a cafe, to private driver for a weathly businessman, to the owner of a prosperous taxicab company, could have been an example for all young people to follow. Work hard. Obey your elders. Be loyal to your bosses. You will be rewarded with success. Belram worked hard. He obeyed his elders. He was loyal to his bosses. Then he murdered one of them, stole his money, set himself up in business and became rich. Not a lesson Horatio Alger would have approved.
Mr. Adiga is clearly not out to praise India’s success story. It is clear to Belram, and soon evident to the reader, that Indian society is designed to keep him down, to make sure the servant class stays in its place. Religion, family, democracy, all come under Mr. Adiga’s critical and satirical gaze. No stone is left un-thrown, and there a plenty of stones to throw. While there are laughs to be found in The White Tiger, this is not Jhumpa Lahiri’s India. There’s nothing in The White Tiger that the tourist board will brag about: no beautiful scenery, no delicious food, no colorfully dressed people, no high-tech wonders to behold.
So is The White Tiger meant to be a cautionary tale? The African American poet Langston Hughes (who referred to himself as white America’s “darker brother” in his poem I, Too, Sing America) wrote about issues of class and race in many of his poems including A Dream Differed which could have been the epigraph for The White Tiger:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Belram’s dream explodes in Aravind Adiga’s take no prisoners satire. What’s next for India? Mr. Adiga provides no simple answers but he does make a strong case against the current system, and, like all great satirists, he does leave the reader feeling ill-at-ease.
This post first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2009.