Balram Halwai is not a sympathetic protagonist. Yet the narrative voice of The White Tiger is so powerful that you continue to read with fascination. Aravind Adiga’s debut novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Thanks to a recent film adaptation, the book is now once again in the spotlight.

Author Adiga has Indian roots but grew up in privileged circumstances. He studied in Australia and America and worked as a leading journalist for the Financial Times and Time Magazine. In The White Tiger, Adiga puts himself in the shoes of a boy trapped in the caste system of post-colonial India. Adiga is not the first to shed light on the darker sides of India, but he does reach a large audience with it.

Not everyone in India is happy with his book. Indians prefer not to wash their dirty linen in public. Social injustice is sometimes touched upon, but preferably in a camouflaged and airbrushed manner. Balram’s voice, however, leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity; he tells his life story in a raw and direct way and does not try to pretend to be better than he is.

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

Balram receives his honorary name White Tiger (the rarest animal in the jungle, occurring only once in a generation) from an inspector who, during a visit to the school, notices that the boy is the only one in his class who can read and write. There is no money for further education and the talented boy has to take care of his family after the death of his father.

Balram is an entertaining storyteller. His language is a quirky mix of old wisdom poetry and simplistically formulated economic insights. He works his way up to become the private chauffeur of a rich family, who, however, treat him as a house slave. By eavesdropping on the conversations of his passengers, Balram studies anonymously at the University of Life.

Normally, it is an auspicious sign when a boy shows so much perseverance, but this does not hold true in India. The White Tiger shows that origin and family ties determine one’s place on the social ladder.

The seven letters Balram writes to the Chinese Prime Minister effectively show how many obstacles, walls and hermetically sealed social boundaries an ambitious young man in India encounters. Even if he is a White Tiger.

Netflix serie
Netflix series

Balram’s letters, in their clumsy naivety, do point to universal developments: “The yellow and the brown men will take over the world from the white men.” Fifteen years after this book was written, that wish seems increasingly to be a reality. Like China, India has become a major player in technology, science and economics. The country has its own space programme and hopes to send people to the moon in the not too distant future.

However, the vast majority of the Indian population does not share in this prosperity. Balram compares his country to a Rooster Coop, where servants live packed together. They do not escape because they are drilled to live in perpetual servitude.

The White Tiger is more than a political pamphlet. Balram’s narrative voice is so convincing that you really hope that he will succeed in smashing his boss’s skull, getting away with a bag of money so that he can finally start his own business. Under the circumstances, Balram simply has no other choice.

This book does not propagate a one-sided focus on economic prosperity, but points out the dangers of omnipresent corruption. Significant is the moment when Pinky, the boss’s wife takes over the wheel in an intoxicated state, runs over and kills an innocent boy and tries to put the blame on Balram. A scene that occurs in a similar way in the American novels The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) and The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987). The White Tiger is in the excellent company of these leading socially critical works of world literature