I first read this novel more than 10 years ago when it was published (2008) and I wanted to see if it held up before we watched the Netflix adaptation. Briefly: it sure does.
White Tiger follows Balram Halwai, a lower caste man from small-town India, as he crafts his own rise to power through unscrupulous means. The book is framed as a series of letters from Balram to the Chinese President, ostensibly for the two of them to revel in the entrepreneurship of their two countries and how the future belongs to them. Balram is charming and candid, and his preamble to each letter shows that he has built himself into a financial success while also hinting at the dark deeds that success required. Over the course of a week, Balram takes us through the story of his rise from ‘the Darkness,’ where the majority of India’s poor reside, to ‘the Light’, where its rich live.
In telling his story, Balram speaks to larger societal issues- the cycle of poverty, the acceptance of one’s caste (and with it, one’s fate), and the indignities heaped on those in the Darkness. Additionally, the main characters in White Tiger are nuanced, compelling and purposefully flawed- letting you root for a charming but dastardly main character; he’s bad, but is he any worse than the rich people he serves? In the age of the anti-hero, maybe Balram is just the right guide to introduce us to the servant class of Mumbai and the rising titans of Bangalore.
A very readable, highly entertaining cutting commentary on contemporary India.