Aravind Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, paints a vivid and disturbing picture of life in the strikingly different cultures that comprise modern India. Home to more than 15 percent of the world's population, the country has grown to become an economic power, and yet vast numbers of its inhabitants have little to show for its prosperity. The conflict created by that reality propels this riveting tale.

Balram Halwai is born into the grinding poverty of the portion of India he calls the "Darkness." He's a bright student, nicknamed the White Tiger for an animal that appears only once in a generation. Still, by the accident of his birth it appears he's sentenced to a near subsistence-level life in his native village, where raw sewage courses through the streets and the residents are at the mercy of venal landowners.

Balram manages to trade his menial job in a local tea shop for a position in New Delhi as the driver for Mr. Ashok, the son of one of the village landlords, and his wife Pinky Madam. In his new role, Balram astutely grasps the workings of the Indian economy, as Mr. Ashok is forced to bribe government officials in order to carry out his business activities. Although Balram confesses early in the first-person narrative that he's murdered his master, in a tale that faintly echoes Dostoevsky, we learn how the plan to commit that crime gradually and yet inevitably took form. And in a startling denouement, Balram reveals how he capitalizes on his crime to recreate himself as an entrepreneur in the booming Indian economy.

Balram's voice is seductive and his observations are acute, laced both with a sardonic wit and a trace of sadness as he exposes the inescapable truth that the benefits of India's remarkable economic success are not dispersed fairly throughout its population. His depiction of life in what he calls the "Rooster Coop," in which tens of millions of Indians are destined to live short, miserable lives, hounded by poverty and disease, is at times shocking in its brutality and frankness. This intense, unsettling novel will open the eyes of many Western readers.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 

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