The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic Books)





"These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies."

Balram Halwai is a boy from a family of men with small bellies, who is singled out by a school inspector as a white tiger, "the creature that comes along only once in a generation." What is taken up as a jeer by his classmates becomes a cruel joke to Balram when he is forced to leave school to crawl around a teashop, cleaning up spots and spills--and listening.

This is Balram's gift. He listens, he absorbs, and then he acts. Learning that drivers are in high demand, he takes driving lessons and sets off for Delhi, where he quickly lies his way into a job driving for a man whom he comes to idolize. "Eight months later, I slit Mr. Ashok's throat."

This is the first forty pages of a novel that explodes into tiny fragments the myth that globalization means the world will be as one. Balram is not a John Lennon aficionado, and imagination is not a quality that intrudes upon his consciousness. His background music is Sting, Enya, Eminem, and if he has any belief in anything, it is in the power of observation and pragmatism.

This is why he tells his story. After hearing that the Premier of China is coming to visit Bangalore "to know the truth...to meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their success from their own lips", Balram begins a long letter to Wen Jiabao to explain his own entrepreneurial success.

At first, his saga seems a triumph of black humor, the shaggy dog story of the unreliable narrator. His fate is as much cast in stone as it has been for any man spawned from what Balram terms "the Darkness." His devotion to Mr. Ashok is unwavering; his feeling that Ashok's Western education has changed his employer's feudal background to one that is guided by justice and integrity threatens to change his own cynicism. But upbringing and family history prove to be a strong force, Ashok becomes corrupted, and Balram puts a stranglehold on his moment of opportunity.

"Speak to me of civil war, I told Delhi.

I will, she said.

Speak to me of blood on the streets, I told Delhi.

I will, she said."

Asok achieves his dream by slitting one man's throat. He gains the luxury of writing his own story; it is not, as his father's was, "written on his body, in a sharp pen." His laughter is loud and bitter and pointed. His life, as he reveals it, is a prophecy for those who choose to listen and a sentence--perhaps--for everyone, whether they listen or not.