If you loved the film Slumdog Millionaire, you must read The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. If you hated Slumdog Millionaire, you must still read The White Tiger.
Fans of the movie will appreciate the novel’s dramatic descriptions of life in India’s grimmest neighborhoods and the rags-to-riches tale. For those who found Slumdog Millionaire too Bollywood, the novel’s dark twist on the Horatio Alger story will be appealing.
The movie and the book concern the coming of age of a poor Indian boy. Both depict the foul-smelling and corrupt India that clings to the underside of the shiny, sophisticated, capitalist India like gunk on a pump. The hero of The White Tiger, Balram, calls this India “the Darkness.” It is where the “half-baked people” live. The office workers, software engineers, and sales managers so flatteringly portrayed in Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat, and the Western media do not live here.
But locale and the coming of age theme are the only things the film and the book share. The heroes and their specific journeys could not be more different. Despite hardship and persecution, our film hero, Jamal Malik, remains an honest man. As a reward, he gets the girl and the cash. Faced with similar challenges, Balram murders his boss and steals the cash.
According to Balram, who considers himself “a thinking man,” “In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up.”
With this cynical view of his environment, Balram takes an aggressively entrepreneurial approach to his future. Ignoring familial obligations and the law, he travels to Bangalore where he is hired as a servant by the wealthy Mr. Ashok.
In the first chapter of The White Tiger, Balram mentions that he kills Mr. Ashok. How he arrived at that point is the subject of the remainder of the novel.
Balram is an engaging storyteller and a keen observer of Indian life. The role of the water buffalo in rural communities, the institution of marriage, and global economics are just a few subjects on which Balram philosophizes.
Some of his ruminations have the punch and brevity of a bumper sticker. Some are more elaborate, such as his theory of the Great Indian Rooster Coop. The Rooster Coop theory is Balram’s explanation for why a huge number of his countrymen live in perpetual servitude. For an angry Balram, performing degrading tasks for an unscrupulous employer is worse than no life at all. What kind of man can break out of the coop? Only a White Tiger, such as himself.
Balram’s amoral and antisocial behaviors make him by definition a sociopath. But this narrow label doesn’t tell the whole story. Balram is a complicated and charming character not unlike India herself.
NOTE: This is an ECW Classic Review, originally published in an earlier post or in NFocus Magazine. On occasion, I’ll republish a timeless review as a good read is never out dated!