In White Tiger, Killer Exploits India's Caste System

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Aravind Adiga, author of "The White Tiger" i

In his debut novel, Time magazine correspondent Aravind Adiga exposes the corrupt underbelly of India's class system through the eyes of an ambitious killer. Akash Shah hide caption

itoggle caption Akash Shah
Aravind Adiga, author of "The White Tiger"

In his debut novel, Time magazine correspondent Aravind Adiga exposes the corrupt underbelly of India's class system through the eyes of an ambitious killer.

Akash Shah

For Balram Halwai, escaping India's underbelly of poverty means learning from the rich — and killing them to get to the top.

The gritty narrator of Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, comes from a poor, rural village. He's desperate to break out of the "Darkness," as India's hinterland is called, and move to the big city. In witty, often humorous prose, Adiga shines a light on how an ambitious, remorseless Indian works his country's corrupt system to get what he wants at the steepest of prices.

Halwai is low caste, dictating that he live a life of servitude. He escapes his village and makes his way to Delhi, where he lands a job working for a rich landlord. He soon kills his boss and, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, departs for Bangalore to start his own business.

In a conversation with NPR's Scott Simon, Adiga says his narrator, much like modern-day Indians, colludes with the very people who are hunting him to shake class confines and establish himself in Bangalore's thriving economy.

"One of the reasons the system exists as it does is that even though a lot of people realize it's bad and corrupt, too many educated, liberal, middle-class Indians work with the system," Adiga says. "When they get into trouble ... they can then use the flaws in the system to get out of trouble."

The story of Halwai unfolds through a series of letters that the killer writes to the Chinese premier upon learning that the official plans to pay a visit to India. Fearing that the premier will tour only the country's richest areas, Halwai tries to educate the premier about life in the rest of India. His letters, written once a day, expose the humor and the corruption and viciousness in India's caste system, and its economic divide.

But Adiga, who is Time magazine's Asia correspondent, says his psychopathic protagonist isn't without remorse. Halwai still finds decency in the world, even as he considers his country's brutal society.

"It was important to write it in the voice of a poorer, slightly unusual, but not atypical Indian to capture his voice, his humor, his anger, his sarcasm and his capacity to appreciate the beautiful things around him," Adiga says.

Excerpt: 'The White Tiger'

'The White Tiger' Book Cover

Note: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.

The First Night

For the Desk of:

His Excellency Wen Jiabao

The Premier's Office

Beijing

Capital of the Freedom-loving Nation of China

From the Desk of:

"The White Tiger"

A Thinking Man

And an Entrepreneur

Living in the world's center of Technology and Outsourcing

Electronics City Phase 1 (just off Hosur Main Road)

Bangalore, India

Mr. Premier,

Sir.

Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.

My ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife, Pinky Madam, taught me one of these things; and at 11:32 p.m. today, which was about ten minutes ago, when the lady on All India Radio announced, "Premier Jiabao is coming to Bangalore next week," I said that thing at once.

In fact, each time when great men like you visit our country I say it. Not that I have anything against great men. In my way, sir, I consider myself one of your kind. But whenever I see our prime minister and his distinguished sidekicks drive to the airport in black cars and get out and do namastes before you in front of a TV camera and tell you about how moral and saintly India is, I have to say that thing in English.

Now, you are visiting us this week, Your Excellency, aren't you? All India Radio is usually reliable in these matters.

That was a joke, sir.

Ha!

That's why I want to ask you directly if you really are coming to Bangalore. Because if you are, I have something important to tell you. See, the lady on the radio said, "Mr. Jiabao is on a mission: he wants to know the truth about Bangalore."

My blood froze. If anyone knows the truth about Bangalore, it's me.

Next, the lady announcer said, "Mr. Jiabao wants to meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their success from their own lips."

She explained a little. Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs — we entrepreneurs — have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.

You hope to learn how to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting. That made me feel good. But then it hit me that in keeping with international protocol, the prime minister and foreign minister of my country will meet you at the airport with garlands, small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi, and a booklet full of information about India's past, present, and future.

That's when I had to say that thing in English, sir. Out loud.

That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago.

I don't just swear and curse. I'm a man of action and change. I decided right there and then to start dictating a letter to you. To begin with, let me tell you of my great admiration for the ancient nation of China.

I read about your history in a book, Exciting Tales of the Exotic East, that I found on the pavement, back in the days when I was trying to get some enlightenment by going through the Sunday secondhand book market in Old Delhi. This book was mostly about pirates and gold in Hong Kong, but it did have some useful background information too: it said that you Chinese are great lovers of freedom and individual liberty. The British tried to make you their servants, but you never let them do it. I admire that, Mr. Premier.

I was a servant once, you see.

Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.

Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.

By telling you my life's story.

See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window, while holding up a bootlegged copy of an American business book, wrapped carefully in cellophane and with a title like:

TEN SECRETS OF BUSINESS SUCCESS!

or

BECOME AN ENTREPRENEUR IN SEVEN EASY DAYS!

Don't waste your money on those American books. They're so yesterday.

I am tomorrow.

In terms of formal education, I may be somewhat lacking. I never finished school, to put it bluntly. Who cares! I haven't read many books, but I've read all the ones that count. I know by heart the works of the four greatest poets of all time — Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, and a fourth fellow whose name I forget. I am a self-taught entrepreneur.

That's the best kind there is, trust me.

When you have heard the story of how I got to Bangalore and became one of its most successful (though probably least known) businessmen, you will know everything there is to know about how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed in this, the glorious twenty-first century of man.

The century, more specifically, of the yellow and the brown man.

You and me.

It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk.

I stay up the whole night, Your Excellency. And there's no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine. Just me and a chandelier above me, although the chandelier has a personality of its own. It's a huge thing, full of small diamond-shaped glass pieces, just like the ones they used to show in the films of the 1970s. Though it's cool enough at night in Bangalore, I've put a midget fan — five cobwebby blades — right above the chandelier. See, when it turns, the small blades chop up the chandelier's light and fling it across the room. Just like the strobe light at the best discos in Bangalore.

This is the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier! But it's still a hole in the wall, and I sit here the whole night.

The entrepreneur's curse. He has to watch his business all the time.

Now I'm going to turn the midget fan on, so that the chandelier's light spins around the room.

I am relaxed, sir. As I hope you are.

Let us begin.

Before we do that, sir, the phrase in English that I learned from my ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife Pinky Madam is:

What a fucking joke.

— — —

Now, I no longer watch Hindi films — on principle — but back in the days when I used to, just before the movie got started, either the number 786 would flash against the black screen — the Muslims think this is a magic number that represents their god — or else you would see the picture of a woman in a white sari with gold sovereigns dripping down to her feet, which is the goddess Lakshmi, of the Hindus.

It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power.

I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god's arse.

Which god's arse, though? There are so many choices.

See, the Muslims have one god.

The Christians have three gods.

And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.

Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from.

Now, there are some, and I don't just mean Communists like you, but thinking men of all political parties, who think that not many of these gods actually exist. Some believe that none of them exist. There's just us and an ocean of darkness around us. I'm no philosopher or poet, how would I know the truth? It's true that all these gods seem to do awfully little work — much like our politicians — and yet keep winning reelection to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year. That's not to say that I don't respect them, Mr. Premier! Don't you ever let that blasphemous idea into your yellow skull. My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.

So: I'm closing my eyes, folding my hands in a reverent namaste, and praying to the gods to shine light on my dark story.

Bear with me, Mr. Jiabao. This could take a while.

How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?

From THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga. Copyright © 2008 by Aravind Adiga. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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