Books

In the chasm between the two Indias

Nearly five out of 10 people in India live on less than the cost of this newspaper. It's an astonishing fact, one far less likely to slip your mind after you read Aravind Adiga's polemical satire, "The White Tiger," which just won Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize for fiction.

The book's hero is Balram Halwai, a poor servant from the Darkness, as Adiga refers to the rural villages where hundreds of millions live untouched by their nation's "economic miracle."

"Electricity poles -- defunct," Halwai writes. "Water tap -- broken. Children -- too lean and short for their age."

Halwai, we learn right away, has climbed out of this environment and now runs a successful startup corporation. But he is wanted for a murder.

Over the course of seven days, he describes his miraculous journey to Chinese politician Wen Jiabao in a series of letters that veer between acid sarcasm and shaky remorse.

This gambit does not reflect a delicate literary sensibility. But it allows Adiga, a former business journalist, to report on his country to an outsider without apologizing for the roaming sweep and scope of his narrative lens.

There's a lot to see, too.

Insinuating himself into the household of his village's most powerful landlord, Halwai secures work as a servant, and then as a driver, catapulting himself from the most hideous poverty to extreme proximity to oblivious wealth.

"The White Tiger" occasionally reads like a primer on how the classes in India fight and scrap to make this type of ascent as rare as a white tiger. It is only by taking advantage of a fellow worker that Halwai can move up to primary driver. The next run requires even graver betrayals.

The problem, Halwai discovers, is that with each improvement in his fate, he becomes more aware of what he does not possess.

As Richard Wright did in "Black Boy," Adiga expertly manipulates the reader's sympathy, exposing how individual morality can feel like a weak man's keepsake in a dog-eat-dog world.

And, as "The White Tiger" unequivocally reveals, India is in the grip of a terribly unfair system, full of corruption and class bigotry and blatant sexual exploitation. Indeed, the deeper Adiga plunges us into the gap between the two Indias, the harder it becomes not to root for him.

Make no mistake: This is a book with a point. Just as John Steinbeck used melodrama in "East of Eden" to show Americans the plight of migrant workers, "The White Tiger" pounds out a picture of the India crying for a wider audience.

Sarcasm is Adiga's sledgehammer, morality his anvil. It's not a subtle tale, but there's a beaten, beveled perfection to its fury.

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