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THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga. New York: Free Press, October 2008. Paperback. 304 pages. $14.00.

Aravind Adiga, a former correspondent for Time and The Financial Times, has won the 2008 Man Booker prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Born in India and raised in Australia, Adiga attended Columbia and Oxford Universities. His novel depicts an India not generally shown in the western media, an India that belies the popular “India Shining” mantra. Yes, four of the eight billionaires who made the most recent Forbes list of richest men are Indian. But all this wealth has not percolated down to the poor, who still lead wretched lives in what Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Hawai, calls the “Darkness.”

Balram is the son of a poor rickshaw puller from Laxmangarh, a village in Bihar. He hails from the servant class, whose members know a life of abject poverty and servility. He is a bright lad, nicknamed “the white tiger” as a child because of his intelligence. As a young man, he goes to Dhanbad and becomes the driver of a car owned by Ashok, a rich man returned from America with progressive ideas about reforming his country and helping the poor lead a decent life. But Ashok, too, is trapped in the rampant corruption of the country. Balram is shrewd enough to understand that Ashok’s seeming kindness toward his servant/chauffeur will not help him, Balram, get out of the vicious cycle of abject poverty in which he is caught. Filled with the entrepreneurial spirit, Balram is determined to get out of the cycle of poverty—by any means necessary. He takes advantage of an opportunity to kill his master and makes off with a bag containing 700,000 Rupees of Ashok’s bribe money for the corrupt officials of Delhi.

The novel unfolds in the epistolary form. Balram knows the Darkness has been hidden from the view of westerners and foreign dignitaries, and he writes a series of letters to the Chinese premier over seven nights in order to expose the “true” India. In telling his own rags to riches story, Balram shows an unvarnished picture of how the majority of people live in India: without electricity, drinking water, proper sewage, affordable public transportation, and other basic utilities. There is also an absence of basic civic qualities like a sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, and punctuality.

Indian democracy, Balram argues further, is a sham. He was conveniently dubbed 18 in Laxmangarh, just before elections, with no birth certificate or other documentary evidence, because that is the voting age. Elections are corrupted. Votes are rigged. Candidates are criminals with large sums of money stashed in Swiss banks.

Balram’s life story explodes many myths about India. He succeeds in setting up a start-up company in Bangalore, and is never caught for Ashok’s murder, even though there are posters circulating describing the wanted criminal. Such is the efficiency of the Indian police! Balram goes after the healthcare system as well. His father, a rickshaw puller, is one of thousands of victims of tuberculosis. He describes graphically the physical abuse suffered by men like his father: “The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.” As a result of rickshaw-pulling, his father’s spine was a “knotted rope” and the “clavicle curved around his neck in high relief … cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks.”

Balram also punctures the myth that the Ganga is a holy, purifying river. In truth, he writes, the Ganga is a polluted river that sucks up the bodies that float in the cremation ghat, blurring any trace of humanity by blending them with black mud. He tells the Chinese premier that the god worshipped in Laxmangarh is Hanuman, the faithful servant of the god Rama, “a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.” Religion, he reveals, is exploited to create an unbridgeable gulf between the two Indias, the rich and the poor.

The White Tiger is a disturbing novel that exposes the dark side of the world’s largest democracy, a darkness that is often gilded over by the nation’s economic growth and technological success. Adiga demonstrates that when you push the marginalized too far, they react with pent-up aggressiveness. Some may even murder to prove their manhood.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.