The White Tiger is a rags-to-riches story of Bangalore’s (most) successful but unnoticed entrepreneur. Between the rags and the riches is a gut-wrenching tale that bares the rotting soul of the country even as it is buzzing with trade and commerce. The narrator, who calls himself The White Tiger – an animal that takes birth only once in a generation – is typing away his story in the dead of night as letters to the visiting Chinese Premier Mr. Wen Jiabao in a silver Macintosh laptop bought from Singapore.
We are immediately transported to the Darkness – to the plains of North India – where the mighty Ganga flows. In a dramatic scene in which Munna, our protagonist, goes to Benares with his family to bury his dead mother at one of the ghats, the river sucks in the black liquid that is the remains of her. Like her, the Ganga sucks into herself everything that is born from it. The seas bring in Light: all the places on the coast are prosperous, but wherever the Ganga flows, there is Darkness.
This is a novel of tragedy and despair. Take for example Munna’s household: the womenfolk of the family work all day in their kitchen. Then they would fight each other, throwing plates, pulling hair and all, and the fighting was over, they would heal the wounds and sing songs to one another. All their lives. Or when Balaram (that’s a name Munna gets from the teacher) is removed from the school and put to work in a Tea shop, he is crushing the coal when his brother Kishan asks him, “Are you angry with me that you are removed from the school? Crush the coal thinking it’s my skull.” Or when Balaram visits the village the first time after he joins as a driver to Mr. Ashok, the family cooks for him a lavish meal of chicken. Balaram suddenly has a vision that the family is eating away the flesh of Kishan, as they did the same thing earlier with his father before he succumbed to tuberculosis and died a painful death. Balaram never returns to the village.
A great deal of the story is about the Rooster Coop.
Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.
“This is the Rooster Coop. This is the reason why without secret police, without gun-firing, Mr Premier, a handful men of this country have trained the remaining to perpetual servitude…Everyday, servants from Surat carry bags and bags of diamonds to Mumbai in trains and nothing ever gets stolen… The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.”
When Pinky madam, wife of Mr. Ashok, the America-returned son of the landlord (called the Stork: it is said that he has the habit of dipping his beak into the poor) crushes under a Honda City the ‘little black thing’ in cheap green fabric on the night of her birthday, Balaram is falsely accused of the killing. Hundreds of drivers from the Darkness fill the cells of Tihar Jail for the crimes of their masters. Even the judges who sentenced them know this; they all are a part of the coop. Balaram is devastated when he hears this, but his family is not. To them, it is the ultimate mark of loyalty to the master.
Why does the Rooster Coop work and what happens when one tries to escape it? To both questions, the answer is the family. It takes an animal of a human being to escape from the Rooster Coop and face the news of his family being hunted and beaten to death. Or run away from that too! It takes a White Tiger to escape the Rooster Coop.
When Balaram is plotting to kill his master – his master who fills the red bag with stacks and stacks of cash to pay as bribe to the politicians to get his family’s coal business running in Dhanbad – and abscond with the money, his nephew Dharam is sent to Delhi from the village to make a living. The moment when Balaram slaps Dharam hard in the face just as he arrives captures the tension and anger: just at the moment when he would escape the vicious coop, a new arrival from the village drags him back.
Eventually, he escapes Delhi with the money and his nephew after killing Mr. Ashok. He zigzags his way down south to Bangalore and listens to the city, as he did in Delhi as a driver. The last part of the tale is how rises to be the owner of a fleet of twenty Qualis vehicles, all air-conditioned in Summer, and runs a successful taxi service for IT employees.
Supplement The White Tiger with ‘Bihar is in the eyes of the beholder’, some fine feature writing by Vijay Nambisan and two movies par excellence: Gangs of Wasseypur I and II.