4 out of 5: This novel masquerades as a series of letters written by an Indian man, Balram Halwai, to the Premier of China explaining what it is to be an “entrepreneur.” For Balram, the term “entrepreneur” is a euphemism for someone who has managed to rise above his caste, or social class, using whatever means required. In his persistent climb to the top, Balram takes advantage of the fluidity of identity offered by an unstable society in a state of transition. He assumes whatever position and character is most useful as he transforms himself from an uneducated village boy into a successful businessman in Bangalore.
Despite his upbeat entrepreneurial message, Balram’s narrative is filled with evidence of deep fissures in Indian society: between the high castes and the low castes, between those living in the Darkness (the rural, poor areas) and those living in the Light (the big cities), and between the rich masters and their poor servants. For Balram, these divisions reside within the body and are a kind of physical (and thus inescapable) marker:
A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father's spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog's collar …. The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.
Balram’s letters are darkly humorous and written with a savage directness in consonance with the violence and immorality underlying his success. The epistolary format feels like a clumsy literary device rather than a natural platform for Balram’s story, but his story is engaging enough to overcome its inelegant construction. Overall, The White Tiger is an interesting glimpse into a complicated society in transition.