[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2014.]
The author sets the tone with the book opening (and continuing all the way through) in the form of a letter by the main character to the Chinese premier. It is only in the final chapter when we learn why this Indian servant-turned-businessman chooses to write to him in particular.
Early on in this book I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s comment about some of VS Naipaul’s non-fiction just being "page after page of yacking Indians" but after I got over the somewhat shrill, hectoring tone of the narrator I warmed to this book relatively quickly.
Early on, the main character (ie. the White Tiger, himself) makes the provocative claims that Indian "outsourcing companies virtually run America now" and he argues "the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man, now that our [former] master, the white-skinned man has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse."
These are strong words from someone who is initially meek and compliant in his job as a servant/driver for a corrupt businessman. Coming from the social caste of sweet-makers, his father is a dignified but "sticklike" rickshaw puller who dies of tuberculosis, like so many of his fellow human transporters. His son, who is not even given a name at birth and is just simply called "Munna" or boy, but is bestowed with the title of "White Tiger" after his teacher asks him what is the rarest creature in the jungle. Soon, he starts to partly realise his father’s dreams for him to be literate and to make something with his life. As a young man, he is mentally sharp and observes people in an analytical way – one that is more typical of a writer or journalist, in truth.
Over time (as well as sensing the power of books) while driving through Delhi’s pitiless streets his curiosity develops and his resentment mixes with ambition and grows. Night after night he drives his boss, family and companions to places like shopping malls and he sees how they squander their wealth with expensive whiskey or over-priced jewellery. At times, his "masters" almost treat him decently but he is often mocked or insulted and is even used as a scapegoat in a horrific accident. This triggers something deep inside him. The city "talks to him" and the complex character of the White Tiger starts to realise that he has sharp teeth and that people from his station in life are actually capable of rebellion, despite servants often being cruel to each other.
The last time I read such a seemingly authentic account of this gritty kind of life was in Kenji Nakagami’s "The Cape" but this book goes a great deal further. At it’s heart, "The White Tiger" is an examination of the hierarchy of power in the capitals of excess and is a depiction of the crushing poverty and small-mindedness of "The Darkness" – India’s rural towns. It is a tale of how one man takes a life in his own hands and brutally makes the idea of destiny something that only fools accept.