India in the 21st century may be getting richer overall, but the gulf between rich and poor still yawns.
Written, curiously enough, as a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, this novel is the unsettling account of the son of a rickshaw driver and his struggle to rise out of poverty and servitude.
Through luck, hard graft, patience, cunning and ultimately bloodshed, Balram Halwai becomes what he has dreamed of: a "white tiger", a self-made entrepreneur, living in Bangalore, the outsourcing capital of the world.
When he hears that Premier Jiabao is coming to Bangalore and wants to meet entrepreneurs, he is inspired to pen his life story. Balram was born into a lowly caste in the area of Gaya, referred to as the "Darkness".
He is taken out of school to work in a teashop, where he quickly sees that he has few prospects unless he can escape the village and better himself. He persuades his family to invest in driving lessons, and by a stroke of good fortune lands a chauffeur job with the local coalmine owner.
When his boss moves to Delhi, Balram goes too, bluffing his way through the maze of streets and the harsh urban culture. While he is disillusioned with the corruption and feudalism of village life, Balram now realises that this is magnified in the city - only the bribes, the temptations and the risks are bigger.
He is exposed to a different morality: a world of divorce, prostitution, and Murder Weekly - a magazine popular with the other drivers.
The contrasts are vivid - on the one hand there are glowing cellphones, shiny malls and high-class nightclubs, and on the other there are beggars, cockroaches, and the wash of filthy water that the "spiders" (teashop boys) push in front of them with a rag as they scamper across the floor.
The White Tiger offers a jaded view of India, stark and resentful, but sympathetic to Balram, even when he turns his back on his family, who try to lure him back with an arranged marriage.
Our narrator comes across as both stupid and wily, but with enough humanity to be endearing. Adiga tantalises his readers with crumbs of awful knowledge that churn in the stomach while we are gripped by the stench of the story.
The ending answers the question that has been hovering since the beginning: does the servant-turned-entrepreneur become like his former master?
The White Tiger - By Aravind Adiga
(Atlantic Books $38)
* Philippa Jamieson is a Dunedin reviewer.
- NZ Herald