Why are 99.9% of Indian population supporting the rich and comfortable lifestyle of the 0.1% ? What is it that stops the 99.9% caged in a rooster coop, where a butcher sits outside and cuts the throat of the roosters in front of their kin, to get out of the coop? No, it is not lack of education, poverty or lack of opportunities that stops them. What stops them, says our Balram Halwai, is the family! Yes, the very family system India proudly brags about. The very extended family system that enables many Indian families to live, eat and educate their children even when there is no wage earner in the family. How is that possible? India does not have Social Welfare schemes or unemployment benefits. So how do families with no wage earner survive. There is sometimes an uncle who pays for education, a sister who feeds her brother and so on. No, I am not going to defend the great Indian family system. It has probably some good and probably some bad. I come from a nuclear family, and value my privacy and individuality too much to let anyone poke their noses in my business, which is always the case with the extended family. As Balram suggests the big family with aunts, uncles et al could drink your blood and leave you dry. Probably for some breaking away from them could be the only real chance for success.
Now about the issue of treatment of servants. As more and more Indian women join the work force, they owe their careers, no, not to loving, understanding husbands who share the household work, but to maids, women who not only cut vegetables, but also sometimes pick the children from school. I have heard many Indian women living outside India moan about missing their maids. They don't miss their mothers, or miss Indian food but miss their maids who made it possible for them to go to work. So how are they treated. Maybe in the past a few decades before, there were drivers who also for the same salary even cooked and massaged your feet and were servile. But that is definitely a thing of the past and also something that probably only happened in Zamindar's house. Majority of Indians are not Zamindars, nor are they the poorest poor. They are the ever-growing middle-class. Definitely those who do domestic work for others could be treated better, but things are not that bad not because people have become suddenly sensitive to their treatment of servants but because there is more demand than supply. One can always leave and find another work. Their is no coop really, not one where the 'Master' holds a knife to the throats of the servant's family, many 'masters' know only as much information as the domestic worker wants to share.
Having got these out of the way. Let's concentrate on the story. The story is a letter a Bangalore based entrueperner writes to the visiting Premier of China about his success as an entrepreneur and how he did it. Initially, Balram Halwai comes out as the obnoxious, snobby self-made man, who always humorously tells you how he made it in life. But then what emerges is a gripping tale of man who was never given a chance who had to succeed at a cost. Balram Halwai hails from Bihar and what he calls the 'darkness'. He is taken away from school to pay for the dowry of his cousin. He uses some initiative and becomes a driver and eventually moves to Delhi. We encounter corruption and poverty living by the side of opulence of Malls in Delhi. Balram tells us that there are only two caste in present India, those with big bellies and those with small bellies. Those with big bellies eat those with small bellies.
The story that emerges is not completely unheard of. Most of the story is what we have read and seen in news and sometimes in overdramatic exaggerated movies of feudal landlords and struggling villagers of 1970s. A driver cutting the throat of his employer and running away with the money, a driver of a celebrity caught for drunk driving and killing somebody, driver kidnapping children of the rich, rich paying bribes to evade income tax, doctors absconding in rural hospitals. Balram has a justification for his act too, but then Balram killed Ashok because he was weak. The strong kill the weak, isn't that the survival of the fittest? Those with big bellies eat those with small bellies. A riveting tale!
The White Tiger Won the Man Booker Prize of 2008.