"The White Tiger" tells of a man who claws his way up from poverty to prosperity in India.
Nearly half of India's people live each day on less than the cost of this newspaper. It's an astonishing fact, one far less likely to slip the mind after reading Aravind Adiga's polemical satire "The White Tiger," which recently won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction.
The book's hero is Balram Halwai, a poor servant from the Darkness, as Adiga refers to the rural villages where hundreds of millions live untouched by their nation's "economic miracle." "Electricity poles -- defunct," Halwai describes. "Water tap -- broken. Children -- too lean and short for their age."
Halwai, we learn right away, has climbed his way out of this environment and now runs a successful start-up corporation, but he is wanted by the law for a murder. Over the course of seven days, he describes his miraculous journey to Chinese politician Wen Jiabao in a series of letters that veer between acid sarcasm and shaky remorse.
This gambit is hardly the work of a finesse writer, but it allows Adiga, who formerly worked as a business journalist, to report on his country to an outsider without needing to apologize for the constant sweep and scope of his narrative lens.
There's a lot to see, too. Insinuating himself into the household of his village's most powerful landlord, Halwai secures work as a servant, then as a driver, catapulting himself from the most hideous poverty to extreme proximity to oblivious wealth.
"The White Tiger" occasionally reads like a primer on how the classes in India fight and scrap to make this type of ascension as rare as a white tiger. It is only by taking advantage of a fellow worker that Halwai can move up to primary driver. The next rung requires even graver betrayals from him.
The problem, Halwai discovers, is that with each improvement in his fate, he becomes ever more aware of what he does not possess. As Richard Wright did in "Black Boy," Adiga expertly manipulates the reader's sympathy, exposing how individual morality can feel like a weak man's keepsake in a dog-eat-dog world.
And, as "The White Tiger" unequivocally reveals, India is in the grips of a terribly unfair system, full of corruption and class bigotry and blatant sexual exploitation. Indeed, the deeper Adiga plunges us into the gap between the two Indias, the harder it becomes not to root for him.
Still, make no mistake: This is a book with a point to make. Just as John Steinbeck used melodrama in "East of Eden" to show Americans the plight of its migrant workers, "The White Tiger" pounds out a picture of the India crying for a wider audience. Sarcasm is Adiga's sledgehammer, morality his anvil. It's not a subtle tale, but there's a beaten, beveled perfection to its fury.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.