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In White Tiger, Killer Exploits India's Caste System

May 17, 2008 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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For Balram Halwai, escaping India's underbelly of poverty means learning from the rich — and killing them to get to the top.

The gritty narrator of Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, comes from a poor, rural village. He's desperate to break out of the "Darkness," as India's hinterland is called, and move to the big city. In witty, often humorous prose, Adiga shines a light on how an ambitious, remorseless Indian works his country's corrupt system to get what he wants at the steepest of prices.

Halwai is low caste, dictating that he live a life of servitude. He escapes his village and makes his way to Delhi, where he lands a job working for a rich landlord. He soon kills his boss and, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, departs for Bangalore to start his own business.

In a conversation with NPR's Scott Simon, Adiga says his narrator, much like modern-day Indians, colludes with the very people who are hunting him to shake class confines and establish himself in Bangalore's thriving economy.

"One of the reasons the system exists as it does is that even though a lot of people realize it's bad and corrupt, too many educated, liberal, middle-class Indians work with the system," Adiga says. "When they get into trouble ... they can then use the flaws in the system to get out of trouble."

The story of Halwai unfolds through a series of letters that the killer writes to the Chinese premier upon learning that the official plans to pay a visit to India. Fearing that the premier will tour only the country's richest areas, Halwai tries to educate the premier about life in the rest of India. His letters, written once a day, expose the humor and the corruption and viciousness in India's caste system, and its economic divide.

But Adiga, who is Time magazine's Asia correspondent, says his psychopathic protagonist isn't without remorse. Halwai still finds decency in the world, even as he considers his country's brutal society.

"It was important to write it in the voice of a poorer, slightly unusual, but not atypical Indian to capture his voice, his humor, his anger, his sarcasm and his capacity to appreciate the beautiful things around him," Adiga says.

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