Fiction — audiobook. Read by John Lee. Tantor Media, 2008. 8 hours, 6 minutes. Library copy.
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Adiga’s novel centers on Balram Halwai as he writes a letter to the visiting official from China relating his own life as an example of the entrepreneurial spirit possessed by the people of India that China must emulate to continue growing their economy. Over the course of seven nights, Balram explains how he established himself as an entrepreneur after becoming a driver for a wealthy man and, later, murdering said man.
Adiga’s novel presents a grim and cynical picture of India, and his character embodies the unapologetic approach he has towards his vision of India as a caste-ridden zoo. When the British were in power, the “animals” were kept in separate cages through the caste-system but the departure of the British left the cage doors wide open and those with “big bellies” were left to prey upon those with “small bellies”. The size of ones belly is determined by their caste, and the only way to develop a larger belly is, according to Balram, to possess that entrepreneurial spirit China wants to emulate.
Such spirits are hard to develop in the part of India where Balram is from (referred to as “the Darkness” in the novel) where the right of those in the higher caste (and, therefore, those of wealth) to suppress the poor and keep them in rigid, uninspiring roles remains unquestioned. Balram is supposed to be a sweets seller based solely on his last name, which assigns him to a particular caste, and he is reminded of this so-called fact even after he lands a job as a driver.
The novel is a case study in the separation of rich and poor, a character study of how such separations affects one man in particular and while this is not what I was expecting when I began the novel, it is ultimately what won me over to it. I struggled with the structure in the beginning, particularly the interruptions of Balram’s tale by assertions that it is nearly two in the morning and time for him to retire to bed. Such jarring interjections threw me out of the tale until I magically managed to sync such interruptions with the conclusion of my work day when I would pause the audiobook until tomorrow.
But Balram with his intriguingly unapologetic statement that he murdered a man kept me reading, and my distaste for these interjections grew out of my wish for his story (and John Lee’s narration) to continue on. Adiga’s writing made it easy for me to imagine the contrasts in Balram’s situation, to understand both Balram’s wide range of emotions and his ability to justify his actions to himself.
Throughout the novel, I found myself pondering the “Darkness” where Balram begins with the New India that the hypothetical Chinese minister has come to study and emulate: How much truly has changed? Is Balram the benevolent business owner truly better than the man he murdered? Or, is he just a continuation of the desperate, caste-ridden “Old India”?
Or, to touch on the controversy surrounding Adiga’s Booker win, is this novel a criticism of India today or a satire of what people expect India to be? Regardless of the answer, there is much to ponder and even more to enjoy about Adiga’s novel.