Balram Halwai, the narrator and protagonist of the story, grew up in a small village in the poor interior of India, son of a rickshaw driver. His father wants him to go to school and make something of himself. Balram is not sure what this means, but he cannot imagine anything grander than being the local bus driver, a job that entails both a uniform and whistle. Although Balram does well in school, he is taken out quite early in order to work at the local tea shop and earn money for his family. His necessary quest for funds sends him to a larger city where he manages to become a driver for a rich man, Mr. Ashok.
But this book has so many more layers than the story of a boy who manages to make a little money. We learn of Balram's life through a letter that he dictates to the Chinese Premier. Balram hears that Premier Jiabao is coming to visit India and wants to give him a more realistic picture of the country, rather than the glossed-over, P.R. approved version he is sure to hear. At this point, all the reader knows is that Balram says he has become a success and that he is a murderer. Balram then fills in the details of his life and how he became a success in the unique recounting of his life. His story is thoroughly entertaining, sometimes sarcastic, angry, funny, and touching. Perhaps most memorable is Balram's account of the state of India, including the incredible corruption on all levels, as well as the attitudes and lives of the different classes. Somehow Adiga manages to punch you in the gut with some of the injustices without losing the character of the story.
Now, just a slight digression. When I was in the middle of reading this novel, I happened to have The Tonight Show on, and I saw Jay Leno talking to the actress from Slumdog Millionaire (which I want to see but haven't been able to yet). Leno was saying something about how the slums of Mumbai were in the movie, but they were also somehow beautiful. And then the actress responded that yes, the slums were everywhere, you couldn't get away from them, but they really were beautiful. My first thought, besides being uncomfortable with their awkward attempt to possibly dispel any negative discussion of the slums of Mumbai (I'm actually not sure what their point was, maybe because I haven't seen the movie, but I got the feeling they were reading unconvincingly from a script), was a skeptical, "oh yeah? I can't imagine Balram would describe them that way."
And Balram is unflinchingly direct and to-the-point when it comes to the lives of the poor and the "rooster cage" they are stuck in that makes it impossible for their lives to improve. In fact, the most affecting aspect of the novel was the suffocating portrayal of the classes. Balram makes himself an exception and improves his lot, but he is also a murderer who dictates letters to Premiers, which just goes to underscore what it takes to break away from where you were born. And Mr. Ashok, Balram's boss, is educated in America and comes back to India with a slightly different and more compassionate view of his servants and dislike of corruption, yet it is these morals and compassion that make him weak and less successful in India. And even as I was reading the dictation to the Premier, I was thinking that in the real world, no one would ever hear Balram's story. The Chinese Premier certainly wouldn't read a letter by an unknown, somewhat egomaniacal murderer, and Balram doesn't actually know enough English to communicate with English speakers. So, even as Balram tells the story of the poor and disenfranchised, the book simultaneously illustrates how voiceless the poor really are.