Balram's story begins in the village of Laxmangarh, where he grows up as the son of a rickshaw-puller and starts his own working career in a tea shop. Through good luck and craftiness, Balram becomes a servant in the home of one of the three wealthy men in the village. Eventually, he works his way "up" to become a driver and moves with one of the sons of the family to Delhi. The son, Ashok, seems to be living in Delhi for the sole purpose of handling the family's bribes to government officials.
Meanwhile, Balram and the other drivers live lives of servitude, squalor, and boredom. On one particularly terrible night, Ashok's drunken wife of puts Balram out of the car and drives off, leaving him stranded. She doubles back to pick him up, but then hits a child in the road. Ashok's family insists that Balram take responsibility for the accident. It is not difficult to see why Balram starts to consider how he might escape from the servant's life.
The book provides one perspective on India--and, despite the book's comic moments, it's a dark vision of a corrupt society marred by class distinctions. The character of Balram is engaging--but every other character is either laughable or despicable or both. Still, I found myself very interested in Balram's tale until about the last 75 pages, when the story seemed to break down.
Would I have given the book the Man Booker Prize for 2008 (which it won)? No. But would I recommend the book to others? Yes, it's worth reading for its take on India, its dark humor, and its winning central character, even if I found the last quarter of the book disappointing.
The road was dead--then two cars went by, one behind the other, their headlights making a continuous ripple on the leaves, like you see on the branches of trees that grow by a lake. How many thousands of such beautiful things there must be to see in Delhi. If you were just free to go wherever you wanted, and do whatever you wanted.
At night I lay in my mosquito net, the lightbulb on in my room, and watched the dark roaches crawling on top of the net, their antennae quivering and trembling, like bits of my own nerves: and I lay in bed, too agitated even to reach out and crush them.