Aravind Adiga


"The White Tiger"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte SEP 9, 2008)

Aravind Adiga, who now lives in Mumbai, has written business and news articles about India before for American and British publications. The White Tiger is his first novel.

The White Tiger is a quick-reading thriller, written in the unique voice of its central character. It is written as a first-person narration by one Balram Halwai, a self-described entrepreneur in Bangalore, about how he came to be successful. He grew up in a small coal mining village in Bihar, born to a poor rickshaw-puller, and named only "Munna," "boy," until his teacher named him "Balram" and gave him a birth date so that he could vote for the landlord.

Balram has a sarcastic, cynical, and crude voice, whose wit keeps the pages turning. He refers to the village only as The Darkness, because, you see:

"India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of
Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India - the black river."

We learn first-hand of the terrible conditions in which Balram's family and clan lived in the Darkness, always under the thumbs of powerful landlords. Balram's father died of tuberculosis in a government hospital that was dysfunctional because of endemic corruption. He has had very little schooling. This is a classic tale, retold to the point of cliche, but through Balram's clever voice comes his world view:

"Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country."

This "Rooster Coop" analogy is just one of the many devices that make The White Tiger a fun read, despite being about such a depressing subject: the terrible caste subjugation, regular rigging of elections, and poor people's votes being cast for them by their masters, are heavy topics, but when we read that the villagers excitedly talk about local elections "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra," we get it right away.

Balram teaches himself to drive, and eventually lands a job as a driver for a local landlord and his two sons. Soon he moves with them to Delhi where the younger, U.S.-returned son Ashok needs to stay so that he can more easily bribe government ministers. After a few months of driving his master around and overhearing conversations, Balram is determined "to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant."

By making some immoral decisions, Balram makes a break for freedom and becomes "successful."

In the 1940's, African-American author Richard Wright's Native Son told a similar tale about a poor black man named Bigger Thomas, but there are two important differences. One is that the Balram Halwai character easily gets away with his crime, and the second is that Balram's character never actually changes: he already has a self-described model of how the world works and of his place in it:

"In the old days there were 1,000 castes...in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies."

Balram is determined to do whatever it takes to become a big-bellied man, and this he resorts to doing in the only way he knows how: by becoming a criminal, bribing the police, and bending the rules.

The India that we see in The White Tiger is a brutal, dog-eat-dog world, totally corrupt and unjust, where people behave like animals and everything is for sale: far distant from the Shining India depicted in so many recent articles and publications. When this book was nominated for the Man Booker prize this year, the author said in an interview: "My background as a business journalist made me realize that most of what's written about in business magazines is bullshit, and I don't take business or corporate literature seriously at all."

Nor does Balram, who makes fun of such books at one point -- partly, of course, because he is unable to read English, but also because he knows how the world works.

The novel is written as a series of passages being written in a letter by Balram to the Chinese premier, who is going to visit Bangalore soon. This device, disconnected from the plot, seems rather meaningless, except for this point that Balram makes to the Chinese leader:

"...out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse..."

This humble, if crudely put, prediction is one in which the unlettered Balram is joined by many modern pundits, except that he has arrived at it via his peculiar brand of simplistic shortcuts. This narrator is uneducated, but it doesn't stop him from taking in the big picture.

The most enjoyable part of this novel is the richly observed world of the have-nots in India: the flocks of drivers hanging out by their vehicles outside air-conditioned buildings, waiting for their masters to summon them; the beggars at traffic stops, who get money mostly from the poor; the petty manipulations among the servants of the house. This is the view missing from so many India novels with a middle-class sensibility. And with his keen observations and sharp writing, Adiga takes us into Balram Halwai's mind, whether we want to or not.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 491 reviews


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About the Author:

Aravind AdigaAravind Adiga was born in Madras, India in 1974 and raised partly in Australia. He attended Columbia and Oxford universities. A former correspondent for Time magazine, he has also been published in the Financial Times.

His debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

He lives in Mumbai, India.

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