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[164] The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

“I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars. Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film. He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then turning around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell.” [237]

The White Tiger is Balram Halwai’s confession of his murdering the master. It’s a letter (isn’t epistle the trendy literary form) addressed to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, before his imminent state visit to India. Balram speaks in recollection under this chandelier over seven nights. The incendiary remarks with which he carps on China’s lack of democracy can never be more timely apropos of the Beijing Olympic Games:

“I gather you yellow-skinned men, despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy.” [80]

But this viciously sardonic voice does not just gnaw on China, it’s meant to be satirical of India. Balram spells out his pieces of mind, which seem rather random at the beginning and sound like ranting, about his country—poverty, corruption, and marginalization of wealth. Trimmed to the bone The White Tiger is the rueful tale of how he is corrupted from a sweet, innocent, family-loving village fool into an urbanized fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness. All these changes happen in him partly because they have first taken place in his master, Mr. Ashok, who has returned from America “full of stupid ideas.” A servant is like a son to his master—and servitude is perpetual, just like being born into the lower caste is for life. Critics accuse Adiga’s writing about poverty at home being opportunistic, but aren’t books on China’s human rights just as opportunistic?

Revealed from the layers of social nuances and scenes of New Delhi lives are the deeply disturbing truths of a man-eat-man world: You eat or get eaten up. As befit to the beastly allusion of the title, humans are metaphorized as animals that struggle to survive:

“Go to a teashop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that teashop—men, I say, but better call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms…” [43]

To deal a heavier blow on the imbecile post-colonial government, Balram equates the most corrupted and depraved politicians, those who would do whatever it takes, even to kill some along the way to reach the top, as wild animals that attack and rip each other apart.

“—the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals ripped each other apart and the zoo became a jungle.” [54]

Small people—the forgotten, the stricken, the unprivileged, the impecunious, and the homeless are caught between power struggles of political struggles. They are trapped in the vicious cycle that usually renders their lives even more miserable. They are like wounded stray dogs:

“A pink patch of skin—an open wound—glistened on its left shank; and the dog had twisted on itself in an attempt to gnaw at the wound. The wound was going crazy from pain—trying to attack the wound with its slavering mouth, it kept moving in mad, precise, pointless circles.” [213]

Through Balram’s eyes, we see India as we have never seen it before: the cockroaches, the prostitutes, and the worshippers of multiple gods, which don’t create morality. Trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible is the white tiger—nickname given to Balram for his merit in school. Soon he realizes money cann’t solve all the problems, but at least he could make the leap from darkness into light, which, paradoxically, is darker than darkness. The White Tiger is a well-written book of our time. Its amoral and irreverent themes are authentically contemporary in a world shaped by massive globalization.

Other Reviews:
Book Crazy
The Mookse and the Gripes
Tuesday in Silhouette

13 Responses

  1. This is actually one of the titles that appealed to me on the list. As it is out in paper now I will have to pick up a copy. I sort of like it when an underdog wins a big prize–and this certainly sounds timely.

  2. Danielle:
    It does appeal to me when I first saw it at the bookstore. Then I was a bit reluctant when I heard the wave of negative reviews. But this is a good read.

  3. I’m always glad to know that an underdog is winning the reward. To hell with what people think, as long as the book is well-written.

  4. Mathew,
    Much as I respect contrary opinions –
    “Through Balram’s eyes, we see India as we have never seen it before”:
    If you have never seen India’s underbelly before, which is and has always been obviously and also obscenely visible to most outsiders, then you have no clue about India. India’s underbelly which is glaringly visible to any tourist, as five stars stand cheek by jowl with slums, and which has been extensively written about in fiction and poetry by Indian writers in vernacular languages and English. Adiga has not shown the truth, indeed he has picked on India’s most prosperous members of the underbelly – the car drivers/chauffeurs – to peg his book on. He has also written gross lies about Hindu-Muslim relationships within the country. The trouble with a book that has the blessings of rank outsiders is that any sane Indian trying to put in a word against it, would be seen as being virulently patriotic with blinkers on. Sensationalism wins hands down.
    Rumjhum Biswas

  5. […] Carr 2. A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka 3. The Gathering, Anne Enright 4. The White Tiger, Aravind […]

  6. […] Carr 2. A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka 3. The Gathering, Anne Enright 4. The White Tiger, Aravind […]

  7. […] gets priority, design comes second. If people actually bought books purely on their cover, then Aravind Adiga would have been sold […]

  8. […] White Tiger? Booker Prize? Posted on October 22, 2008 by Matthew Book review: [164] White Tiger, Aravind Adiga […]

  9. […] by Chris Cleave would probably make great movies. After the success of Slumdog Millionaire, I think White Tiger by Aravind Adiga would also stand a chance. The Booker Prize winner of 2008 has boosted traffic to […]

  10. […] on Their Backs is the front runner. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2008, of which The White Tiger (smart and well-written, but not my favorite) was the winner. The book reminds us that the way we […]

  11. […] made an effort to read through the 2008 shortlist: The White Tiger, The Secret Scripture, and The Clothes on Their Backs. Sea of Poppies, A Fraction of the Whole, and […]

  12. […] 2007 Anne Enright The Gathering (Ireland)* Review 2008 Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (India)* Review 2009 Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall (UK)* Review 2010 Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (UK) 2011 […]

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