Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The White Tiger

A couple weeks ago, while picking out Mister Pip from the bestseller shelf, I discovered a few other books of interest, including Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger. The story is a funny and imaginative tour of a side of India not often highlighted in fiction. In refusing to wallow in superficial exoticism or South Asian family tensions, The White Tiger finds its own path to multifaceted success. It echoes masterpieces of resistance and oppression, and contains passages of startling beauty, making it both a riveting existential crime story, and an expose of social injustice.

"Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life -- having nothing but his own wits to help him along". Balram is from the Darkness, a region deep in the heartland, where India's downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude, and elections are routinely bought and sold. However, after being hired as a driver for a wealthy landlord, he manages to escape this undesirable place and move to Dali. From behind the wheel of the Honda City car, Balram's new world is a revelation. While his peers flip through the pages of Murder Weekly, barter for girls, drink cheap liquor, and perpetuate the Great Rooster Coop of Indian society, Balram watches his employers bribe foreign ministers for tax breaks, barter for girls, drink English liquor, and play their own role in the Rooster Coop. Balram learns how to siphon gas, deal with corrupt mechanics, and refill and resell Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles. He also finds a way out of the Coop that no one else inside it can perceive.

Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers, the prostitutes and the worshipers, the ancient and Internet cultures, the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible, the white tiger. "And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem -- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations".

Balram's appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations are laced both with a sardonic wit and a trace of sadness. Despite his scapegrace behavior and racist convictions, he somehow manages to win the reader over.

Adiga's existential and crude prose animates the battle between India's wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his employers, or, more appropriately, masters. Balram is a clever and resourceful narrator with a witty and sarcastic edge that endears him to readers, even as he rails about corruption, allows himself to be defiled by his bosses, spews coarse invective and eventually profits from moral ambiguity and outright criminality. It's the perfect antidote to lyrical India.

The White Tiger is a vivid and penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India’s new prosperity and compromise modern India. It's a coruscating critique of contemporary rural India, but the real power of this book comes from its total lack of sentimentality and the consequent realism it thus manages.

The White Tiger is compelling, angry, and darkly humorous. Told with ambition, scope, and narrative genius, it has a mischief and personality all its own. It is amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, making it an unexpected and compelling journey into a new India.

I will hardly ever say no to reading a new book, however there are few that have made an everlasting impression, forcing me to read them over and over again. I must say, that although I found this book interesting, and am glad to have read it, it is not one that I will hold close to my heart. It kept me engaged throughout the chapters and the progression of the story, but I never felt a real connection to Balram, perhaps because I cannot relate to his life, ambitions, and desires. However, I am still grateful for the opportunity to discover a new character, and the invitation to enter a new and unfamiliar world. Even if I never read this book again, I have grown because of it, and I encourage you to do the same. Maybe not with this book, but challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and try new books, for you may be surprised at what you discover, in yourself, and in the world of literature.

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