[Book Review] The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
There are some people I know who love to read books about India. The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies, The God of Small Things, The Inheritance of Loss, A Fine Balance…. I’m not one of them. (Heck, I’ve never even seen Slumdog Millionaire.)
There are also some people I know who love to read books that win prizes. The Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Man Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize, a prized spot on the New York Times Best Seller List…. I’m not one of them either.
But, I do like to call myself complicated and I am an entrepreneur. In addition, I’m rather partial to the epistolary style of writing (see: the column “Letters to Inspiring Writers.”)
When I picked up “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga (on the nightstand of someone who does like to read books about India), I was intrigued by the back cover (“Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer.”) as well as the style of the book (a series of letters composed over seven nights from the desk of Balram Halwai to the Premier of China). So, I read a few pages and I stole the copy from the nightstand. (“borrowed” – without asking – though I did return it a week later.)
For those who know about Indian culture, are from India, study India, well, I’m not sure what you would think of this book.
The story is a simple one, told by Balram Halwai, about Balram Halwai. Balram seeks to enlighten the Premier about the underbelly? the reality? of life in India. While Balram exposes his life, he attempts to expose the universal culture? customs? that influence his life. In other words, he directly acknowledges that his story is his own – he is special – he is a “white tiger” – but his story could be anyone’s story – any “white tiger’s” story.
For example, on pages 33-34, this is how Balram describes his picture on his “Wanted” poster:
Set into the text of the notice, a photograph: blurred, blackened, and smudged by the antique printing press of some police office, and barely recognizable even when it was on the wall of the train station, but now, transferred onto the computer screen, reduced to pixes, just an abstract idea of a man’s face: a small creature with large, popped-out eyes and a stubby mustache. He could be half the men in India.
This is the reason that I bring up my naivete and disclaim any thoughts or opinions that an Indiaphile (is that a word?) may have: the story is simple in its telling but complex in what it tells. The nuances are there. However, if you already know the nuances and you prefer or seek to “solve” these nuances, well, I’m not sure what you would think of this book. All I can say is that Adiga’s writing is entertaining. For that reason alone, you may want to read this book.
(As a sidenote, I will bring up that the USA Today quote on the front of my copy states, “One of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel hit me like a kick to the head – the same effect Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had.” I bring that up because it’s an analogy I can understand. I can also say that even if one already knows the nuances of racism and prefers or seeks to “solve” these nuances – there is still much to learn and gain from Native Son and Invisible Man.)
One of my favorite parts of the book is how Balram stereotypes? describes? presents different Indian cities and villages. Bangalore (the Silicon Valley), Laxmangarh (the rural village offering little opportunities for a “white tiger”), Dhanbad (the industrial city where a “white tiger” may try to get ahead), Delhi (the big corrupt city), and Gurgaon (the swanky “place to live.”) While the narrator may be anonymous/invisible in Bangalore with his chandelier, his setting is real and alive and can be found on Google Earth!
Adiga, as a writer, has proven he can derive make believe from reality to entertain readers. In addition, he has created an entertaining, easy-to-read novel that unravels into provocative insights about a country, its history, and its social system – whatever the system may be. (“I should explain a thing or two about caste. Even Indians get confused about this word, especially educated Indians in the cities. They’ll make a mess of explaining it to you.” p. 53)