My 4th Booker: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

05 Mar

There! This one was a welcome relief after the two long & difficult if rewarding reads that came before – The Finkler Question and Wolf Hall. An added advantage, I had read it before; about 3 years ago and had loved it then. I wrote a short and somewhat flippant review (that’s what I think now anyway), on Shelfari after that first time and I’m hoping can come up with a better one now! I’ve realized that my reviews are mostly about how the book makes me feel and think and less about what is actually in it. I don’t think this is strictly by design, just my style of writing. But I must confess, books being as personal as they are, and reactions and interpretations being affected by so many internal and external factors, logical and irrational, I prefer to let people make up their own minds by reading the book themselves. One man’s classic is another man’s…what’s the right word…can’t think of one…feel free to fill in the blank________! Junk?!

But I digress – it’s an incorrigible weakness I have 😛 I thought it would be fun to include my first review, so I can flesh out my second one from its tiny skeleton…so here goes, “An utterly enjoyable and fascinating read! I loved Adiga’s no-nonsense direct style and the way he’s developed his characters. I’ve lived in Bombay most of my life and every character in the book seemed intimately familiar & extremely real. Balram the driver and Ashok the master – their ‘master-servant’ relationship as described is scarily accurate and certainly very prevalent in all parts of India today, whether in its large metros or tiny villages. The transformation of the hapless, nameless “Munna” from the ‘Darkness'(so reminiscent of Bihar, arguably the poorest, most lawless state in India) first into the officious, subservient Balram, then into a selfish, self-serving Balram and finally, paradoxically into Mr. Ashok in the ‘Light’, is believable, intriguing and deftly handled. His moral conflicts are superbly portrayed and I still can’t quite decide whether to hate and revile him as a murderer or admire him for his wiliness & ‘entrepreneurship’. Despite my best efforts, I must confess, I veer towards admiration! I also enjoyed the author’s narrative style of presenting his story as a dialogue between Balram the driver and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao – it added just the right touch of whimsy and fantasy that I enjoyed! The book is aptly titled: Balram is indeed the ‘White Tiger’ – that rare creature of the jungle, born once in several generations! To me Aravind Adiga is no less!”

Well, I must say I stand by that review even today! If anything this time round, I was struck by how the book might make an excellent movie, subject of course to a great cast and adaptation. It reads so much like a script itself! Also, having just finished Wolf Hall, I couldn’t help but compare Thomas Cromwell and Balram Halwai. You laugh! Don’t. Suddenly the parallels between these two ‘entrepreneurs’ seemed obvious and inescapable! Their unhappy childhoods, their ambition, their struggles to rise above their circumstances, & their willingness to take risks are eerily similar. One in 16th century England and the other in 21st century India – both countries in flux – and both men ultimately successful, each in their own way, both paying their dues along the way. It seems the definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ has changed little over the centuries! Indeed Adiga has put it quite brilliantly in one of my favourite quotes from the book, as early as Page 9, “My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.” And that my friends is the secret of a successful entrepreneur in a nutshell! Talk about hitting the nail on the head, recognizing what makes us Indians tick and being able to condense it into one sentence – now that’s brilliance!

The book is an excellent social commentary on India as she is today. A country of paradox and contradictions; a giant behemoth of a billion people lumbering along like an elephant at best but eternally aspiring to the cheetah’s sprint! A country of such diversity that the only way to survive, is to celebrate it. What choice is there? Forgive my similes; Adiga’s are so much better! At one point, he describes the women of Balram’s household sleeping together in a single room, “At night they slept together, falling one over the other, like one creature, a millipede.” Clever that – not only for the physical accuracy but also because of the reference to the women functioning as a unit, a combined force in order to increase their power & influence. Also the parallels between landlords and animals – clever and apt! The dark humor that laces the narrative only serves to underline the ominous undercurrents evident from the start. The way he describes why millions of Indians are ‘half-baked’ for example is scarily accurate, enlightening and yet humorous. “Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay.” Amen! Another excellent example of dark humor is Adiga’s ‘Rooster Coop’ concept. Dark, brilliant and once again terrifyingly accurate. How many times have I seen trucks laden with ‘rooster coops’, stuffed with chickens squeezed into that tiny barbed space on their way to death, and not given the grotesque tableau a second thought? Not anymore! My heart bled but my lips wore a half-smile, from recognition and from pity. And ever so often that’s how this book made me feel – when he loses his Dad; when he improves his status in the Stork’s household, with audacity and sharp observations; when he suffers from the vagaries of his employer’s behaviour, at times bordering on friendship, at others a definitive owner-slave equation; when he struggles to choose between morality and self-improvement and despairs that it must be a choice. The last time I read this book, I imagined myself in Ashok’s position, because it was easy and natural for me to identify with him. I am after all an employer myself! That in itself was a frightening experience. This time I forced myself to walk in Balram’s shoes, and do you know they didn’t seem so alien after all. And that is more frightening!

I think there’s a Balram in all of us, ‘The White Tiger’ within that longs to break free from whatever our particular shackles, whether financial, social, mental, spiritual or any other. Certainly this time around, his character resonated with me more deeply. I understood him better even though I still like to think that if I were faced with the same circumstances, I would have made different choices. But who’s to say? All I can say is I’m no longer so certain. If you live or have lived on the sub-continent for a decent amount of time, this book will reinforce your beliefs in the fragile, transient nature of humanity in our part of the world. Life is tough here at best (don’t let the money fool you), hypocrisy an accepted societal norm, corruption firmly entrenched and honesty rare. We have to be “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time”, just to survive. Can you blame us then for who we are, who we become and how we get there? Will we ever break the shackles of this vicious ‘Darkness’? Will we ever be able to redefine what ‘Light’ really means? Where do we begin? How? Those are the questions that this book leaves me with. I think this book has been the toughest book to review so far, probably because it’s too close to home. It rips away at the masks we so carefully arrange for our faces and souls and gets straight to the darkness within. Not an easy place, but one that must be visited if we’re ever to get to the ‘Light’.

It’s that kind of book. Read it.

It’s Anne Enright’s The Gathering next. I’ve ordered the book online and am waiting for it to arrive. Meanwhile will be reading The Case of the Man who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Booker Reviews


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2 responses to “My 4th Booker: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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