As the blurb puts it, you meet “BALRAM HALWAI: THE ‘WHITE TIGER’: SERVANT, PHILOSOPHER,ENTREPRENEUER, MURDERER…”
Who wouldn’t want to read that?
And so they did, and then it even went on to win the Man Booker Prize 2008. But go through the reviews and you’ll notice something peculiar. While all the foreign readers have praised it to no ends, quite a lot of Indians have found the book to be obnoxious in its depiction of the “dark” India, even gratuitous in its supposed pandering to the western crowd. Yes, because it seems that no one wants to read a glossy sugary book about India. What sells are the gritty and ugly details – destitution and corruption and chaos.
And Aravind Adiga quite promptly rises to the occasion to deliver just that. The White Tiger tells the story of a man Munna a.k.a Balram Halwai born into a family that doesn’t mind “eating their men live” as he pus it. And all he wanted was to break free from a life of bondage. As a self-declared entrepreneur, he looks far and wide for a chance to be something bigger and not live a life working in a tea-shop like his brother does, or pulling a rickshaw like his late father did. A lot of twists and turns and he ends up as a driver-cum-housekeeper for a wealthy family in the city. For a while, he’s happy in his job – he adores his boss, makes good money and he gets to wear a uniform! What happens next is difficult to summarize, as the motivation behind the decisions he make get extremely complicated but let’s just say that by the end of the book he slits his master’s throat and runs away with a boatload of money.
Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler!
This is a book that pretty much begins by saying, “I murdered a man, now let me tell you why” and is not affected by that revelation at all.
If there’s something that I found absolutely spectacular in the book, it’s Balram’s first-person voice. There’s this wonderful brevity to it which you don’t find often, couple that with his bluntness in stating the hard realities and you’ve got a narrator who is extremely hard to put down. I did finish this book in just two sittings, which is a testament to the wonderful plot and fast-paced narration.
Then there’s also the question of moral ambiguity that the author gets so frighteningly right. While we all know that no one is really totally good or bad, the more intriguing realization is finding out that we are all capable of doing insane and inhuman things at times, either deliberately or inadvertently. While our protagonist Balram probably takes it to the extremes, I did find myself identifying with some of the decisions he makes. As I said, the author gets it frighteningly right.
But coming back to our initial discussion about the country itself, I have found out recently that Indians are an amusing bunch. Tell them there’s something wrong with the country, they’ll point to a worse nation and say that we are better in comparison. Yes, because that’s the golden argument, isn’t it? We have become desensitized to a lot of real issues that this book talks of. Poverty and corruption are an accepted part of our environment now. So when a book comes along putting all of that in the fore-front, we’re like ‘Wait a minute! This is not the India I know’. As for me, I felt that in a very very long time I have come across an author who gets it.
I accept, a lot this book feels Bollywood-ish (and I wonder why no one’s made a movie of it yet!), especially the end portions about Balram’s stint in Bangalore which ring too convenient to be true. But the book had to go there to make its point, so I excused the author for that. What I couldn’t excuse him for though is the non-authentic voice. Balram says “seven hundred thousand” when every Indian says “seven lakh”. There are a couple more things like this which take away form the authenticity a bit but thankfully not too much.
My suggestion is, read it!
In other news, I’m glad to be writing after a long hiatus. The disaster that shook Chennai sent me into a writer’s block. It’s only now that the words seem to be flowing.