The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – Book Review

 

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.

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15 thoughts on “The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – Book Review

  1. Ok, I’m ready to read this book. But with the luck I’ve had with Amazon the past month or so, I’ll probably get this book NEXT YEAR!

    “Tell them there’s something wrong with the country, they’ll point to a worse nation and say that we are better in comparison.” I think this can for most (3rd world-though I hate the use of that term) countries, back home is the same. The United States accused The Bahamas of Human Rights violations and rising crime rate; Bahamians backlash in saying the Crime in America, Jamaica, Dominican Republic is worse.

    Love you analogy of the though, will look for it in book stores here, before hitting up Amazon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, there’s a slight chance of your local book stores stocking this one as it is a Booker prize winner and all but in any case, what’s the issue with Amazon? Their service is usually good here and I get stuff delivered in just a couple of days.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Have NEVER had problems with Amazon til now, had to cancelled several orders and ask for refunds after waiting over a month for parcels to arrive. Maybe they’re overwhelmed by the Holiday season. All of my orders were from UK distributors though, orders where shipped, but never received on my end. So have no idea if the issue lies with them (Amazon) or the Post.

        Liked by 1 person

      • LOL! LOL! I do have a kindle, but I still purchase BOOKS. However, if all else false I resort to using my Kindle, sometimes I have the hard copy and Kindle version if the book is good. You know just to smell the ink and touch the pages….. LOL! LOL! I know! I’m special, at least that’s what all my friends tell me :p

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh you’re one of “those” people! 😛 LOL. It’s interesting how many people say they need to touch and smell books, makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. LOL! I guess for me the benefits of reading on Kindle just outweigh the benefits of a book. 🙂

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      • What do you mean one of THOSE PEOPLE?? LOL! LOL! Mind you, I don’t do that with every book. Only the ones that I really like or sometimes if it’s a bio. Other than that, it’s Kindle. But this book I’d imagine I would want in both formats 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a great review Uday. I know how difficult it is to review a book. I find it very easy to review a movie but since reading a book takes a lot more time, it is difficult to take a mental note of everything you like and dislike. Even if I do write it down, somehow summarizing and reviewing it is tough. I absolutely loved the book when I had read it sometime back. I didn’t pay attention to the seven hundred thousand part :).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Maya. Liking this book will depend a lot on how subjective or objective one sees it, at least for us Indians. Quite a few of my friends wondered why a book like this won the Booker in the first place!

      As for the review part, remembering my mental notes – either for a movie or a book – is always a hit and miss. Usually when I’m watching a movie and I find something peculiar, I’ll go – “Okay, I’m going to open my review with this!” and then I’ll come home and forget all about it 🙂 Makes me wonder how professional reviewers like Baradwaj Rangan do it, his movie reviews are usually so perceptive and detailed. Reviewing, after all, is an art.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Uday you revoked my memories of growing up years by referring this book and by reviewing it. Maybe a re read may give me better insights and understand the subtexts better, the one glaring omission that i could instantly recognise was the lack of mention of caste and its myriad manifestation told in the novel but not in your review. That is one aspect of our middle class consciousness which is never spoken or discussed. The narrative technique of writing the protagonists admission as an letter to Chinese Premier Li Peng was indeed novel and he not mentioning about the origin of the roots of the driver in Bihar explicitly was the other. The other thing which i remember vividly is the discrimination of muslims in getting jobs. I never knew the snobbish side of Delhi till i lived there, which has to be experienced to be believed. Beyond the often liberal discourses in media which again is clouded by the casteist biases, there is this Delhi of the elites who think about the poor and fellow humans worthy of disdain at worst and disrespect at best! But keep going, you have a flair for writing and continue doing so! Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your detailed comment. It is a very layered book indeed. I guess I never got around to talking about caste in the review as I thought that caste was but a very minor part of the book, at least not in the traditional sense. What I found more interesting were the village and joint family dynamics which in my opinion aren’t really what they’re purported to be. And you’re right about the snobbish side of Indians of course. One keeps hearing degrading or discriminatory remarks from time to time, but only a few people try to set things right.
      Anyway, thanks for your compliment! 🙂

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  4. I absolutely loved this book! The author does a brilliant job in exposing the harsh realities through this satire. I recommend you to try out Manu Josephs’s books if you enjoyed this one. His book ‘Serious Men’ is a true masterpiece!

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