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Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

If you are tired of Indian novels built on a blend of saffron and saris then Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) may just be the antidote required. It’s take on modern India is one more grounded in reality than romantic idealism, straddling the thin line between the historical hangovers of British rule and ingrained caste system with the thriving industry of entrepreneurship now prevalent in outsourced business, such as information technology and call centres.

One such entrepreneur is Balram Halwai, “Bangalore’s least known success story”, from a caste of sweet-makers, who wants to share the story of his personal struggle. Interestingly, he has decided to share it with Wen Jiabao, Premier of “the Freedom-Loving Nation of China” who, it is announced on the radio, is coming to Bangalore in the next week. Rather than the falsity of handshakes and namastes between political leaders, Balram opts to show India warts and all through a series of lengthy letters.

Balram’s path to entrepreneurship, as he tells Wen Jiabao near the beginning, has begun by slitting his master’s throat. His master, incidentally, is one of the four landlords who run the area around Laxmangarh, known as the Animals. (“…the Animals stayed and fed on the village, and everything that grew in it, until there was nothing left for anyone else to feed on.”) As a driver in the service of the Stork and his sons, Balram picks up snippets of information he hears both at home and behind the wheel. And it’s the rise from teashop boy to modern Indian man (via murderer) that is recounted for the benefit of the Chinese Premier. (“…sir, you are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs.”)

What has allowed Balram the audicity to speak are the changes in India. Many years before, the country was like a zoo, where people of certain castes were confined to their cage.

And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947 – the day the British left – the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law. Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn’t matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up.

But, for all those that don’t rise up, there’s the millions left in the Darkness, of which Balram’s home of Laxmangarh is “a typical Indian village paradise”:

Electricity poles – defunct.

Water tap – broken.

Children – too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India.

Balram’s chances of escaping such poverty don’t look so good, his family having taken him out of school and putting him to work in a teashop.

Go to a teashop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that tea shop – men I say, but better to call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven, in their thirties or forties or fifties but still ‘boys’. But that is your fate if you do your job well – with honesty, dedication, and sincerity, the way Ghandi would have done it, no doubt.

If doing your job well means enduring it for life, Balram proves himself to be, as a school inspector once noted, “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation” – a white tiger. Rather than live a life at the bottom, Balram takes fate into his own hands and takes a different path to Ghandi’s, because only with dishonesty and insincerity can you plot to reach for higher grounds. (“…the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.”)

What is good about Balram’s letters are his ignorance of the man and the country he is addressing (“Now, since I doubt that you have rickshaw-pullers in China – or in any other civilised nation on earth – you will have to see one for yourself.”), having picked up his knowledge from a book entitled Exciting Tales of the Exotic East. This is indicative of the nature of entrepreneurs, who are “made from half-baked clay”:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks…sentences about politics read in a newspaper…bits of All India Radio news bulletins…all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

In the telling, The White Tiger is reminiscent of last year’s Booker nominated The Reluctant Fundamentalist, give that we are left to wonder at Wen Jiabao’s reaction to Balram’s letters, assuming he even gets them. And in it’s getting down and dirty with the downtrodden of India, and sparks of east meets west, there’s a dotted line to be drawn to Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, although the book that springs to mind most is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, purely for the parallel of a man, his master, and the oblivion between.

Its players, being drawn from the the top to bottom of Indian society, are tight in scope, allowing Adiga to get to grips well with them and how they interact with each other, whether it be the relationships between master and servant, between family members, or between the state and civilians. In all, The White Tiger provides an evocative and miserable landscape stripped of any exoticism one might expect, where everyone is greasing the palms of others, and anyone with the stomach for it can make their mark. And being easily digestible, your own stomach need not worry, for the novel is anything but half-baked.

August 3, 2008

21 responses to Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

  1. Excellent review, Stewart! Your details encourage reading and don’t give away too much. And I’m glad to see you also didn’t find the novel “half-baked.” Thanks for posting it today in place of your other review! I’ve been anxious to see what others thought of it.

  2. jem said:

    Great minds and all that Stewart. I picked this as my first Booker 08 read too! and finished it yesterday.

    And scanning back over my notes I see I felt similarities to the two Bookers from last year you mentioned!

    Sometimes I feel there are a lot of India based novels about, almost as many as Irish family sagas perhaps? this one seem quite light which was nice. It had an airy anecdotal touch which appealed to me. I don’t think its a winner, but a good place to start.

    I’m heading into my second now which so far is proving a bit denser…

  3. Pingback: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga « RedHead Ramble

  4. Mrinal Bose said:

    I have never heard of Aravind Adiga before. So. when I saw his name in Booker long list, I was a bit surprised. Having read your review, I feel it’s not like the run-of-the-mill novels churned out by Indian novelists. I would definitely read it. Thanks for your review.

  5. Stewart said:

    Mrinal Bose, I don’t think we can ever be surprised when a new name appears in the Booker longlist. I suppose that’s part of the good it does, potentially highlighting books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, like Animal’s People last year.

    I had seen The White Tiger a few times in Waterstone’s before the longlist was announced and decided, along with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Mohammed Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes to buy them in advance of the announcement as I just had a gut feeling about them, which was thankfully proved right.

  6. John Self said:

    I am in danger of doing a Netherland on this one, I think, and being a polarity responder to everyone else’s views. I’m not really impressed so far, not finding it especially amusing or touching, and the characters are indistinguishable. Compare this to last year’s Animal’s People – a story with some superficial similarities, as you mention Stewart – with its distinctive cast of voices and terrific wit, and I think Adiga starts to come out looking quite bad. Anyway I’m less than halfway through so all that might – might! – change.

  7. Stewart said:

    Through some bizarre logic, John, I’m glad you’re not enjoying it too much. Our tastes can be quite similar, so to see a bit of dissent in views is welcomed.

    Compare this to last year’s Animal’s People – a story with some superficial similarities, as you mention Stewart – with its distinctive cast of voices and terrific wit, and I think Adiga starts to come out looking quite bad.

    Although you can liken some bits to Animal’s People, I don’t think you can match them off against each other. To set Animal’s People as a benchmark for books by Indian authors, when it comes to your own reading, would affect reading them on their own merit. But then, if you just think it’s poor on its merits, then that’s fine.

  8. Animal’s People was I thought a tour de force, though I do wonder if Sinha will manage to write anything similar. I’m pleased to find people talking about it, even in the context of another novel, I had the impression hardly anyone had read it. I now have to go back and read Stewart’s review clearly.

    Oddly enough, I was looking forward to this one before the Booker announcement (the only one on the longlist I can say that of), it’s fascinating to see the range of reactions to it.

  9. Pingback: Bloggers take on the Booker longlist

  10. Gem said:

    Stewart, I think your 3 stars are overly generous. The characterization was so cliched as to be almost a joke and as a piece of commentary on modern day India I think it was weak. I appreciate the idea and like the attitude; to present a clearer, insider’s view look at the reality of Indian society – warts and all. However, if you’re writing a novel then it is important to back those sentiments up with a well written, evenly paced story that is populated by strong, individual characters. Adaga, in my opinion, failed on all counts.
    If I ever happen to come across Michael Portillo or Hardip Unfunny Singh Kholi, I will seriously consider going Chuck Norris on them for making me read this.

  11. Stewart said:

    Gem, I think that the general consensus is that The White Tiger is a shoddy little book. When I get to the end of this Booker circus, I guess I’m going to have to look at the book again and see where my reading went so wrong. I admit that, since I read it, it has faded to the point where I remember little of it. Perhaps coming to it after a lengthy reading block coloured my judgement, so happy was I just to get through a book so fast.

  12. BookCrazy said:

    “I got a little depressed by this view of humanity by the end of the novel. There was a kind of ugliness to this world which really jarred with me. I guess I was looking for a tiny hint of light mixed with the shade.”

    I guess that is what the author intended to acheive. How else do you expect a man to react who kills his master and it changes his life for good. A man is kept in a prison of circumstances where he washes his master’s feet with hot water, even after having been told he has take on murder charges for his master’s wife’s drunken madness. He is bound to be happy he was able to murder and take the money. It is an aceivement. It is like of some of us think that we should break the shambles of this mundane life and become an author, or a social worker, etc. Those are luxuries of those who feel the freedom in their lives. So much of the have-nots around us have no idea what you mean by freedom. You can not even begin to understand the meaning when you have to think about the next day’s meal if you are thrown out of a job. Living on the edge. We should all be thankful that our drivers can not read this. This is, almost, like the Marxist call – “Poors of the world, unite. You have all the riches to loot!” Beware of this author. This was only his first. Without the best of executions, he has been able to create a potential dynamite. Am sure he is on a nuclear mission within this decade.

  13. Stewart said:

    This one slips again in my thinking after reading this interview with Adiga on the Booker site.

    What made you choose to write an epistolary novel? What makes it work as a vehicle for this particular story?

    This isn’t an epistolary novel: there are no real letters involved. The narrator is lying in his small room in Bangalore in the middle of the night, talking out aloud about the story of his life.

    Like the letters in John Berger’s From A To X, of course there’s no real letters involved: it’s a fiction. But if the author intended that the letters were not created by Balram in The White Tiger then that’s a failure to communicate. Either way, tangible letters or not in the fiction, it’s an epistolary novel.

  14. Stewart said:

    The White Tiger has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  15. Maya said:

    Do you really think that The White Tiger was better than A Case of Exploding Mangoes? Or that it compares to a Sea of Poppies? I found it easy enough to read the book but somehow cannot reconcile to it winning the Booker.

  16. Stewart said:

    Do you really think that The White Tiger was better than A Case of Exploding Mangoes?

    Well I finished it, which is more than I can say for A Case Of Exploding Mangoes. A hundred pages in and I gave up – wasn’t doing anything for me.

    Sea Of Poppies, on the other hand, I’ve yet to read.

  17. Stewart said:

    Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger has won the MAN Booker Prize 2008.

  18. Pingback: booklit

  19. Ajay said:

    Hmmm, I am from India and frankly English lit by Indian authors do not do much for me. There is a hell a lot of great writing being done in our vernacular languages. Translation is costing them their fame (:
    Ajay

  20. Subhash Chandra said:

    ‘White Tiger’ is classified as a novel; actually it is a living history of India’s underclass that consists of at least 70% of India’s population. If you understand that India’s is a feudal culture you have a chance of understanding this book. If you belong to the educated and powerful intelligentia or power ellite this book will seem to you a totally non-patriatic and lopsided criticism of India because it does not talk about India the glomourous- your India. But if you belonged to the underclass – and if you knew English and could read this book – it is your voice.

  21. Robinson Raju said:

    Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a far superior book than The White Tiger. It’s really hard to imagine how Ghosh lost out to Adiga for the Booker.

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21 responses to Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

  1. Excellent review, Stewart! Your details encourage reading and don’t give away too much. And I’m glad to see you also didn’t find the novel “half-baked.” Thanks for posting it today in place of your other review! I’ve been anxious to see what others thought of it.

  2. jem said:

    Great minds and all that Stewart. I picked this as my first Booker 08 read too! and finished it yesterday.

    And scanning back over my notes I see I felt similarities to the two Bookers from last year you mentioned!

    Sometimes I feel there are a lot of India based novels about, almost as many as Irish family sagas perhaps? this one seem quite light which was nice. It had an airy anecdotal touch which appealed to me. I don’t think its a winner, but a good place to start.

    I’m heading into my second now which so far is proving a bit denser…

  3. Pingback: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga « RedHead Ramble

  4. Mrinal Bose said:

    I have never heard of Aravind Adiga before. So. when I saw his name in Booker long list, I was a bit surprised. Having read your review, I feel it’s not like the run-of-the-mill novels churned out by Indian novelists. I would definitely read it. Thanks for your review.

  5. Stewart said:

    Mrinal Bose, I don’t think we can ever be surprised when a new name appears in the Booker longlist. I suppose that’s part of the good it does, potentially highlighting books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, like Animal’s People last year.

    I had seen The White Tiger a few times in Waterstone’s before the longlist was announced and decided, along with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Mohammed Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes to buy them in advance of the announcement as I just had a gut feeling about them, which was thankfully proved right.

  6. John Self said:

    I am in danger of doing a Netherland on this one, I think, and being a polarity responder to everyone else’s views. I’m not really impressed so far, not finding it especially amusing or touching, and the characters are indistinguishable. Compare this to last year’s Animal’s People – a story with some superficial similarities, as you mention Stewart – with its distinctive cast of voices and terrific wit, and I think Adiga starts to come out looking quite bad. Anyway I’m less than halfway through so all that might – might! – change.

  7. Stewart said:

    Through some bizarre logic, John, I’m glad you’re not enjoying it too much. Our tastes can be quite similar, so to see a bit of dissent in views is welcomed.

    Compare this to last year’s Animal’s People – a story with some superficial similarities, as you mention Stewart – with its distinctive cast of voices and terrific wit, and I think Adiga starts to come out looking quite bad.

    Although you can liken some bits to Animal’s People, I don’t think you can match them off against each other. To set Animal’s People as a benchmark for books by Indian authors, when it comes to your own reading, would affect reading them on their own merit. But then, if you just think it’s poor on its merits, then that’s fine.

  8. Animal’s People was I thought a tour de force, though I do wonder if Sinha will manage to write anything similar. I’m pleased to find people talking about it, even in the context of another novel, I had the impression hardly anyone had read it. I now have to go back and read Stewart’s review clearly.

    Oddly enough, I was looking forward to this one before the Booker announcement (the only one on the longlist I can say that of), it’s fascinating to see the range of reactions to it.

  9. Pingback: Bloggers take on the Booker longlist

  10. Gem said:

    Stewart, I think your 3 stars are overly generous. The characterization was so cliched as to be almost a joke and as a piece of commentary on modern day India I think it was weak. I appreciate the idea and like the attitude; to present a clearer, insider’s view look at the reality of Indian society – warts and all. However, if you’re writing a novel then it is important to back those sentiments up with a well written, evenly paced story that is populated by strong, individual characters. Adaga, in my opinion, failed on all counts.
    If I ever happen to come across Michael Portillo or Hardip Unfunny Singh Kholi, I will seriously consider going Chuck Norris on them for making me read this.

  11. Stewart said:

    Gem, I think that the general consensus is that The White Tiger is a shoddy little book. When I get to the end of this Booker circus, I guess I’m going to have to look at the book again and see where my reading went so wrong. I admit that, since I read it, it has faded to the point where I remember little of it. Perhaps coming to it after a lengthy reading block coloured my judgement, so happy was I just to get through a book so fast.

  12. BookCrazy said:

    “I got a little depressed by this view of humanity by the end of the novel. There was a kind of ugliness to this world which really jarred with me. I guess I was looking for a tiny hint of light mixed with the shade.”

    I guess that is what the author intended to acheive. How else do you expect a man to react who kills his master and it changes his life for good. A man is kept in a prison of circumstances where he washes his master’s feet with hot water, even after having been told he has take on murder charges for his master’s wife’s drunken madness. He is bound to be happy he was able to murder and take the money. It is an aceivement. It is like of some of us think that we should break the shambles of this mundane life and become an author, or a social worker, etc. Those are luxuries of those who feel the freedom in their lives. So much of the have-nots around us have no idea what you mean by freedom. You can not even begin to understand the meaning when you have to think about the next day’s meal if you are thrown out of a job. Living on the edge. We should all be thankful that our drivers can not read this. This is, almost, like the Marxist call – “Poors of the world, unite. You have all the riches to loot!” Beware of this author. This was only his first. Without the best of executions, he has been able to create a potential dynamite. Am sure he is on a nuclear mission within this decade.

  13. Stewart said:

    This one slips again in my thinking after reading this interview with Adiga on the Booker site.

    What made you choose to write an epistolary novel? What makes it work as a vehicle for this particular story?

    This isn’t an epistolary novel: there are no real letters involved. The narrator is lying in his small room in Bangalore in the middle of the night, talking out aloud about the story of his life.

    Like the letters in John Berger’s From A To X, of course there’s no real letters involved: it’s a fiction. But if the author intended that the letters were not created by Balram in The White Tiger then that’s a failure to communicate. Either way, tangible letters or not in the fiction, it’s an epistolary novel.

  14. Stewart said:

    The White Tiger has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  15. Maya said:

    Do you really think that The White Tiger was better than A Case of Exploding Mangoes? Or that it compares to a Sea of Poppies? I found it easy enough to read the book but somehow cannot reconcile to it winning the Booker.

  16. Stewart said:

    Do you really think that The White Tiger was better than A Case of Exploding Mangoes?

    Well I finished it, which is more than I can say for A Case Of Exploding Mangoes. A hundred pages in and I gave up – wasn’t doing anything for me.

    Sea Of Poppies, on the other hand, I’ve yet to read.

  17. Stewart said:

    Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger has won the MAN Booker Prize 2008.

  18. Pingback: booklit

  19. Ajay said:

    Hmmm, I am from India and frankly English lit by Indian authors do not do much for me. There is a hell a lot of great writing being done in our vernacular languages. Translation is costing them their fame (:
    Ajay

  20. Subhash Chandra said:

    ‘White Tiger’ is classified as a novel; actually it is a living history of India’s underclass that consists of at least 70% of India’s population. If you understand that India’s is a feudal culture you have a chance of understanding this book. If you belong to the educated and powerful intelligentia or power ellite this book will seem to you a totally non-patriatic and lopsided criticism of India because it does not talk about India the glomourous- your India. But if you belonged to the underclass – and if you knew English and could read this book – it is your voice.

  21. Robinson Raju said:

    Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a far superior book than The White Tiger. It’s really hard to imagine how Ghosh lost out to Adiga for the Booker.

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