The White Tiger Shines Light on India's Darkness
Adiga's India Different From Traditional Portrayal
My new found literary renaissance started as I was surfing CNN and came across an article on a novel short listed to Britain's Man Booker Award. My own history of book reading had always been to read the classics: Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dumas. This led me toward more modern writers that included Indianapolis' own Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski, but truly modern novels, written within the last decade had always slipped through the cracks. What this article did in leading me to the Booker Award was open my eyes to a huge selection of great literature that I have been chugging through over the last few months. I started with Patrick DeWitt's "The Sisters Brothers" and followed that up by reading Esi Edugyan's "Half-Blood Blues". Now, I may continue to write reviews that include these works and enjoyed them so much that I have purchased both author's additional works. This article however, refers to Aravind Adiga's hilarious, dark tale of servant life in India, "The White Tiger".
Granted my limited knowledge of India branched from "Slum Dog Millionaire", my IT Help Desk go-to-guy Kiran and I'm sad to say curiosity for curry, but this novel shattered all my predisposed notions toward the country. This work is more corrupt wasteland than portrayed Bollywood. Images of abandoned hospitals where India's poor come to die with no medical attention and the river Ganges, polluted with industrial waste and decomposing bodies. The author calls what we all have seen of India as the Light, but really shows the true Darkness. Corrupt politicians exploit their naive citizens into lives of servitude, appreciative of the chance to live as slaves. I will admit that not knowing the true India completely blindsided me as a dug deep into this book. At times it felt completely fictional and forced me to google how true the situations were.
The whole time, through all the Darkness, the only thing keeping this book from feeling like all is lost is the subtle humor of the anti-hero, Balram Halwai. His simple innocence through his early years, coupled with his blatant condemnation for all things India at the time he writes the book keeps the reader engaged as to how this young man became this adult and how he got there. His confession of murdering his master within the first few pages only builds that tension higher.
Balram Halwai: Our Innocent Murderer
In this age where no protagonist is what was once portrayed as the morally right hero who makes all the right moves, the anti-hero has gained traction in today's society. In all forms of media, the troubled hero has popped up and taken the place of its predecessor. It makes sense, nobody on the planet is all around good or completely evil, there are gray areas. With that said, sympathizing with a murderer is a bit harder than most.
From the onset of the novel we do sympathize with Balram, who named himself because he parents were too busy to care what his name would be. He believes the water buffalo his family owns is higher socially within his family hierarchy than himself and is tormented by his peers at school for his fear of lizards. We see that Balram is smart from the start but he is at a disadvantage from birth, he will never have a chance to be anything in this world. This all leads to a sense of pity for the main character of The White Tiger, until the bomb drops and he explains how he murdered the man he worked for. The true fun of this book is the waiting as situation after situation happens that had me yelling for Balram to kill his boss now, only to see him put his own feelings aside to help his employer get farther in life.
Coupled with the tension resulting from knowing what Balram will do eventually is the hilarity of his growing sense of wanting to be something more than a servant for the rest of his life. Spending his hard earned wages to buy alcohol like his masters or secretly buying a clean white shirt and attempting to sneak into a mall to feel like more than what he is were moments of pure joy. The reader truly wants this man to succeed and find his way out of servitude and that leads to a dulling of the sense of horror surrounding his future crime.
The book is littered with great characters that fill the pages with just as much humor as Balram. The other servants he meets along the way only serve to push him lower than he already is. Balram's elation at seeing his fellow servants fail made me laugh, in one instance his roommate is fired and Balram feels he should go over and console him but decides to roll over in bed and fart in the man's general direction instead.
The corrupt officials that are his eventual masters are so despicable that the act of murder doesn't seem as bad as actually continuing to live in his current state. Where the book really cemented it all together is seeing how once Balram becomes his own entrepreneur he treats the people who work for him as opposed to his own masters treatment. Even though the man commits a horrible act he is a better person that the people he worked for.
Overall, The White Tiger, in my opinion, was a great novel. It opened my eyes to Aravind's Darkness and showed me this world through a character both flawed and redeemable. The book never slowed, building pace as it went along and when the act finally occurs it feels like the right time. Adiga's first work and 2008 winner of the Man Booker Award is a great read for anyone looking to dive into a world they know not much about.
Up next, David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas". Another Booker Award finalist that I stumbled across and soon to be film. Check back in for more reviews in the weeks to come. Read on, people!