Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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White Tiger by novelist Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, is a short epistolary novel from acclaimed Indian author Aravind Adiga. The brisk tale opens up as a series of letters written across seven late nights in Bangalore, India, where the novel’s narrator, Balram, sets down the story of how he rose from his humble beginnings in a poverty-stricken village to become the owner of his own taxi business in the heart of India, a subcontinental rarity on par with the birth of a white tiger which occurs only once a generation.

The novel details his path from indentured servant to successful entrepreneur, giving the reader a tour of both Indias, old and new, through the eyes of one of India’s enterprising poor. The central conflict of the novel is the collision of India’s ancient caste system with its oncoming status as a modern economic superpower. Adiga has written a satire of India as a fledgling democracy, filling his book with wealthy hypocrites and corrupt politicians. There are numerous clever, entertaining passages where Balram uses animal metaphors, consistent with the rural farming environment of his third-world birthplace, to describe India and its pragmatic entrepreneurs. The landlords of his small village are the selfish long-legged Stork and the gluttonous sharp-tusked Boar. The secret to the centuries-old success of India’s caste system, even within a rising modern democracy, is “The Roost,” an internal system of blackmail which threatens the entire family of anyone who attempts to climb his or her way up the social and economic ladder.

“Why does the Rooster coop work? The pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice…the Indian family is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.”

At times, descriptions of the settings of the novel alone carry the book along, as Adiga takes us across India from the diseased village of Laxmangarh, Balram’s birthplace, to the dichotomized sister cities of Old and New Delhi. For Western readers, the novel works simply and effectively through this notion of exploration, as we are allowed a glimpse of India through the eyes of an enterprising but poverty-stricken Indian boy. India should rightly be considered the chief character of the novel, and its growing pains are broken down into simple juxtapositions of images through Balram’s narrative.

The novel’s main problem, though, is that while India is displayed evenly throughout the book, India’s people are not given much room to breathe. Adiga wants to show us the pitiful struggle of India’s lower class as they face this cultural transformation, and some of the more interesting passages allow us to listen in on Balram’s difficult attempts to define the changing landscape. However, while guiding us through new and old India, Balram never really offers up any complex human drama within himself. Very rarely does Balram allow us inside his mind, opting instead to paint the action of the novel from an external perspective with simplistic prose laced with ironic or sarcastic humor. When it comes to Balram’s first sexual experience, at the climax of the passage we get, “My first time!”

Adiga has said that he wanted to write about India’s lower class “without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually.” (NYTimes) What portrait do we, the readers, get without such sentimentality? Balram is clever and observant of India’s daily pulse, but we never see much more of him than the convenient flashes of ingenuity he uses to move the plot forward. Though the story is told from a first-person perspective, Balram rarely writes about his own thoughts behind the hardships we see him struggle through and around, instead describing the action from a distance. It is possible to avoid sentimentality and yet still portray compelling, touching humanity. This is particularly disappointing at the climax of the story. What should be a powerful moment where Balram chooses to transgress his caste by murdering his employer, almost surely sacrificing his entire family still suffering in Laxmangarh, comes along with the simple, removed prose that guides most of the novel with a speed that doesn’t allow us to feel the full effect of the crucial act.

“I rammed the bottle down. The glass ate his bone. I rammed it three times into the crown of his skull, smashing through to his brains. It’s a good, strong bottle – Johnny Walker Black – well worth its resale value.”

We can see the action clearly, but what is the feeling here? Seemingly, Adiga refuses to allow us to sentimentalize Balram as he commits murder to climb up the social ladder, instead targeting the irony of using an empty, expensive bottle of liquor to kill his wealthy employer, but the lack of a feeling of true transgression and transformation in our main character in this moment must be considered problematic. No doubt, this sort of unaffected prose enhances the sarcastic humor of the story through its simplicity multiple times throughout the book, like when Balram tells us how he avoided complacency in his first job as a tea servant:

“I did my job with near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity – and so the tea shop was a profoundly enriching experience.”

But when we need to feel the weight of the story, the style doesn’t quite deliver.

The narrative moves quickly most of the time, the pacing slowing down only a couple of times throughout its 300 pages. The frame of Balram writing the novel as a series of letters to a Chinese politician seems to drop off after the introduction to Balram in the first chapter, and because its purpose never feels fully realized, the frame itself feels weightless when it returns at the end of the book. Altogether, the book is successful as a polemic critique of the optimistic rhetoric that comes out of India through its new rich and powerful politicians and businessmen, but it is less successful as the story of one of India’s own struggling through that complex landscape itself.

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