The unique selling property of this debut novel that it bagged the Booker prize of 2008 is sadly not its saving grace. It happens to be the literary disappointment of the year. It elevates you to a realm of seemingly new insights of a rising India, journeying into the heart of darkness strikingly and drops you flat remorselessly, just like Balram Halwai, the backward protagonist who killed his boss to become a successful entrepreneur. When you finish reading of this stream-of-consciously written monologue in the form of e-mail addressed to the Chinese Premier, you wonder where literature is heading post IT revolution. If the White Tiger is the pick of the Booker committee, the jungle of literature is kingless and chaotic!
The story unfolds partly in a north Indian village and the rest in India’s bureaucratic capital, New Delhi where Balram the hero works as the loyal driver of a landlord. Balram, the storyteller has a clear-cut distinction between the old and new Delhi; the haves and the have-nots; the rustic rural region and the upbeat urban empire. The hero, taken out of school to work for the family, breaks the mould of the oppressed class to become a rich entrepreneur in India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. (Bangaluru, as the city is now known, was made famous in the book-world by Thomas Friedman through his best selling ‘The World is Flat’). Balram addresses himself as the White Tiger, a rare species standing out from the submissive animal class.
Later, the animal in him rises as the solution to the problem of poverty and oppression. The extreme solution is in line with the Naxalite philosophy by which the oppressor has to be annihilated by murder. The landlords, according to the hero, usually own even the village river, taking a cut of every catch of fish caught by the fishermen. The schoolteachers steal the money the government provides for students’ food. The politicians buy villagers’ fingerprints wholesale for the election. The village folk whose spine resemble a ‘knotted rope’ work endlessly and their caste determines what work they should do. The hero mocks the caste system by saying ‘in the old days there were 1000 castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat- or get eaten up’.
‘The White Tiger’ indeed entertains the readers with its portrayal many-sided paradoxes of modern India. It has characters like Mohammed the cook who works at the home of a prejudiced feudal lord who didn’t like Muslims. Just to get a job and feed his starving family, Mohammed acts as a Hindu! The novel has hundreds of village scenes from the water buffalo in a pond to men defecating et al. The style is blunt, often sprinkled with mordant wit and subtle sarcasm.
Aravind Adiga, a non-resident Indian for many years, formerly a Time Magazine correspondent, has ‘a beak’, to use his own phrase, into the matters of the rich-poor dichotomies. About the rich he says:
‘The cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open – a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road – and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed’ (page 134).
And about the poor class:
‘…Men with troughs of mud on their heads walked in circles around the machines; they did not look much bigger than mice. Even in the winter night the sweat had made their shirts stick to their glistening black bodies’ (page 158).
The negative side of this novel is that it doesn’t grow from entertainment to enlightenment. Seemingly sympathizing with the marginalized, the novel ends up nowhere leaving anarchistic and nihilistic debris in the reader’s mind. The novel is no more than the kitsch in the ‘Murder Weekly’, the hero’s driver friends are fond of reading. Its plot and style have killed it altogether because to talk about the wretched class the author had to succumb to a disintegrating frame trapping himself without having any redeeming thought to offer. The email form at the beginning of the novel loses on its way as the 320-page story drives past, forgetting it is still an email. The result of this blanket adoption of a gossip formula is that the White Tiger is attacking its Frankenstein creator.
It would be interesting to compare the novel with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ since both speak of rags to rich Indian stories. While Slumdog escorts you in a possible dream of you-can, the Tiger eats you belching you have no escape from poverty. It would also be worth noting why Oscars, Bookers and Miss World titles are flowing to India. More than the merit side, one is tempted to think that the prize market has its eye on the consumerist India. Writing, just like filmmaking, is an industry, after all. The saleable commodity of India in the literary world is ‘her’ poverty.
Thus the ‘White Tiger’ comes as a package: a humanitarian tale set in rural India mocking everything about her; from parliamentary democratic system to 36,000,004 gods. It’s an all-win formula! Alas! The formula doesn’t hold! The White Tiger becomes just like one of its characters, Mr Ashok who is a first-gear type: likes to start things but nothing holds his attention for long.
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