The White Tiger

Poonam Srivastava

Hardcover: 288 pages Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (April 22, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1416562591

ISBN-13: 978-1416562597 Murder in India. It’s about time.

Review by Poonam Srivastava The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga is as rare amongst novels set in India as its namesake is in the world of animals. Winner of the Booker Mann Award, Adiga’s first novel takes the format of seven letters written by the main character, Balram Halvai to Wen Jibaou, visiting Chinese premier. These seven chapters, seven late night confessions, illuminate the journey of a desperate village boy from his birth into servitude to manhood in the midst of big city modernity and Bangalore. The   conversational voice of the main character spins the tale quickly and with much emotion but little sentimentality.

I leaned out from the edge of the fort in the direction of my village—and then I did something too disgusting to describe to you.

Well actually I spat. Again and again. And then, whistling and humming, I went back down the hill.

Eight months later, I slit Mr. Ashok’s throat.

What separates White Tiger is a sparseness of writing. The tale is poignant and can be read on many levels but one is not necessarily confined to a SubAltern Studies class merely by picking up the book. Still Adiga certainly does tackle modern India’s distinct schizophrenia, a country split in two: the Darkness and the Light. The Darkness is where our hero hails from and where he was fated to remain. An uncanny awareness of his place in the world allows him to exceed his peers, tea servers to become a driver, and a shocking capacity to act alone, to be a maverick, leads him to escape the Darkness and the consequences of his crime completely.

The story is told from the perspective of our killer/entrepreneur and in his own words. Many Indian reviewers have taken issue with the words in his mouth. Which Indian half-baked driver would know to say that assess are being kissed, they want to know. Which Indian ex-village boy would know to conjecture that the Light of modern India shines mainly on the coasts and it’s the rivers that demark the Darkness?

My problem with the book is that though many characters are evoked and are not developed. In my experience to live in India as a lone wolf is something near impossible. The radical Maoist group known as the Naxalite is evoked but not developed. I can believe that our hero has the luxury of freedom due to his job changes, which distance him from family and direct supervision. It’s his very isolation that empowers him to go where no Indian from the Dark or the Light has gone before. At least not in literature. However there seems to need be more force to push him to where he eventually does go, to the murder of his boss and to placing his entire family’s necks on the chopping block. I wanted to know more of this unique creature’s inner life. Yes he suffered and yes he’s sensitive (finding inspiration in architect and poetry), but what really is his trigger?

Our hero, unbelievable perhaps, is definitely desirable. If a Balram Halvai does not exist, we sure want him to. His closeness with his parents, his shock at his father’s ugly death and his likeness to his “crazy” mother, dead before the book begins, does give us some sense of his uniqueness and therefore the possibility of his trajectory. Also when faced with the social forces of conformity that are the Indian family and the class / caste system (referred to as the rooster coop) it takes a fiercely independent personality to shake off the determined role and be their own person. Perhaps it takes a certain psychosis to deal with a psychotic country.

Adiga has written a book of hope. He has fleshed out the country’s problems without much sorrowful lament.  In a world market where India and China are hailed as the next economic giants he exposes truths that have been buried or made exotic too long. Adiga’s book is a book that appeals to the hearts of people of Indian origin everywhere who are appalled at the treatment of some in India by others. It is also a book that finally shows how trapped even the rich are by their family pressures. Though the Haves in India do have it all, including the Have Nots, they too must obey. This book puts them on notice. The White Tiger is a step in the right direction. The next step would be a book by a writer who is a Balram Halvai, or his brother or sister, in her own voice. Until then, Adiga speaks with humor and heartfelt admiration for the masses that continue their mainly silent struggle in the veins and muscles and sewer pipes of the economic giant that is India.

The White Tiger is a fun read. The comic nature of the play between the influence of the west, and economic participation in the world of global markets, and the stranglehold of ancient privilidge dominates. At one point Balram’s employers bond over the fun they have at Balram’s pronunciation of the word pizza. Their fun ends when they themselves find they are not in agreement.  At another point Balram sneaks into the malls that are gaurded against his type simply by wearing full shoes and a T-shirt with very little writing. Then there is the scene behind the mall where four men are defecating in an open sewer and Balram squats next to them to vent about his boss/master’s demands that he take the rap for a homicide committed by his mistress. This scatological scene, with four men laughing deliriously in the solidarity of the oppressed, takes place directly behind one of those monuments to modernity of glass and steel and climate control.

You don’t have to know a lot about India to enjoy this book. However if you do, then you might pick up on several symbolisms. For one, the names of our hero: Balram is given that name by a school teacher. In myth, Balram is the Serpant of Shiva in his incarnation as Krisna’s brother. Krisna was the defender of the downtrodden. Also, he goes on to be christened White Tiger, an endangered and fierce predator.  Then when our hero has killed his enslaver and become his own man he takes the name Ashok Sharma. Sharma is a Brahmin name. That is the highest caste. Ashok is the name of the peace-loving emperor who embraced the philosophies of Bhudda. Bihar is one of the poorest states with one of the lowest literacy rates.

It interests me as a U.S. born person of Indian descent, who visits India on a regular basis, that the subject of servants finally be addressed in literature from this perspective. The Indian elite is moaning that this book is not a fair representation, that it glorifies the increasing trend of violent crimes perpetrated by servants on their bosses. Never does the Indian elite acknowledge, however, that in the twenty first century Indian servants are the closest beings to slaves on a institutional level on our endangered planet. When I visited a family in Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb that becomes the home of White Tiger’s main characters, I was told that the poor are weighing down progress. They are uneducable. How would you take someone from prehistory to modernity was the argument.

As this book suggests, if you don’t, they just might take matters into their own hands.

I recommend this book to everyone.