THE WHITE TIGER
By Aravind Adiga
Copyright 2008 By Aravind Adiga.
Book Review by Ken Puddicombe
Two observations quickly spring to the mind of the reader as he starts and continues his journey through the 276 page novel.
First: the book is written in First Person—certainly not unusual for a novel, but the survivability of the narrator is obvious, based on this.
Second: And this becomes even more startling as one soon realizes that the hero of the piece, Balram eventually evolves into an anti-hero, and like most literary anti-heroes, his life has taken a wrong turn along the way, but he still survives to fight another day.
The White Tiger is described as “the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation”—early in the book, and our protagonist Balram Halwai is likened to that animal by the school inspector who recognizes the boy’s intelligence and talent, something Balram himself comes to believe and uses to his advantage in his determination to get to the top, regardless.
Aravind Adiga uses the device, not unknown, of letters written by Balram to Chinese Trade Delegation leader, Wen Jiabao who is visiting Bangalore in the industrial heartland of India, and the author uses this to tell the story of our hero’s rise to fame and fortune, from his own perspective, and the devious means he has used to arrive there. The letters are all written with frank disclosures, and no apology for his arrival in the big time and the means he’s used. The irony here, though, is Balram’s use of the rooster coop to refer to India’s masses, when China’s population is even greater than India. One country still in the grip of a quasi-feudal arrangement and the other held in the throes of a communist system.
The author’s use of symbolism is extensive, in addition to his reference to the White Tiger. Balram’s village of Laxmangarh is referred to as The Darkness. Balram’s boss is Ashok, recently arrived from America with his wife Pinky Madam (two of the characters not evidently worth representing by an animal). Ashok’s father is The Stork (good luck and prosperity), his brother The Mongoose (representing riches). The Rooster and its coop are India’s masses trying to break out from their life of servitude. The head of the ruling party is the Great Socialist (used with all the sarcasm and irony that can be mustered about politics in India). Balram is the mouse nibbling on discarded potatoes the Mongoose doesn’t want.
Adiga uses actual locations in India to take the reader on Balram’s wild ride as a chauffeur to the wealthy family. While Delhi is where most of the action is centered, reference is often made to other places. Laxmangarh, where Balram comes from is an actual town in the Sikar district in the state of Rajasthan and the ruins of the old fort by the same name is featured prominently in the book. Gurgaon, known as a financial and technology hub, is a suburb just south-west of Delhi, and is the apartment building where Balram’s boss lives.
But, faced with his many challenges in his rise to the top, our hero Balram slowly descends into a state of paranoia. In Old Delhi a buffalo tells him about the untimely death of his relatives. Balram has imaginary conversations with people who can predict his maniacal intentions, as he plots his way out of his upcoming sacking, which is a reality he’s accepted. And he’s constantly hearing voices and looking over his shoulder.
The book delves deeply into the steamy, spicy atmosphere of Delhi, both the new and the Old, and is filled with irony, also, like a book seller who is illiterate but knows the title of every book he sells.
In the end though, there is no symbolism for Balram’s crime of murder—the author/Balram comes right out early in the book and declares what he’s done.
The White Tiger is a cynical, often-times, brutal and unapologetic portrayal of the underbelly of India, exposing all its warts and failings and shortcomings. Behind it all is the Caste system with its inequities and injustice that surface all the time. There is no redemption for any of the principal characters in this well-written novel that was the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize.