The White Tiger – Book Review

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""Although Western readers have termed the White Tiger as ?shocking? and ?angry? it seems to be a rather mainstream portrayal of the Indian poor class reality. Aravind Adiga?s debut novel is a thick description of a servant who gradually succumbs to the thought of killing his master (and not necessarily the mean-spirited calculating protagonist that some have suggested), to escape his menial status as a servant and become an entrepreneur.

One perhaps benefits by understanding the context of this book in India where the rich, the middle class, and the poor interact in a much closer spatial proximity than our Western counterparts where the segregation of the poor and rich are spatially rigid (as in Urban Ghettos). Further, it provides a complex view of the servant class in itself, not as a conventionally viewed homogenous group, but operating within an apparent pecking order (for e.g. between servant number 1 and servant number 2) – a hierarchy based on power relationships to the master rather than loyalty toward each other.

Yet, the distance between the classes is apparent, where for example Balram Halwai – the protagonist faces an apparent mental block visiting the Mall, a place where the rich can enter at will,  bringing us to the grim reality of ?so close but yet so far.? Eventually, by ?educating himself?, Balram decodes  the mall entry through a simple gesture of imitating his master – and by extension imitating the west- where Balram enters the mall wearing a white ?T-shirt with a small English letter on it,? instead of his uniform or the colored dress that the servant class usually wears.

The portrayal of Balram Hawai is also exceptional for another reason– the grim coldness of emotions that is exhibited throughout the book. For example, when a little girl is killed under the wheels of Pinky Madame, the master?s wife, Balram dusts it off as another mundane incident. This un-sentimentality  is even carried at the end of the book when Balram is willingly aware of the fate of his family as retaliation to the murder of his Master Mr. Ashok. Balram?s cold actions can once again be attributed to his learning from the master, for example, when his master, the Stork, demands that his leg be massaged even when Balram is at the brink of going to jail. Yet, much like the poor class, Adiga?s treatment of the rich is neither homogeneous. Some are unmerciful, like the Mongoose, the master?s brother, while there are also the merciful masters, like Mr. Ashok. This moral relativism, allows Adiga to create empathy for the master through the servant?s eyes.   

Although meant to be a fun read, I?m not sure whether one really giggles through these pages as much as one smiles. The humor is rather circumstantial than in the play of words. While the story starts at a slower pace, the end it  is spell bounding, especially the penultimate chapter where the mental scenes run through Balram in a mixed montage of color, smell and sounds, almost memorable as Arundhati Roy?s rich portrayal of the final chapter in ?God of small things.? Adiga enthralls with character references to animals (wild boar, mongoose, stork, water buffalo, etc.) and also weaves a rich tapestry of  duality in the play of metaphors (Honda city v/s Maruthi Suzuki, darkness v/c light, city v/s village). These characters and metaphors recurring in several chapters construct a rich inter-textual narrative. Even the killing weapon is a symbolic gesture of giving the rich a taste of their own medicine.

If there is one possible weak point in the narrative it would be the connection of the story to the Chinese Premier although it is reasonable to believe Adiga?s attempt to herald the beginning of the ?Asian century.?  A letter written to an American president at the root of the outsourcing could perhaps have been more effective.

Adiga finishes the story not with flights of fantasy but the possibility of Balram still being caught and grounded back into the ?chicken coop? leaving the possibility of a sequel. For a 33 year old, this novel is a unique deconstruction of modern Indian underclass. Perhaps, leaving the country and returning to it provided the much needed framework to the author in making the invisible ?visible.?

While this book will be read in different ways, several will critique him for his disdain to Indian democracy and entrepreneurship and there will be several others who will be inspired by his honest narrative. In any case this story will affect the reader in profound ways and herald a new genre of writing for the ?other.?

Author: Newton DSouza- USA

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