Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. I'm a believer in the readability of Man Bookers, so that was enough for me. It is extremely readable although not exactly pleasant to read.

Centered around the issue of class conflict in India, it's about a young man named Balram Halwai (his last name implies that he should be a sweet maker) who is the son of a rickshaw driver. He becomes a driver for a wealthy person and eventually an entrepreneur. Balram is partly able to break the expectations of class and caste by the changing social environment in India and also partly because he kills his boss. I'm not, by the way, ruining it for you - that is all disclosed in the first chapter.

Balram spends his day driving his boss to newly erected malls and hotels that he's not allowed to enter. He and his fellow drives are caught in a "chicken coop" where:
A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent - as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way - to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

Another major theme of the book is corruption in India. In the paperback copy of the book, there's a "Conversation" with the writer - he is asked "Your novel depicts an India that we don't often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Why does a Western audience need this alternative portrayal?" Adiga's answer is that it's not an "alternative" view at all, for him it's a common view of India (re: the corruption). The White Tiger is an interesting departure from some of the popular (and beautiful) books about India that have been mainstream in the US recently - like Divakaruni or Lahiri's books or Kiran Desai's stunning The Inheritance of Loss. Me? I love reading books about India and there are just so many terrific contemporary Indian writers! The reason I found this book unpleasant was merely because the main character is, well, a murderer and has this really immoral behavior justification, and it's largely heart-breaking (although also rather humorous in sections.) Adiga will undoubtedly have more for us to read soon.

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