Wednesday 17 December 2008

Review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's first novel (2008, Atlantic Books, UK) has just won the Booker-Man Prize. The recent giant embezzlement of funds on Wall Street is rumoured to have affected the Man part of the Booker-Man finances - will there be a Booker-Man Prize next year?

I hope so: they choose wonderful books.

This one while dealing with dark matters is original and humourous. The story begins in a part of India described as The Darkness. Balram Halwai grows up in that darkness and is nicknamed White Tiger, for achieving the impossible - learning to read and write at the village school. His father pulls a rickshaw. His dying wish - he dies too young, of TB - is that at least one of his sons should learn to read and write, and live like a man - not like him, who has been trapped into spending his life "like a donkey". The challenge is great: assuming that a boy is clever enough to learn, he might be plucked out from school at any time by his elders, to be condemned to a life-time of menial labour, so that his family may fund the weddings of its many daughters; he also has to overcome laziness and venality of the teacher, who prefers chewing paan and sleeping the day away to teaching, and steals the funds allocated to the school.

We follow the White Tiger and his efforts to overcome the terrible disadvantages of low birth and ignorance. We witness his gradual initiation into the world, his growing understanding of human nature, his terrible loneliness, the choices he makes in what appears to be an amoral landscape. The only sources of strength the author grants him are his sharp mind and the practice of yoga, (from a daily TV programme).

We become acquainted with the other India, the one we Westerners never really know about- the India of destitution. Adiga describes how the poor are taught servitude, its violent enforcement by the rich, how they remaining stuck in it like chicken stuffed tightly and cruelly in a coop. It is similar to 19th century Europe, when people were supposed to "know their place" and stay in it, and the life-expectancy in London's slums was just 19 years.

What makes this book so endearing is the format - letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is about to visit India to learn more about the entrepreneurs who have master-minded a booming economy. The tone is respectful without being sycophantic - for once, Balram seems to be confident that he is communicating with someone who will understand. The first letter is written on The First Night, the second on The Second Night, the third on The Fourth Morning - it makes you laugh. The criticism of India is sharp and funny too: on the second page, he explains to the Premier: "Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them."

Just over 300 pages, nice airy type-setting on creamy paper, and not a word too many.

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