& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The White Tiger

There's a moment in Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger that is at once hilarious and poignant. It’s when the Great Socialist – the character is clearly based on Lalu Prasad Yadav, though it is never specified -- visits the high caste landlord’s ancestral home and asks the landlord’s son to hold the spittoon in which he wants to spit. 

When he senses some reluctance and hesitancy, the Lalu character cajoles the landlord’s son, who has to give in to the demand; the Great Socialist then proceeds to spit into the spittoon with a great flourish.

Balram, the low caste protagonist of the novel, is thrilled that his masters are being treated as badly by the Great Socialist, as they routinely (ill)treat him. He explains to the Chinese Primer Wen Jiabao that this was the reason the people of “Darkness” continue to vote the Great Socialist to power. 

The novel's in the form of seven letters that Balram writes to Jiabao over seven days when the latter evinces an interest in visiting India’s Silicon Valley to find out what is it that makes
Bangalore tick. 

Balram (known as Ashok Sharma in his new avatar as an entrepreneur) decides to take it upon himself to make Jiabao understand the true essence of Indian entrepreneurship.

It's seldom that I get to read a novel almost immediately after it wins an award. But thanks to my well-wisher, Myrna Freedman, I just finished reading Arvind Adiga’s debut novel that won the 2008 Man Booker prize.

Unquestionably, it's an impressive novel -- this story of Balram’s rise to infamy and fortune. The son of a rickshaw-puller 
halwai, who becomes a driver to the landlord’s family and then with the landlord’s son emigrates out of “Darkness” to "Light". 

In the process, the innocent driver turns into a murderer and then an entrepreneur.

Adiga tells an ordinary story in an extraordinary manner. He is sardonic, pithy and epigrammatic. Balram’s story is not at all unique, the manner in which it’s told is completely different. Adiga’s originality shines and illuminates the dark recesses of the Indian society that remain hidden because they are inconvenient.

His categorization of all the coastal areas of India that are surrounded by the sea as the area of “Light” and the area through which India’s holiest (and filthiest) river -- 
Ganga runs its course as the area of “Darkness” is serendipitous and marvellously inventive.

More than any other book in recent times 
The White Tiger provides a much-needed, often-missed perspective to the global rise of India as an economic powerhouse. 

It succeeds where non-fiction treatises don’t, even when they are pretty much saying the same thing that Adiga’s book says: That there are 750 million Balrams in India who get crushed by grinding poverty every day.

India’s rise to economic superstardom should not cloud the world’s vision about the grossly unjust society that India is. 

Moreover, fast-paced economic growth is accentuating the divide between the Mr. Ashoks and the Balrams of India. For the likes of Balram murdering their masters seems the only way to survive and grow. 

Why this doesn’t happen in India, Adiga explains, is because obeying orders and adhering to hierarchy are attributes hot-wired into the Indian mind.

Just about the only thing that is unnecessary is the anti-Muslim sentiment that runs through the book, and though Adiga tries to camouflage it with humour, it still is out of place and jarring.

Finally, I can think of only 
Amir Khusro who can belong to the company of Rumi, Iqbal and Mirza Ghalib.


  1. Dear Mayank;
    A wonderfully informative and well written review. I agree with your last remark about the "jarring" and out of place, anti-muslim sentiment in the book.

    Best regards;
    Waheed Rabbani

  2. Came across your review while searching who the "Great Socialist" is. Thanks for the heads up.

    Balram's misogyny was also shocking to me. But like his Islamophobia, do you think Adiga is simply portraying common sentiment rather than endorsing such views?