When a novel has been reviewed by the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, USA Today, and 5,239 people on Goodreads, a review of it on this blog is beside the point, so I have no intention of providing one.
However, since one of my latest goals in life is to promote contemporary Indian writing, since I’ve just spent 3 ½ weeks leading 15 students to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur as part of a course on the English Language and Literature in India, and since I finished this page-turner of a novel while waiting in the Delhi Airport for my flight home, I just can't keep myself from writing about Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.
When Adiga’s debut novel was first published, it caused an uproar in his native country, where many decried its bleak depiction of Indian society. The book received decidely mixed reviews internationally: It has been called “monotonous,” “simplistic,” “rough,” “artificial,” and “inconsistent.” But I agree with the other reviewers--the ones who called it “startling,” “provocative,” “strong,” “distinctive” and, “An exhilarating, side-splitting account of India today.” Apparently, the directors of Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize agreed: The award went to The White Tiger in 2008.
The White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai, a boy born into what he calls the Darkness--the vast ocean of poverty and hopelessness that is India’s heartland--and his chilling climb to wealth, accomplished through murder and bribery. (No spoiler here: He admits to the crimes within the first few pages). It is a novel about the flip side of India’s remarkable economic growth and about the vast chasm that separates the haves from the often cowed and desperate people who serve them. It is about filth, despair, corruption, and cruelty. And it is positively riveting.
I said I wouldn’t write a review here, and I won’t--not in the critical-analysis-and-discussion meaning of the word. What I will do is list what I liked about The White Tiger.
1. It is dark comedy at its best. Balram narrates his story of lying, cheating, scheming, and finally murdering his way to success with a sharp, observant wit. I love black comedy, and Adiga does it perfectly.
2. It is laced with moral complexity. Adiga creates a character who is ruthless, self-serving, immoral, and dishonest and yet somehow manages to be likeable and understandable. Balram does monstrous things, but he isn’t a monster. He’s a man driven to take desperate steps. You aren’t happy when he kills, but a part of you gets it.
3. It cuts through Western airy-fairy notions about India. Just before I left for my third year-long stay in India back in the 80’s, a friend of mine confessed that she was deeply envious of my opportunity to spend time in "a place completely devoid of materialism." My parents, on the other hand, were terrified I would get tromped on my an elephant or bitten by one of the many cobras seen on a daily basis in the streets of Bombay. Half my friends were intoxicated with dreams of shimmering saris and glittering bangles; the other half with images of sainted gurus and ashrams.There are 1,000 misconceptions about India out there. But Adiga shreds all of them.
4. It cuts through India’s own views of itself. The sacred Ganges river. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism. The strength of the family system. Hindu notions of piety. It is all grist for Adiga’s mill, and he spares no one.
The long and short of it is this: The White Tiger is gritty, brutal, funny, and shocking. It is an uncompromising look at the dark side of a country I love.
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Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...