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Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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In his Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has achieved a striking success addressing themes on which other illustrious writers have fallen short in recent years. Kiran Desai, Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie have all achieved considerable success around themes rooted in the ramshackle, disorganised, free-for-all, cost-cutter basement of globalisation. Characters in their novels might live in New York or London, but their thoughts continue to live in rural south Asia. They might, through their labour, service the desires of the First World rich, but their personal priorities might remain rooted in the concerns of Third World poor.

Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown is an overtly political book, whereas Monica Ali’s is largely domestic and Kiran Desai’s is familiar, but they do all share an overt interest in characters who have left their humble, Third World origins for a First World status that is less than desirable, though their motives might be diverse.

In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga tries a different tack, and achieves much. The scenario is unlikely, deliberately comic. The book presents a narrative – apparently constructed in just seven evenings at a personal computer – by one Belram, a man with origins in a poor area of an Indian countryside he calls Darkness. Essentially, there are seven blogs or emails addressed to Wen Jiabao via the Premier’s Office, Beijing, China in which the first person narrator tells his story. Belram, presumably, believes that the Chinese people, via their leader, need advice on how to succeed in the globalised 21st century. Since Belram has indeed succeeded, he wants to share his experience as potential assistance to the most populous nation on earth.

Belram’s rise can be listed without jeopardising the potential reader’s interest or involvement with the book. He was of utterly poor rural origin, but luckily – and also perhaps rather deviously – secured a job as a driver for the middle-class, urban Mr Ashok. By the end of the tale Belram has his own business in Bangalore, a place as far from his own origins as any international destination. He now owns a taxi fleet that services the anti-social working hours of the growing city’s relocated call centres, whose First World cost-cutter owners provide the financial umbrella-shade in which budding entrepreneurs like Belram may shelter and prosper. Thus he eases himself a rung or two up the social and economic ladder. If only the elevation might have happened without treading on others…

The White Tiger is a delightful and engaging book. The narrator’s humour and world-outlook are both entertaining and stimulating. The book’s improbable structure presents no problem whatsoever once Belram’s engaging style is established. His story is simple, devious, credible and incredible in one, and perhaps as close to a truth as one might ever approach. Literature is full of schemers and opportunists. Anti-heroes, however, rarely convince. Belram, on the other hand, almost demands we share his success via emulation, and I encourage all readers to enter his world on his terms.

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About philipspires

  • LEIN

    For a novel that is supposed to be a portrait of the ‘real’ India, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes across as curiously inauthentic. Is it a novel from one more outsider, presenting cynical anthropologies to an audience that is not Indian? The “White Tiger” is a well written page- turner, yet its main characteristic is not realism or authenticity for that matter, but a simplification. The book simplifies the caste system; religions, and last but not least the political system. In spite the well built narrative rendition, (in fluent English), and to some extent because of it, the novel that had set to explain India, explains India away.
    Anglo- American traditional criticism, maintains Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, “fails to understand the complicated narratives of the postcolonial writers.” (142) Adiga’s novel, however, was not met with that incomprehension; on the contrary, it had won the Booker award for Books written in English. Well organized and rational narrative rendition used in English novels, contests Bahabha, fails to account for a feeling of repression, lost home and displacement prevalent in the post- colonial texts such as of Nadine Gordimer’s, My Sons Story, and Tony Morrison’s Beloved. The creation of a unique aesthetico – political style, argues Bahabha, unravels the language of the master in narrative structure and genre or political regime. So, as we wonder about Adiga’s style, we should ask ourselves: why should an Indian author, chose to emulate “his master’s” voice- by the witty style and genre of Anglo- American novel. A choice, that is certainly, results in success, but nevertheless a simulacrum.
    The analogy between the voyages of Adiga, the author, from Indian obscurity to western fame as well as of his Antagonist, from poor- man to reach- man, is, I would say, identical. Both are narcissistically captured by the image of the west: Adiga by his English literary Masters; Balram by his Indian master. In “How English literature shaped me” Adiga writes: ” Mangalore’s libraries, though cut off from the world, did supply me a set of very fine writers, whose books amplified the central message: that the world was a place full of light, and if spoken to in a rational language, would respond in one”. “Although the English had left India in 1947 and politically did not want anything to do with us”, continues Adiga, “they had left The English language as a locus of rationality and literacy”.” Till this day, in India, English language serves as the language of an educated middle – class “.”There are some things that you simply cannot say in Hindu”, Adiga concludes. But Adiga does not even try to give the reader a sample of this hybrid language, in the vein of the vernacular used by Mark Twain’s uneducated Huckleberry Finn; or confused modes of expression used by Richard Wright in the representation of his characters effaced world and reality. While admitting to the fact that he does not know English and his Hindu is mostly oral, his ‘half- baked’ Antagonist, nevertheless exhibits quiet educated lexis .If Adiga had been, as he testifies, influenced by the Afro – American writers, then he probably did not recognize their discontent with writing in English –in the language of the master. For he had a mother- tongue and they had not. Their mother tongue was lost in generations of effacement and slavery; his mother tongue- displaced by choice. If Adiga had in fact set out to write about India’s la miserables, as was claimed by the critics, then shouldn’t he have written it in Hindu? And what about the Genre- the Novel in which the narrative is rendered?
    The novel arose as a Western- European form of literature, (in attendance with the development of modern European notions of realism); nevertheless the increase in globalized interactions between cultures has introduced the novel as a genre into many non-Western cultures. These interactions include the presence of Europeans in Africa, Asia and the Americas due to colonial practices or (more recently) to globalized business practices, in which Westerners import and sell Western literature, often introducing it to their neighbors; the colonial practice of allowing residents from colonized areas to attend university in the mainland, where they are introduced to European literary forms; and the increased trade in the entertainment industry, as Western movies and music with literary themes are presented outside Europe..
    As a result, many non-Western cultures have had to grapple with the relationship of the genre to its Western origins. In many cultures, social realism of the kind practiced in Europe was a new approach to storytelling, and writers had to weigh the question of whether a European form of literature was appropriate for their own cultures. For instance, a writer interested in critiquing a colonial government might wonder whether a colonial literary form was appropriate; moreover, who would be the audience for the new form – the indigenous population that was unfamiliar with the genre, or the colonial population that knew the genre but that might resist the critique.
    Oftentimes, the introduction of the novel and of Western realism provided the inspiration for new literary movements in other cultures. But these movements did not necessarily adopt the novel in a rigidly imitative fashion. Instead, novelists worked to make the novel form more appropriate for their own cultures, melding it with their own literary traditions. For instance, in the United States in recent decades, the growth of novels by ethnic minority authors has been spurred in large part by the success of key works that showed how the form could be accommodated to different cultures: For instance, many black authors incorporated their own cultural vernacular into the genre; many native American authors stressed the role of oral storytelling; Latinos incorporated both oral forms and their spiritual traditions; Asian Americans drew on long-established Asian genres, plots and characters. These same developments have been seen around the world and have been an important part of the literary history of the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southern and Eastern Asia. However, Adiga’s White Tiger has none of these characteristics. On the contrary, Adiga had picked the most un-dialogical Genre to converse with the people of India: not only it is a novel, a predominantly Bourgeois- European genre, it is also written in English.
    What about all those people in India that cannot read English as the Antagonist himself testifies? What does it signify when a novel, of subversive message, is written in a language of the master for the master and awarded by him? May it also rest on his bookshelf and continue to be occasionally dusted by the servants as a sheer thing. For the multitudes of peasants, living in the “darkness”, in servitude and in abuse, this book constitutes just a piece of paper. Reasoning along the lines of the Antagonist’s logic one can burn it; sit on it; or, excuse my English, wipe something with it. However, one cannot, actually, consume its important message otherwise, therefore change will not happen.
    The Novel of the 19th and twentieth century ,argues Michael Backtin, one of the first Marxist structuralist, as opposed to the epic and the poem, constitutes a lower genre as it imitates, rather than kings ,knights, princess and Gods, the life and reality of the bourgeoisies and peasants: lower Genre of the lower class. Yet, since then, the novel had been considerably canonized, and as a result converted into the mark of National literary- consensus, conceptualizing national Identity. In other words, it is, no longer a low- subversive genre that it once was. Probably, what “Indian darkness” urgently needs is somebody brave enough to dare write books in the languages of its nation, to risk obscurity, to sacrifice fame, to give up the object of desire in order to liberate and educate.
    The Antagonist’s way to become reach is to emulate his Master; for the author to become famous is to fallow the steps of his great predecessors, the English writers. However, these books have just one destination. Balram is named by his school master- a sidekick of Krishna; Adiga is a sidekick of the great English Masters; India – a sidekick of the west. Bangalore’s call- centers are merely just another system of enslavement that reproduces imaginary freedom. Neither Balram, nor the author, nor the call -centers are in fact creative. If Krishna, according to Indian Mythology, had created the world, while the West had boasted the creation of the computer, alike the English literary masters who had created the novel, then Adiga and Balram are just mere imitators.
    This book will never compete with Love Rape and Revenge , pulp- fiction magazines, laments Adiga through his antagonist, who in spite of his “half -baked” education, is nevertheless disgusted with the poor literary tastes of servants. Ironically Balram prefers Poetry (that he never actually read). Nevertheless, maybe those magazines are actually the way to touch the hearts of “Indian darkness”. Hegemony need not worry about people reading pulp fiction, so on they don’t read the canon, concludes Adiga, through Balram’s cultural criticism. So, if Adiga could have dressed the canon in the pulp fiction robes, his book might had changed some lives for the better.

  • Jones

    Just pointing out, its Balram not ‘Belram. Check your work in future.

  • Shilpi

    And its Hindi not Hindu.