Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Athena K's Review - The White Tiger

This weekend I finished The White Tiger.  I found this to be an engaging and interesting read, but it took me a little bit of contemplation to decide whether this novel seemed worthy of a Man Booker Prize.  However, I found myself recommending the book to others before completely sorting out my feelings about it, so that strongly indicates that I enjoyed it.

The most compelling aspect of this story, about an Indian boy (Balram) who grows up in poverty and claws his way out, is the contemplation of what it means to be free versus what it means to be trapped.  Balram discusses freedom frequently in this novel, and believes himself to be a free person after making the life-altering decision to murder his employer.  This is a story of the many ways a person can be trapped or free, and what sacrifices and humiliations a person can endure to move from caged to free.

Adiga, through Balram, describes dilemma of the caged/free dichotomy most clearly though use of the metaphor of the "Rooster Coop" - a pile of cages in which chickens and roosters are packed waiting for slaughter:
"On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood.  The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above.  They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.  They know they're next.  Yet they do not rebel.  They do not try to get out of the coop." 
Balram and other impoverished low-caste Indians are stuck in the coop not because of a physical cage, but through bonds of family, duty, and dignity.  In order to break out of his cage, he must sacrifice these bonds - through violating his sense of duty to his employer, sacrificing the health and lives of his entire extended family (who serve as a hostage against his loyalty to his employer), and his own sense of fairness and dignity in murdering his employer who has never directly harmed him and has, for the most part, treated him with more care and respect than any other person he knows.  Balram's choices do not sit easily with me (and they seem very difficult for him), but I struggle to condemn him.  This moral ambiguity, the impossibility of justice in Balram's India is what has stuck with me from this novel.

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