Sunday, October 21, 2012

Karen's review - 2008 winner The White Tiger

There are some books that begin with a definite punch even if they are not always of the Hitchcock idea of a brick-through-the-window start to films. In White Tiger the punch isn't delivered by an event but through a narrator's voice that is so direct and immediate, that it demands attention.
We don't know who this narrator is yet other than he calls himself 'the White Tiger'  and classes himself as one of India's successful entreprenneurs. But he clearly  thinks he's important enough to write  letters to the Premier of China advising him what to expect when he pays a State visit to Bangalore. His letters are filled with scornful comments about the reality of life in India - a side to the country he believes the Premier will never see. For this narrator not only considers himself a great man just as much as the premier is, but the only person the Premier can trust to tell the truth. India's most sacred river, the Ganges, is one of the myths he smashes.

One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing. Now you have heard the Ganga called the river of emancipation ......our prime minister will no doubt describe it to you that way and urge you to take a dip in it. 
No! - Mr Jiaboa, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion and seven different kinds of industrial acids.
Gradually, we learn that this vocal critique of his mother country is Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw wallah born in The Darkness, the poorest and most deprived part of India. Halwai gets an escape route into the other India, the India of Lightness, when he manages to get a job as a driver for Mr Ashok, the son of a wealthy landlord.
Through this outspoken, murderous protagonist, Aravind Adiga shows us the underbelly of India and the reality of its powerhouse economy of the early 21st century. Pouting models from the west may adorn the facades of new gleaming glass shopping malls but around the corner, are the slums where people live under meagre tarpaulin roofs. Through Balram's eyes we learn of the servant class of Delhi who live in rotting basements below the glass apartment blocks that are home to their employers. He tells how Ashok's family bribe government ministers, and how national elections are rigged.
Balram realises that people like him are trapped by the situation of their birth and the chains of family, unable to break out of the 'Rooster Coop' even when they know they will die if they don't:
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 realises he has to take destiny in his own hands.  His employer is liberal and freely expresses his guilt at his driver's treatment but when his fine words never come to anything, Balram decides to kill him, steal his money and then go on the run.
The murder isn't a surprise however because within 12 pages of the book, Balram has told us he is a wanted man so the momentum for the plot doesn't turn on that surprise or even whether he will be tracked down by police and punished. The momentum really comes from the force with which Adiga's protagonist tells his story and pricks the bubble of India's status as a world power.  Hardly surprising that this debut novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008,  was not well received in India. The Hindu, one of the country's leading English language newspapers, said it was a ' curiously inauthentic' portrait of the country written by an outsider for outsiders -  an “India for Dummies.”
Maybe no-one likes the country of their birth and the country they are proud of, to be held up for scrutiny in this way so those reactions are understandable. More of an issue for me was that the book seemed to lose its way in the final stages, about the time when Balram commits the murder - we already know it's coming so it had the sense of inevitability. Having told us how the killing is executed Adiga seemed to be in a great hurry to get to the last page as if he'd had enough of this character. So it felt a rushed and somewhat predictable ending which was such a shame for a book I'd thoroughly enjoyed up until then.

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