random thoughts

The White Tiger: a book review

Haven’t really written a book review before, but decided to try my hand at this after drawing inspiration from my SIL.

Plenty has been written about Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, a 2008 Man Booker Prize winner. Reactions have mostly been binary. People either love the plot or hate it. The book is supposedly in response to the India Shining campaign by the BJP, and almost feels like Adiga is spitting angrily and repeatedly at the suggestion of a shining India. Not that the book suggests support or incites against any political party but is bent upon exposing the other side of India enveloped in the Darkness. This darkness is pitch dark and he has described the people on this side. Their values, their horrible surroundings, how families are bound together by a belief system, functioning of schools, hospitals etc, have all been very well written from the perspective of language, clarity of thoughts and expressive style. The style is fantastic and constantly drips with dark humor, sarcasm, red hot anger and is also reflective of the author’s acute observational skills. Every line of how Aravind expresses his thoughts bears stamp of this style. If you leave aside your reactions or biases, and join Balram’s journey through his eyes, then the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

To keep the summary short and sweet, the story is about a driver, Balram Halwai whose family is in Laxmangarh, a small village, somewhere in the Darkness. His father is a rickshaw puller and dies of TB. He goes off to Dhanbad with his brother, finds a job as a driver at a rich man’s house. There are several interesting characters in the house including sons of the master, a daughter in law, other servants and how Balram slowly graduates to become the principal servant of Ashok, the main master’s son, when Ashok and his wife move to Gurgaon. Against the backdrop of change and transformation that Gurgaon witnesses, Balram sees himself changing. There is corruption, the rules of the masters and the rules of the servants are laid bare.  He then sees the India around him, where human spiders, as he calls them, are all over the place in tea shops, road side eateries, construction sites and in general, everywhere. What I also liked was his keen sense to learn by listening to conversations when he starts working in a tea shop, when he is driving and eavesdropping on conversations, while discussing with his other driver friends etc. When he believes that the master is just another rich man, who is squeezing him and paying a pittance, he plots and eliminates the master before escaping to Bangalore with a lot of money stolen from Ashok. Bangalore’s progress and how he exploits the opportunity presented by the IT and ITeS explosion, by getting into the transport business, is intriguing to say the least. He is a fugitive and this entire story is written in the form of a letter to the Chinese Premier. Spread over seven nights, it is a gripping tale of a confident Balram Halwai, who gives lessons on entrepreneurship and takes pot shots on the educated fully baked clays while explaining that it is men of his type, the half-baked clay kind, who can truly become entrepreneurial. Come to think of it, here is a character, who lies, cheats, is not bothered about his family back home, has no traces of sainthood, but you still love his journey and not once did I dislike the character.

Given that the book, with its Booker Prize, now puts India on the international map, it might be concerning to some that such books do not reflect India and its current state accurately. Yes, India is not this bad, there can be no doubt about this. But what the hell, even in a recent movie, the Hulk is shown tending to the poor and needy, in conditions that are extremely filthy and unfit for human existence. The place is supposed to be, ahem … Kolkata!!! So …

Conclusion: Just enjoy the ride and I will give this book a 4 out of 5!

Note: Here is a digression, I couldn’t resist adding:

Balram Halwai kept reminding me of Bhadra, the super duper character in The Asura. The way Bhadra talks about the royals, their ways of working, attitude towards the poor and how they exploit them, is exactly how Adiga describes Balram’s experiences.


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