The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

white-tigerBackstory: While in India, I was frequently asked —

What are you planning to buy and take back home? We have excellent fabrics!

Some jewelry for my wife.

And for yourself?

I don’t know. A book? What’s the best bookstore in Bangalore?

Oh. The bookstores are shutting down… nowadays everyone is getting them electronically. The shops are shutting down; no business.

Several people told me this! I was not asking the right people. To be fair, I’m sure if you asked my American co-workers who either don’t read or can’t see beyond the plastic enclosure of their Kindle, they would say the same, even within a city full of great bookstores. I eventually asked the right people (the readers; of paper) and discovered that Bangalore has at least one awesome bookstore.

Blossom — 3 storeys of floor to ceiling shelves, bowing under the weight of vertically stacked mountains of books, the scent of bookdust filling the air as you precariously shift a column to reach a tome at the bottom. Which brings me to this quote for The White Tiger:

There was a foul taste of book in my mouth — as if I had inhaled so much particulated old paper from the air. Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books.

Anyway, I bought a few books, including The White Tiger. Everyone I talked to had either read it and thought it was a great book or had not read it but absorbed it so completely via cultural osmosis that they thought it was a great book.

And indeed, it was a pretty good book.

* * *

Central to this book are two animals:

The White Tiger: What is the white tiger but the rarest animal in all the jungle? Metaphor for an Indian who actually manages to escape his caste for good.

The Rooster (and his coop): Rows upon rows of chickens stuffed in tiny cages in the Delhi market, crawling and shitting over eachother, unable to leave even if the door lay open before them. All of the people in the servant class, stuck there permanently because the rich will literally murder their entire extended family if they fly the coop.

That’s because we have the coop.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent — as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way — to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

There’s a second dichotomy explained in the novel: The borders of India, especially places touching water are The Light. The Darkness is everywhere else — where the majority is extremely poor, crushed under the thumb of the rich, equipped with schools that don’t teach, rigged elections, no running water or functional hospitals, and a constant threat of violence.

If it’s not clear from the quote above, let me tell you: Aravind Adiga is angry. This text excoriates the Indian government and its stratified society. The novel follows Balram Halwai*, a poor man born in The Darkness near to the village where Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree. His family is cripplingly poor, as is all his neighbors; there’s almost zero chance to change their fortune and everyone in the village is subservient to a cadre of thuggish landlords. The most comfortable creature in the family is their water buffalo. From his boyhood, Balram dreams of something better. After lucking into the role of driver for one of the landlord families, he becomes a hired driver and launches his meteoric rise into the streets of Delhi, where murder and entrepreneurship follow.

Balram is supposedly an intrepid but ignorant villager, whose education stopped somewhere mid-gradeschool. But the story, with its witty voice and descriptive prose, oscillating between disgusting descriptions of squalor and beautiful descriptions of nature and humanity takes a backseat to Adiga and how pissed off he is. Early on, Balram mentions how a singular phrase in english transcends language and simply cannot be said any other way. That phrase is:

What a fucking a joke.

As in (Balram speaking on police corruption):

Being called a murderer: fine, I have no objection to that. It’s a fact. I am a sinner, a fallen human. But to be called murderer by the police!

What a fucking joke

(As an aside: as an ignorant westerner visiting Bangalore and Mysore, two places well outside The Darkness, the crushing poverty and class divide wasn’t terribly striking beyond what I see in the US; but something that was immediately obvious was the way people discussed police corruption and the constant casual joking about being sick of paying off the cops)

Balram’s country-yokel ignorance is played off as jokes. His thoughts on the curative power of virgins, his wonder over roads in China. But the narrative voice of Adiga shines through. For instance, Balram is nominally religious and prays to Hindu gods (or in a few scenes, uses some Kali magnets in his car as good luck), but the narrative voice is clearly secular and says it outright by the end. It works because the voice of the novel is so absorbing. But it also has its problems. Women are not treated kindly in this novel and there is no narrative overture to allow us to feel the author is critical of this. Actually, there’s a scene that I swear happened almost exactly in a Rushdie novel: a pack of familial women physically attacking a man who comes home from a lengthy period of hard labor to take all his money. Women are yet another obstacle for the revolutionary and entrepreneurial man of India to overcome.

While I enjoyed the novel, I’m not entirely sure what Adiga has to tell us. Murder our boss, abandon home and run off to a city with a booming economy? Certainly I’ve done a version that — albeit not so extreme, with no murder and less drama. But it’s hardly a universal solution, especially for such an angry book. For all Adiga’s righteous anger, he leaves us with nothing much beyond a promise of the rich being incrementally less corrupt. Maybe.

*Halwai means sweetmaker, Balram’s family’s caste prior to the the supposed abolition of castes. Adiga makes a point that after the British dusted castes and left, India went from a multitude of very specific castes to just two: those with small bellies and those with big bellies (the rich).

One thing I find interesting is that I think those of us from the west, or at least me anyway, simplify castes down to a version akin to Medieval Europe — peasant, merchant, priest, noble — but India clarified it down to the most precise element of society. When I was listening to a tour in Mysore castle, I beheld the palanquin of the old Indian royalty and had it explained to me that there was a specific caste of people just to carry the palanquins.

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