Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reflections: The White Tiger

This popular novel has garnered strong opinions from readers on either sides of the love/hate fence. As always, I had no inclination to read this book when it was at its peak. Now that everyone has read, raved, ranted, and forgotten, I picked it up.

I listened to the audio-book, so here’s my brief comment on the audio version narrated by John Lee. It was really good. I was skeptical of how a story rooted in Indian society with Indian names and unique social references would sound through a non-Indian narrator, but on the whole, barring a few (and slight) understandable mispronunciations, the book is narrated really well. Since it’s a short book, the narration was tight paced and absorbing.

Balram Halwai hails from a small village that is tightly controlled by a family of wealthy and ruthless overlords. Survival and bread-winning being a dire necessity, he forgoes education and works as a chauffeur for one of the sons of the overlords in the city of New Delhi. As a chauffeur, or a driver, his place in the social ladder is even below that of the family dog. The pangs of survival and competition constantly gnaw at him as he is forced to accept sub-par treatment every day. Then one day, a tragic incident alters everything for him. Something in him snaps, and his rebellious, survival spirit rears itself menacingly. He commits a murder and escapes to Bangalore to reinvent himself as a successful entrepreneur.

The themes covering the book - caste and social inequality, poverty, corruption, oppression, displaced wealth and the effects of globalization in a developing country - are, for the most part, not eye-opening in anyway for an Indian like me. I know, I’ve seen, I am frustrated. To me, what stands out about this book is the characterization and writing. Despite this being a short book, the story is compelling, and no words are wasted in shaping the characters and setting the scene. The breadth of social themes mentioned are quite complicated to address through a short story, but Adiga’s strength lies in the simplicity and clarity through which he describes and states things as is - he doesn’t flinch, look around for metaphors, or build a sentimental wrap to cover the harsh glare of the themes. As difficult it is (especially for Indians) to face the bitter facts of our society, I have to agree that this story does capture the essence and extent of corruption as seen through the prism of caste and economic inequalities plaguing the nation.

Most Indian readers fret that this book shines the spotlight on unappealing aspects of India and worry that readers from the West would rashly add another stereotype to the several other stereotypes that Indians already face. I understand the concern, but I think in this age of information, if someone chooses to jump to conclusions and stereotypes a country based on a novel, you cannot help them in any which way. It’s not the books fault. The book tells an honest story, albeit a single story.  Do I think some parts/incidents are exaggerated? Not really. I have seen drivers and maids and guards and other sundry men and women being treated with disdain and total disregard. Not all the time, and not by everyone, of course, and this should be kept in mind before rashly generalizing. I have also seen and know of touching relationships between drivers and employers, maids and women of the household etc. And Adiga does bring this out (albeit subtly) through his characters. Ashok (the “master”) and his wife begrudge the unfair treatment and begin to form a good relationship with Balram. However, they do little when circumstances change and they slowly settle into the ways of things by choosing to ignore and not dwell on certain aspects. Eventually, no matter where you are on the social ladder, one’s instinct to survive always overrules every other moral or ethical belief. That is the crux of this book. Those privileged to be at the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder wouldn’t mind trampling on the those on the lower rungs to save themselves - this is universally true regardless of a developing or developed society, especially in corporate and political environments. That an underdog managed to survive and climb the social ladder by overthrowing some on the top is a rare occurrence, as rare as spotting a white tiger.

The only thing that didn’t line up against the bristling honesty and reality of the book is the premise for the narration. Balram writes about his life-story and India’s socio-economic state to the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Why would he want to confess his deeds to anybody, let alone the Chinese Premier? When he’s fought so hard to get to where he is, why would he want to sabotage that through a written admission of his crimes? Does he think he has reached such a powerful state that he believes he can blatantly confess with impunity? Perhaps, but I didn’t find it convincing.

This is an interesting read, especially from the standpoint of the characters and writing. This is a short, but crisp and powerful read. 

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