The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga
Happy Canada Day!
And like any red-blooded Canadian citizen, I like to enjoy our nation's birthday by sitting down and writing a blog post about modern Indian literature. This year I have the pleasure of cracking a Moosehead, turning up Blue Rodeo on the stereo and getting down to business with Aravind Adiga's "blazingly savage" debut (and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize) novel The White Tiger. I put those words, "blazingly savage," in quotations because they are not my words but rather those of Neel Mukherjee, reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph. I'm not familiar with Mr. (Mrs.?) Mukherjee's work for the Telegraph but a simple racial profile (i.e. reading his (her?) name off the byline) indicates that he (she?) probably knows significant amount more than me about India, Indian culture and Indian literature.
That's not to say that I'm writing about this novel in a vacuum. Long-term readers of this blog know that I am an avid fan of Indian literature and read as much of it as I can get my hands on. And I don't know it you have noticed or not but I have been reading quite a few recent Man Booker Prize winners and nominees, recently. It hasn't been a conscious thing, but I have been made aware of my recent trend and it's true (I picked up a recent nominee this morning, so expect more in the near future). So, I'm not entirely devoid of opinion on this novel and I'd like to think that my opinion has some weight on this stiflingly hot Canada Day in Asia.
I bring up Mukherjee's words because I cannot think of a more succinct way in which to express my feelings toward this novel. Set in modern day India, Adiga's novel is told from the perspective of Balram who is introduced as an entrepreneur at the onset of the novel. Narrator via a series of letters from Balram to the premier of China, it is revealed that Balram a small-town indian who has work his way out of The Darkness as a driver for Ashok, a local landowner based in Delhi. As driver, Balram is singly endeared, repressed, ignored and abused by his employer, resulting in a complex relationship that culminates in Balram murdering his boss (note: this is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the first 20 pages of the book). The result is a "blazingly savage" (see I can't help myself) treatise on the injustice of India's caste, the human quest for freedom and the nature of individualism in a collective culture.
On the surface, The White Tiger is a simple (yet effective) examination of the stifling caste system in India and the way in which it maintains and perpetuates itself. Through Balram we are introduced to the knee-jerk servitude of the lower castes and the way in which lower castes are disregarded entirely. In all the novels I have read about India I have never encountered such a naked appraisal of the injustice of the caste system than in The White Tiger. But nowhere in this novel is the injustice more manifest than Adiga's blistering rant on the nature of Indian democracy and the manner in which the ruling castes manipulate elections to their advantage. Scathing stuff.
But for all the ways in which the caste system hinders social mobility in India, there resides within each individual a burning desire for freedom in some form. In this case, it is Balram's desire for freedom from his master's inconsistent and increasingly erratic relationship. Throughout the novel, despite Balram's questionable behavior, the reader finds it difficult to fault Balram in his often wayward quest to find his way out of the intricate web of relationships and obligations that was woven for him since birth.
Which brings us to the theme of individualism. At a young age, Balram is given the moniker of "The White Tiger" by a local luminary touring the schools in the area. In Indian lore, a white tiger is someone who comes around only once in a generation and is different from everyone around them. Despite the fact that his life trajectory seems to follow the median for his particular caste, Balram maintains the notion that he is somehow different from everyone in his village. Is this a partial motive for his later crime? Perhaps, but more telling of his idea that he is different from everyone around him is that the entire novel is a series of letters from Balram to Wen Jiaobao, Premier of China and the leader of the world's most collective culture. What significance is there in Balram, the stalwart white tiger of individualism, in writing to the very antithesis of individualism? Vanity, perhaps. The same confession written to the office of the President of the United States of America would be received with an anticlimactic shrug. Perhaps Balram has an inherent sense of irony.
It should also be noted that aside from these fun themes, there is an underlying current of globalization gone horribly wrong. In a recent blog post I noted that naive protagonists are often better than those in the know simply because it is more entertaining from a reader's perspective to read a story told from the perspective of someone who knows precious little about the world around them. Despite his recent success, Balram is the poster child for the half-educated child of globalization. In a sense, technology has permeated our culture (and one would presume Indian culture as well) enough to misinform a significant portion of the population about everything from poetry to physics. We see it in America among the adherents of intelligent design and we see it throughout The White Tiger.
This is the novel that Slumdog Millionaire desperately tried to be and failed. That's not a knock on Slumdog Millionaire so much as it's a heap of respect for Adiga's ability to actualize modern India in a way that is both endearing and horrifying at the same time. This novel is unrelentingly ferocious in its depiction of India and its caste system. The White Tiger deserves all of its accolades. If I had somehow read this novel a few Canada Days ago, before Neel Mukherjee, I would have said that The White Tiger is "blazingly savage."