There is a certain stereotype about Indian literature. It is an impression shaped by the brilliant colours of saris, pungent smell and taste of spices, slant eyed Indian beauties and old world elegance of India’s architecture.
If that is why you have picked up Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, then you will be sorely disappointed.
The White Tiger is not a book that indulges in any soft or tender moments. It is harsh and realistic – and as stark as the binary of Light and Dark that the book develops its narrative. One which examines the culture of servitude in India, which pits the rich against the poor.
And yet told by the protagonist, Balram, a self made man in all senses – from his first job in the city as a driver to a rich family, all the way to his new life as an entrepreneur in the city of Bangalore – it is an open and honest examination of his character’s development vis a vis that of the creation of contemporary Indian society.
There is dark humour, open laughter, wryness and moments of insight into the human condition.
The book is also peppered with factual observations that force the reader to pause and reflect on the many layers of meaning hidden beneath simple and basic sentences – such as the couplet which Balram repeats to himself: “I was looking for the key for years/ but the door was always open.”
The style of the book – written over a period of 7 days, and addressed to the Premier of China – is in itself a uniquely structured approach to the novel, and it interweaves three threads: the present in which Balram is talking, the past that he is sharing through his narrative, and the lessons that he has carried from his past into the future. This pattern of layering and the easy storytelling style, makes for a visual experience – one that is unencumbered by similes or metaphors. No frills; no sentimentality or emotion.
That said, my favourite section in the book is the rooster coop analogy. (No spoiler alert because I am not going to give it away.)
It is a mentality that has been so well grained in the minds of India’s poor that Balram attributes to it the structure of the entire economy. The analogy spans around four pages but Adiga ariculates it so well that I have never been able to look at the chicken cages carried by mkokotenis and piki pikis on the roads of Nairobi in the same way.
About the author
Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in Madras (now called Chennai), and grew up in Mangalore in the south of India. He was educated at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford. His articles have appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and the Times of India. His first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008.