Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 321 pages
Genre: Picaresque Fiction, Mystery
Meet Balram Halwai, the “White Tiger”:
Servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer…
India: The Light and the Dark
Before I even begin realizing it, 2018 has shaped up to be the year of the Man Booker Prize winners in the same manner that 2017 was the year of the Pulitzer Prize winners. I am not complaining though because they have been fulfilling reads. In the last Man Booker Prize winner for 2018, I found myself embarking on uncharted territories again. Over the years, I have familiarized myself with Indian writing, it still has nooks and crannies that I have not ventured to. Such is the case of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, the 2008 Man Booker Prize Winner. What is even more impressive is that it was Adiga’s debut novel, making him the fourth debut writer to achieve such feat.
“All I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder is enough.”
Modern India has grown leaps and bounds and its economic progress is undeniable. Relying on the strength of its workforce and its technological advancement, India worked itself into becoming one of the strongest economies in the world. In euphoria, the Indian middle class is propelling the nation to even greater heights. The glittery clothes and the tall skyscrapers belie the underdevelopment and poverty that most of the country is gripped with. And it is this disbalance that Adiga’s The White Tiger tries to bring to the fore.
Enter Balram Halwai, the eponymous white tiger. From the poverty-laden village of Laxmangarh, he worked himself to becoming a millionaire, every Indians’ dream. But behind the quintessential rugs-to-riches story of this Indian hero is a roguish tale and a sad reality that is more universal than we thought.
“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.” ~ Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Calling himself the White Tiger, Balram told his story to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, relating how he became a self-made millionaire. Growing up in the darker corners of India, Balram was already conscious of the poverty that he was surrounded with; at a young age, he was cognizant of the dreary future that his life is inevitably going to end up being. Forced to stop school to work and compliment their family income, he realized that the only way to escape poverty is to escape Laxmangarh. The opportunity came in the person of Ashok, one of Laxmangarh’s powerful landlords and Balram’s employer. When Ashok and his wife, Madam Pinky, move to Delhi, they brought along Balram. It was in Delhi that Balram’s mind was further opened to the stark reality of living in India.
In most East Asian culture, white tiger symbolizes power, freedom and individuality, three things that Balram strived to achieve. These themes were deeply embedded into the narrative. At the heart of it, Balram only want to become his own man, after having been literally baptized on fire on the reality that he is surrounded with. To do so, he must overcome the most daunting obstacles: a backward culture and morally bankrupt individuals.
What is represented in the novel is taking charge of one’s destiny in spite of all the odds. When he killed Ashok and ran away (even proudly relating it to the Chinese premier), he made the ultimate blunder. Violent as it was, it was Balram’s way of going against the tides of destiny and ultimately liberating himself from the shackles that ground him. To him, and to most people stuck in the quagmires of poverty, the most drastic acts are most often the best way to bail one self’s out of the debilitating conditions.
“You ask ‘Are you a man or a demon?’ Neither, I say. I have woken up, and the rest of you are sleeping, and that is the only difference between us.” ~ Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Balram’s story is ubiquitous and underlies the horrors that has already been portrayed in numerous books and movies. In spite of the move towards Westernization, poverty is still crippling majority of India. But poverty is just the tip of the iceberg. Just like Balram, many an Indian, in spite of their palpable intellectual capabilities, are forced to stop from going to school in order to help the household. Immediate pecuniary needs hold precedence over everything else, including a decent education.
The universality of Balram’s story cannot be denied. The ghastly conditions of second and third world countries are depicted in the novel. Going through the pages, I am aghast at how at ingeniously it mirrored the realities in my country, the Philippines. Aside from poverty, the novel extensively dealt on issues that are prevalent in laidback nations such as corruption and bribery. The hypocrisy of the uber rich was also portrayed through Ashok and Madam Pinky, the caricature representation of their social status.
The novel is a social commentary on the current state of India. Its depiction and characterization of the social conditions of India were on point. It was a breeze reading the novel because the detailed descriptions of the vile conditions made it easy understanding what is being portrayed. Perhaps it is in this aspect that Adiga failed; the book is more of a commentary than a novel. He got himself stuck in an impasse where he fervently kept on painting an abstract picture of India; it was abstract but it was also monochromatic to some extent.
Other than Balram, most characters in the novel were prematurely developed. Most characters lack depth. Even Balram himself is not safe from the artifice. He is an interesting character but his reactions and naivete felt too superficial. Take for instance the time he went to the mall. He became “conscious of a perfume in the air, of golden light, of cool, air-conditioned air, of people in T-shirts and jeans.” The way he kept on rationalizing his crime monotonous, bordering on the deplorable.
“Even here, in the weight machine of a train station, they try to hoodwink us. Here, on the threshold of a man’s freedom, just before he boards a train to a new life, these flashing fortune machines are the final alarm bell of the Rooster Coop.” ~ Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
The White Tiger is successful as a social and civic commentary. The metaphors and allegories depict the conditions of India fittingly. Adiga was simply relentless in highlighting the “India of Light, and an India of Darkness.” His metaphor of the Coop to symbolize the limitations of Indians in choosing their own fate reflects Adiga’s prowess for description. However, the lack of bringing balance into the perspective – the insensitivity of the upper classes is just one example – resulted into a simplistic narrative. What is left is an incomplete portrait of India drizzled with hapless characters who dissolve into mere allegories.
Recommended for readers who are interested in Indian works, who like reading social commentaries, and who like single-perspective storytelling.
Not recommended for readers who dislike dark subjects and murder, and imbalanced portraiture.
About the Author
Aravind Adiga was born on October 23, 1974 in Chennaid (then called Madras), Tamil Nadu, India.
He grew up in Mangalore, the hometown of his parents, and studied at Canara High School. At St. Aloysius College, he completed his Secondary School Leaving Certificate in 1990, securing first place in his state. When his family emigrated to Sydney, Australia, he pursued his education at James Ruse Agricultural High School. He studied English literature at Columbia College of Columbia University, graduating as class salutatorian in 1997.
Adiga begun his writing career as a financial journalist for different newspapers before he was hired by TIME. After three years as a South Asian correspondent for TIME, he went freelance. It was this period also that he wrote The White Tiger, his debut novel which went to cop the 2008 Man Booker Prize, becoming just the fourth Indian-born author to win the prize. His second work, Between the Assassinations (2008 India, 2009 US/UK), is a short story collection. His second and third novel are Last Man in Tower (2011) and Selection Day (2016).
He currently lives in Mumbai.