Monday, June 7, 2010

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga


Any bookslut who has stumbled across these pages knows my love of most Man Booker Prize novels (both short & long listed and the actual winners). (I say most because of the horrible experience with The Accidental.) The White Tiger, published in 2008 and recipient of the prestigious award the same year, has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while now. Quite honestly, I wanted to let the hype die down before I picked it up. It was well worth the wait; Aravind Adiga’s debut novel is bloody fantastic. Thank you, Man Booker Prize, for not letting me down – I just may have to forgive you for short-listing Ali Smith’s crap.


The White Tiger is brilliantly executed – funny, dark, witty, charming, and honest. As a reader, I quickly fell for Balram Halwai, the murdering entrepreneur who is penning his story for “His Excellency, Wen Jiabao,” the Premier of the State Council of China, who is on his way to India because he wants to speak with Indian entrepreneurs. Balram heard of his visit on the radio and has decided to write to him directly as he is in the best position to explain how an Indian becomes an entrepreneur - a true success story. “The story of my upbringing is the story of how a half-baked fellow is produced. But pay attention, Mr. Premier! Fully formed fellows, after twelve years of school and three years of university, wear nice suits, join companies, and take orders from other men for the rest of their lives. Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay” (8-9). Balram then goes on to explain how exactly he came to be “half-baked” and how this all contributed to his ultimate success.

Balram, called Munna until he started school and his teacher said he needed a real name and not just be called the Hindi word for “boy,” was a smart kid. So smart that an inspector who visited the school to check conditions called him “the white tiger.” “The inspector pointed his cane right at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?” Balram thought about it and responded, “The white tiger.” As he grows, Balram learns that a white tiger has to work harder to survive in the jungle. He is forced to leave school and work when his brother weds and the dowry must be paid. This half-education is part of what makes him “half-baked.”

Early in the novel, Balram explains that he knows little English but that he has one phrase that best sums up his life and his rise to success: What a fucking joke. The lead-up and delivery of this line is priceless. Kudos to Adiga for making me chuckle with that line. Another chuckle came when Balram was discussing religion and wondering what deity’s arse he should start off by kissing.

“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power.

I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse.

Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices.

See, the Muslims have one god.

The Christians have three gods.

And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.

Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from…

Bear with me, Mr. Jiabao. This could take a while.

How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?” (6)

How can you dislike Balram with an opening like that?

Balram’s story is amoral, dark, and cut-throat. It is a story of survival and escape – betrayal and abandonment. It’s animalistic and cunning, this journey from “Dark” to “Light.” Balram kills his employer, steals his name and his money, and opens his own taxi service: White Tiger Technology Drivers. In a technological world where America has outsourced its jobs to India, Balram finds his niche, forsakes the caste system, and abandons his family in an effort to save himself. Made from half-baked clay, this white tiger is a self-taught, self-made true entrepreneur, and you will both love and hate him for it. “I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant” (276).

Did you like Slumdog Millionaire? Then pick up The White Tiger. Trust your bookslut; you’ll like this book better than that movie. The novel doesn’t come off like a shock-value piece – its darkness and despair is well-tempered with the resiliency of the human-spirit and the charming, dark humor that makes the world go ‘round.