Customer Reviews: The White Tiger: A Novel
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VINE VOICEon December 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga has already won the Man Booker Prize, and it is being hailed universally by the critics for its virtues in presenting a narrative quite different from the Bollywood capers and the modern Indian English fiction. In the wake of some well-deserved praise, my biased review might appear like an afterthought, examining a foregone conclusion. My bias rises from my familiarity with characters like Balram Halwai, and from my reverence for uncelebrated works of Indian fiction that present the alternative reality of present day India. Reading the novel left me quite dissatisfied, and this is an exposition of the reason why.

The basic storyline of the novel can be summarized as follows. Balram Halwai grows up in a poor and remote village and ends up working as the driver for America returned Ashok. Incidentally Ashok is from the family of landlords who run or ruin the life of Balram's fellow villagers. Even though Ashok treats the Balram quite well compared to how servants and drivers are treated by other people, Balram siezes an opportunity to murder his master and run-off with money to become a rich businessmen. The story of Balram's journey from a village to city, the murder and his transformation into a entrepreneur is retold in form of letters that Balram writes in a course of seven nights. The letters are addressed to Chinese Premier and are laced with a dark wit and provocative confessions.

The novel succeeds in chartering into a territory unfamiliar and hence exotic for Western audiences, for Adiga chooses a character from lower classes and makes him into a success story. But likewise, the novel fails in providing a deep or authentic representation of his protagonists to anyone who is remotely familiar with the cultural-, social-, caste- & religion- based daily chaos of India. In fact, the parable is replete with the cliched dialogues, observations and methods which are synonymous with most Indian movies. These too describe the rise of a virtual nobody from village or slums to riches. The only thing missing here is a romance angle, song and dance situations and the victory of good over evil in the final scene. Further, except maybe for Balram, most characters are caricatures, two-dimensional beings, who perform their parts again like the underdeveloped, underused casts in desi movies.

The fact that Adiga creates this alternate universe quite cleverly is clear from the outset, but if his representation actually captures injustices or corrupt world ,can be judged best by us who have risen from it. Unfortunately, my assertion that most of the celebrated Indian writers never lived in real India or in the villages, towns and slums (where the poor and middle classes live), applies equally well to Aravind. For me, White Tiger is a black and white, blurred montage of shots from a distant observer. These are accompanied by a narrative that in spite of its comic and creative content, fails to describe what is actually happening. But I am convinced now that to somebody who has access only to this montage, the description provides a wonder and entertainment characteristic of Marco Polo's adventures.

The question "if not "White Tiger" than what" is not a difficult one to answer. Premchand, Yashpal, Renu, Mahashweta Devi, Dharamveer Bharati, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Vijayan, Sadat Hasan Manto, Tagore, etc form a long list of writers who have explored the fervent and follies of Indian psyche, philosophy, politics and religion. I thought of the "shrub" in Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, each time I saw Balram's region denoted as "Darkness", and I thought it unusual that two divers in Delhi run into each other at every possible parking lot (It requires a suspension of disbelief matched by similar plots in many Bollywood movies) . I agree with the book stub that calls it "amoral, irreverent", but I cannot agree with its being called "deeply endearing" for I still preserve my sensibility that shocking and irreverent is not a sure sign of being extraordinary. The manifold of contradictions that exist in India requires a canvass with more elements than are present in White Tiger, and to make it palatable is indeed a task that requires more than a paper tiger!

Incidentally most of the entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and politicians in current India do rise from very ordinary families. While some may have followed the path exemplified by Balram, there is a significant fraction who escaped through education. While Naipaul did not grow up in India, his House for Mr Biswas contains characters and circumstances that are surprisingly accurate their portrayal of daily life of a large majority of Indians, and there too the escape occurs through education. Rushdie manages to use metaphor and magical realism to assimilate the commotion of Indian existence, but his descriptions do not usually touch the ordinary man.

While White Tiger manages to reveal the dark matter in the cosmos of Indian reality, its exposition, extent and complexity requires the understanding, humanity, attachment and maturity absent in this novel. To win a prize or write a popular book (for Western audiences) is one thing, to create a masterpiece worth universal respect quite another. No wonder most Indians bashed the book in their reviews in amazon and elsewhere, while the Westerners embraced it. For me the scary thing is that an equivalent imaginary novel, which would win similar acclaim in many developing countries (especially in the Middle East), will portray a driver Balram Halwai in United States, making it big (in spite of racial/religious/imperialist insults) by use of similar murder of a Christian, White guy: only the names of the cities and characters need to be changed. Of course, Balram Halwai, of US will also type it as a series of letters to the Chinese Premier. Perhaps that will make for an entertaining read, though I doubt if it will win a Man Booker Prize or such acclaim in the West. My apologies, I won't venture to compare author of White Tiger or the similar, imaginary novel, to Gorky, Gogol or Dostoevsky!
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on April 27, 2009
This book is barely a novel, although it is certainly fiction. Rather, it attempts to be a cynical expose of the deep ineradicable corruption at every level of Indian life. In the guise of an extended communication to the Premier of China regarding the value of entrepreneurs, the narrator tells his tale of how he became a driver for a member of a landlord family whose main job duty was to deliver bribe money to government ministers. And then, how he murdered his employer and stole some of that bribe money and thus became an entrepreneur himself. Just what China needs!

There are no sympathetic characters in this book -- even the narrator's grandmother tries to exploit him. And there are is no love interest and, really, no love. Written by a native of India, the book reeks of contempt for Indian culture with no hope or redemption in sight. I kept asking myself: what could be the purpose of this book? As other reviewers, mainly Indians, have made clear, as an expose, the book is light years from fair or accurate. For a balanced view of India's economic development, I would recommend Nandan Nilekani"s "Imagining India: the idea of a renewed nation". If pushed to name a redeeming value, I guess I would say I learned something about hardness of life in India's rural villages, assuming the account can be trusted.

The title :The White Tiger" is catchy and marketable but turns out to be a metaphor for something or somebody unusual and has nothing to do with tigers or even tiger-like qualities. Stripped of its corruption expose core and the spurious advice to the Chinese Premier, the book is simply the tawdry tale of a scoundrel's progress, corruption layered upon corruption. Thin gruel indeed.
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on November 22, 2009
For the desk of:
Lloyd Craig Blankfein
Goldman Sachs holding company,
Somewhere in Manhattan

Dear Mr. Blankfein ,
Allow me to introduce myself- I am Aravind Adiga, author of the Booker Prize winning "The white Tiger". As the CEO of the profit making investment bank that survived the sub-prime downturn, I salute you ! You may not have heard of me, but you and I are alike, as shall be seen in this letter.

You see Mr. CEO, we both are in the same line of business essentially- in your case of taking cheap, unworthy credit and packaging it as a high end financial product, and in my case, doing a shallow study of the lives of the poor in India, and packaging it into a novel that sounds deep enough to fool the Booker crowd.

Mr. CEO, both you and I know that this is a game. My book shows little genuine empathy for the people I write about. I don't care about them really- only that the story should sell in the right market. So I take some news items of hit and run cases in the media,take the poverty of Bihar,everyday life in Delhi, and the hope of Bangalore and spin a story around it.

Who cares if my characters are so shallow ? Sometimes the dialog between Mr. Ashok and Pinky madam is so banal, I think even the Mumbai film scripts can do better. There is more depth in a Chekov short story than in this whole 319 page novel. Yes, even I know- the place where a man dies of a car accident is so poorly written to be credible.

We are not talking about depth, are we ? Its all about the packaging. Its all about publicity! Just like you sell your funds! I have reviewers writing about it in the west. There are only two types of people in the world, Mr. CEO. The ones with fat wallets and the one's without. As long as the book appeals to the one with the fat wallets, and they think it is some exotic story of the "real India", I really don't care about the one's with the small wallets.

yours respectfully,
The White tiger
Some fancy apartment complex,
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on August 26, 2009
The book had a plausible story line. The author did a good job of keeping it interesting and having the reader involved. Some of the descriptions of Balram's rural life were very realistic.
But, in what world is he living? The India he is talking of, no doubt exists to a certain degree, but the darkness and socialist party references were a little too much. I feel that maybe the author left India about 30 years ago and still has the image of the time he left with him. I do not mean to discredit his description of the rural life, because little no change has occurred in that field. However I did find the big picture a little stale. It almost felt like he wrote the book for a certain type of reader. The kind of reader who is looking for mystery or mysticism in India, the land of snake charmers and yogis. The book had a very stereotypical feel to it, enhancing and embellishing the poverty, death decay etc.
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on October 20, 2015
What rubbish. I listen to this book on audio. The narrator mispronunced key words and names, but that is not what makes this novel so awful. The author's self loathing is very evident through the story. I have met many Indians who are uncomfortable with the inequalities in India. This discomfort turns into a cynical, "we rich get what we deserve" attitude. It is an attitude that unmines the richly descriptive writing. The author paints a richly detailed landscape. As an outsider, the picture of India's highly nuanced society is lost in ridiculous characters. It was wholly unsatisfying read. There are many other who capture India much better than this one.
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on December 20, 2008
Adiga has done us a favour by writing this book. My first reaction was that it's brilliant in conception, and it brings out a lot that the Indian media tends to sweep under the carpet. It's not flashy, and it's a simple tale.

On the other hand, this is a book written to shock a Western audience - and does it succeed! Nothing wrong with that, except that the author should have put in more effort to get all his facts right. There weren't too many Punjabi farmers in Gurgaon, for example. Most drivers live in squalid conditions , yes, but they don't live in the same complexes as their "masters". They live in separate ghettos.

What's a more serious flaw is that the book portrays a "darkness" vs "light" angle, which is very common in Mumbai, which I understand is where the author lives. It's true that Bihar - the state Adiga doesn't name - is worse off than the rest of India. On the other hand, there is enough poverty in Mumbai to write about. IMHO, it's a typically urban Indian stereotype that Bihar is the pits but Mumbai is the New York or Shanghai of India.

I would have loved it if it didn't have these flaws.
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on December 15, 2008
Picked up the book after its Booker Prize and am deeply disappointed with the judges! Finished the book in one sitting.. There was not much there.. The main character, Balram Halvai's voice lacks authenticity. I have seen many Balram's (some from Heart of "Darkness" - Bihar) and none came close to using the language and idiom that the book uses.

The author falls into the trap of making Balram "exotic" and misses a great opportunity to capture the changing India. The novel is weakest when describing Laxmangarh in "Darkness" (Read Pankaj Mishra for more accurate description of "Darkness"), calling to question if the author ever stepped into "Darkness" or just relied on descriptions of "Darkness" from periodicals!

Novel's premise, in the hands of a more disciplined and subtle author, definitely had the potential for greatness (read Ellison or Dostoyevsky, for contrast!). Instead what we got was one pretentious and "well marketed" (playing up the "exotic Indian" stereotypes) novel. Only thing missing is a scene of "An Arranged Marriage" with dowry!

Comparisons to Ellison's "Invisible Man" and to Dostoyevsky are far fetched. Doubt if anyone will remember this book in 5 years!
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on February 16, 2011
The topics tackled in this book are worth the thought. Both the stars are for writing about the topics that are dear to my heart as an Indian.

But book is crap. This is what I call a Pseudo-Fiction. It exemplifies "Truthiness", overly simplifying the Indian society in terms of its social divides, family values, religious/social tolerances and corruption, without any sort of research or understanding of the Indian society. Many reviewers have criticized the negative reviews because ultimately this is a fiction so nothing should be treated as a fact. The sad part is the fictional part should be the story line. e.g.

"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...we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods... Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from." and "Now, there are some, and I don't just mean Communists like you, but thinking men of all political parties, who think that not many of these gods actually exist."

So where does the fiction end and facts begin (and vice versa.)

The parts about India and its culture are so distorted that somehow only western reviewers feel connected while the Indian readers don't.

I googled the author and was not at all surprised that the author is a completely western educated person who happens to be born in India.

To give due credit where it belongs, authors has superficially touched on key search terms such as IT, Bangalore, outsourcing, China, everything our western readers be concerned about India. and yes, amazing thoughts of the author that I have no doubts will be defended by other western or western minded reviewers as fiction:

"...all the Muslims you meet are illiterate or covered head to toe in black burkas or looking for buildings to blow up? It's a puzzle, isn't it?.." (Fact: India is proud of its Muslims population that contributes tremendously in its film, cricket, science , governance and almost all the other important areas. )

The picture you get after reading this book is that people in India have no conscience, their family values are like a prison, there is no law, you can get away with anything and sometimes murder is justified as a tool for social emanancipation. All in all, you can write a novel like this based on your understanding of India from merely reading the "sensational news" in western media.

It is like forming your opinion of USA based only on reading Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Although I defend the author's right to write anything for his livelihood, I am not sure about the standards of the Man Booker prize committee after reading this book.

You can read this one inside of a day and those who want to still read it, I request you to borrow it from your library and donate the money you were to waste on this book to any organization that works for uplifting people from Darkness in India or anywhere for that matter!
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on February 20, 2009
I read it with great anticipation and was thoroughly disappointed. It was entertaining and I will give it that. But beyond that I don't think it had anything redeeming.

Frankly I am quite taken aback that this received the Booker Prize. The Man Booker prize has slipped a few notches in my esteem purely for this one wrong choice. ["The Sea of Poppies" (Amitava Ghosh) was vastly superior to this book in all aspects - the sweep of the novel, the quality of writing and the enagagement level it creates as well as its ability to bring alive a bygone time so vividly.[

The gist of "The White Tiger" has been described by various reviewers so I will leave that aspect.

What I am really fuming about is the utter callousness with which a wrong picture is painted about India and its citizenry. Every character is a cardboard character and completely stereotypical and I must say fully out of touch with reality.

Why 2 stars then? It was an entertaining read, that's all.
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VINE VOICEon November 21, 2009
A good friend recommended this strongly, and it won the 2008 Booker Prize, so I gave it a try. The Booker committee said "Balram's journey from darkness of village life to the light of entrepreneurial success is utterly amoral, brilliantly irreverent, deeply endearing and altogether unforgettable." I agree with 1, 2, maybe 4, and 3 if you take off the "deeply" and even then only reluctantly.

The protagonist - Balram - is some kind of entrepreneur who is writing letters to the premier of China to tell him about the true India. Balram tells of his rise from poor village boy to tea shop worker to ... well, I won't give too much away. But Balram does not allow himself to be bound by traditional norms of morality around, say, killing. And other stuff. The power in the novel is demonstrating how poverty can breed an amorality that is chaotic and frightening. But I only came to find the protagonist sympathetic towards the very end, up until which I merely found him offputting (and scary). I don't think, if I were to turn back time, that I would read it again.

Note on content: I don't remember reading a book with more f-words. There is violence. There is significant sex talk. This is a dark world of crushing poverty and desperation.
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