Top critical review
370 people found this helpful
Is White Tiger at best a Paper Tiger?
on December 23, 2008
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!