Customer Reviews: The White Tiger: A Novel
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VINE VOICEon May 27, 2008
In his debut novel, Aravind Adiga takes on some hefty issues: the unhappy division of social classes into haves and have-nots, the cultural imperialism of the First World, the powder-kegged anger that seethes among the world's dispossessed, and entrapment. But his skills as an author protect the novel from becoming one of those horrible didactic stories in which characters and plot are little more than mouthpieces and vehicle for delivering Great Truths. The White Tiger entertains and gives pause for thought. This is a good combination.

The plot centers around Balram Halwai, a laborer born and raised in a small village utterly controlled by crooked and feudally powerful landlords. The village is located in 'the Darkness,' a particularly backward region of India. Balram is eventually taken to Delhi as a driver for one of the landlord's westernized sons, Ashok. It's in Delhi that Balram comes to the realization that there's a new caste system at work in both India and the world, and it has only two groups: those who are eaten, and those who eat, prey and predators. Balram decides he wants to be an eater, someone with a big belly, and the novel tracks the way in which this ambition plays out.

A key metaphor in the novel is the rooster coop. Balram recognizes that those who are eaten are trapped inside a small and closed cage--the rooster coop--that limits their opportunities. Even worse, they begin to internalize the limitations and indignities of the coop, so that after awhile they're unable to imagine they deserve any other world than the cramped one in which they exist. Balram's dream is to break free of his coop, to shed his feathers and become what for him is a symbol of individualism, power, and freedom: a white tiger. But as he discovers, white tigers have their own cages, too.

Of course, it's not simply the Balram's of the world caught in the rooster coop. Adiga's point seems to be that even the world's most privileged suffer from a cultural and class myopia that limits perspective and distorts self-understanding. The White Tiger is a good tonic with which to clear one's vision and spread one's wings.
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VINE VOICEon October 12, 2008
What's astonishing about "The White Tiger" isn't Adiga's depiction of the social and economic inequalities of contemporary India. Other writers--Rohinton Mistry in " A Fine Balance," Kiran Desai in "The Inheritance of Loss," among others--have written very good novels about this. What is astonishing is the economy with which he does it. Novels about societal inequities are often lengthy; think of a novel by Dickens or Stowe or Dreiser or Steinbeck, in which the accumulating weight of the details of suffering creates a powerful impression. Adiga creates two disparate worlds, Balram's tiny native village in the Darkness and the sliver of Delhi he inhabits in his life as a driver for the urbanized son of the village landlord. The first is a place of absolute hopelessness presided over by allegorical figures of corrupt wealth: the four landlords known as The Stork, The Buffalo, The Wild Boar, and The Raven. From afar (and occasionally up close) The Great Socialist is re-elected again and again through promises of change (always unkept) and corrupt electioneering. Balram's family, it is clear, will be poor forever.

The city, for Balram, consists of the glittery American-style mall (which he can't enter); the air-conditioned Honda that he drives; and the red bag stuffed with cash for politicians with power over The Stork's businesses. These two settings (and the human animals that inhabit them) set out a chasm that is utterly unbridgeable. Thus, when Balram murders his master (a fact established at the very beginning of the novel), it seems less a tragedy than the outcome of impeccable logic. I kept thinking of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, another small town character who migrates to the city. But where Dreiser is intent on portraying Carrie as someone corrupted by grinding social forces far beyond her control, Adiga deftly portrays Balram as an entrepreneur, one whose tiger's leap across the chasm is equally the product of social forces he cannot control. This leap leads to a 21st century ascent (in social and economic terms) not a 19th century descent into the loneliness that an obsession with wealth can bring.
M. Feldman
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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 September 5, 2008
A Man-Booker Prize nominated book by Aravind Adiga.
They remain slaves because they can't see what is beautiful in this world
-The Poet Iqbal, as quoted by Balram, the protagonist of the book.

To read this book is to leave with the impression that India is a mess. It is 99% of the 2nd most populous nation on Earth being kept in chains of servitude by themselves. Adiga has written a compelling first novel on the liberation of a man born to be a servant of the rich. It describes the way that Balram, a boy born in the Darkness - small villages away from the coast, is sold into indentured servitude to pay off the dowry debts associated with marrying of a daughter. Balram, told by a school inspector that he is a White Tiger - something born once a generation, rises through sheer ambition to become a driver for a local landlord. Through his cunning, he is brought to Delhi to serve as driver for Ashok - the son of the landlord.

As a driver, he begins to understand the relation between master and servant in his culture. The servant is nothing more than a throwaway item to be used and discarded.

A pivotal moment of the book occurs when Ashok's wife demands to drive after a wild night out with her husband. On the way home, she hits and kills a young child. No one saw the accident. Yet, to be safe, the landlord's family arranges for Balram to confess to the hit-and-run accident. It is a source of pride for Balram's family - that he would do this for the master!

From this point, Balram begins a series of rebellions leading up to the murder of Ashok and the theft of millions of rupees. This is not a vicious murder of a hated landlord. Rather, it is an amoral killing of the system that Ashok represents. It is the death of the old system. Yet the old system did not know it was dying. Balram runs away to the southern coast - to Bangalore, the tech capital - and sets up a taxi system for tech companies with the help of bribery of the police. When one of his drivers accidentally kills someone, he uses his connections in the police to sweep it under the rug. He protects his driver. Yet he insists on going to the family's house, paying his respects, giving them thousands of rupees, and hiring the killed boy's brother. The system is not dead, yet Adiga suggests it is changing as the few servants who free themselves change it from within.

This is not what westerners would call a morality story in the Western sense. There is a man willing to kill to get ahead. This is a man held up as honorable. The beauty of Adiga's writing is it opens a window into the culture that lets you root for Balram, hold him as honorable, even as he does dishonorable things.

Good read.
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on May 2, 2008
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is the compelling story of an Indian man trying to break free of societal chains and expectations. Balram Halwai lived in the Darkness, a small village, in India under the thumb of his grandmother and the rules of his culture, until he is hired as the driver for a landlord who brings him into the Light of Delhi. The story is told through a letter Balram is writing to a Chinese official to show him entrepreneurial spirit. Balram is intelligent, which gains him the nickname White Tiger in his home town, but because of his family name and no education, he can expect nothing greater than being a virtual slave to his boss. He has dreams of something, anything different than the life laid out in front of him, but they only begin to take root when his boss changes. As long as his boss is honorable in his actions to Balram, he can accept his lot in life, but when the man starts abusing him and sleeping with prostitutes, Balram sees that he is just as corrupt as the rest of the system and decides to break free, utilizing violence to do so. Despite Balram's deplorable behavior, you can't help but root for him and want him to break the cycle of back-breaking labor and destitute poverty that has followed his family for generations. He's a funny narrator whose descriptions of both monetary and moral poverty alternately make you laugh and cry. Adiga is a fresh voice and a stellar writer.
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on April 6, 2009
Let me start by saying that this book is certainly an above-average debut in what has now become quite a crowded and competitive space for novels about the sub-continent. Prose is beautiful, energetic and certainly works well to drive the story along. It makes the novel a swift read; there were hardly any passages that I felt like skipping or skimming over.

However, when I think of a Booker's prize winner, I think of a work of fiction that astounds in its depth of thought, with a style of prose that does not just deliver the plot line with sprinkles of humor but rather slaps you out of a lulling stupor and sends electric shocks up your spine. If it does not do that, then it should not be a Booker's winner.

I felt the same way about 'The reluctant fundamentalist' by Mohsin Hamid. That was another novel that received big praise from the western media but seemed rather bland to me, lacking even in material and original ideas. Perhaps it is because I am from the sub-continent myself and the ideas presented are not so original or out of the ordinary to me. Even then, I believe that the prose should take care of that and for me, Adiga's words did not cut it in White Tiger.
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VINE VOICEon January 22, 2009
A great book...deserving of its Man Booker Prize.

As much as I liked Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, this fictional work is the most vivid and revealing book about India that I've read to date. Author Aravind Adiga comes out of the gate with both guns blazing and never lets up. The book is constructed as a series of dictated reveries addressed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Adiga's tale speaks of an Indian/Chinese future with the US as a bit player.

As early as Page 2, Adiga bares his teeth:

"Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, _does_ have entrepreneurs."

From there on in, the author wades in and fires haymakers like that on every page. His pace and urgency never flag.

The tone is captured by a single line of English his driver/protagonist quotes early and often: "What a f---ing joke." It's a phrase that is throw out with such aplomb and bitterness by his master's ex-wife that it catches the driver's ear despite his unfamiliarity with the language.

I found it very enjoyable to pair this book with a viewing of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire [Theatrical Release]. Both are rooted in what Adiga calls the Darkness. In Adiga's tale, cynicism wins out and produces a deeply flawed survivor and winner. Boyle's film, by contrast, gives us the triumph of the good and pure in the form of humble chaiwallah, Jamal Malik.
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VINE VOICEon June 28, 2009
You've probably heard the praise. On my book can be found the following blurbs:

"One of the most powerful books I've read in decades. No hyperbole."

"Fresh, funny, different."


" original voice and vision."

"The future of the novel..."

" compelling as it is persuasive..."

Before I go off on a rant, let me say the following:

Decent story. Well-drawn protagonist. Textbook story arc with your standard complications leading to a climax that would be predictable if it wasn't already spelled out for you in chapter one. Clear, concise writing that is sometimes uneven; the narrator is the "white tiger," Balram Halwai, a self-made Indian entrepreneur who got where he is with just a little education and a whole lot of betrayal. In the midst of his tale-telling, Balram occasionally uses words and phrases that don't jive with his working class voice, but these moments are rare. Not altogether rewarding or disappointing, this is the kind of book you'd expect to be produced by one of those learn-by-mail writing programs.

THE RANT: Of the adjectives listed in the quotes above (or among the two dozen others in my book), the only one that I think comes close is "funny." There are amusing moments in the story, but nothing side-splitting. The humor is mostly sardonic. So why is this book getting such praise?

Virtually every glowing review mentions how the book is an "eye-opener." One review calls it the "perfect antidote to lyrical India." First of all, does lyrical India NEED an antidote? Before I ever heard of this book, I assumed India was rife with corruption and social shackles (hello, caste system). Am I the only reader who already knew this sort of thing went on there? Perhaps I'm jaded. I should stop reading the news. And teaching history.

And that's the other thing: is it possible there's a country where there isn't corruption or social abuse? If so, that's a book worth writing about. How does such a place exist, and can it be duplicated anywhere else? I'm not suggesting that India's corruption is not as bad as Africa's, Russia's, China's, Korea's, Central America's, South America's, the US's. Nor am I suggesting that the corruption in India (or ANYWHERE) isn't worthy of a book.

All I'm suggesting is that the book isn't amazing by virtue of its subject matter alone. If you pretend for a moment that rigged elections, foreign-funded civil wars, and an indentured lower class is old news, this book isn't anything special. It's a paint-by-numbers plot told with very few frills and too much foreshadowing. There is no real tension or conclusion to the tale. If the narrator had been omniscient, most of the book would've sounded like the script for a newscast.

Adiga has potential, since even getting the fundamentals of writing down isn't something most people are capable of. But let's hope his next book earns praise not for his subject matter, but for how he portrays that subject matter. This white tiger just didn't have enough stripes for me.
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on February 16, 2009
You know what to expect from a novel about India, right? The saffron scented air; the orange and pink silks; the jangling stacks of gold bangles; the mystical mists rising off mountains; the hair-raising squalor juxtaposed against unbelievable architectural spendor . . . . Well, you'll find little of that here, in this fast-moving, highly cynical tale of an opportunistic self-made man who rises from the muck of a small Indian village to the entrepeneurial paradise of Banglalore with very few regrets along the way.

The depictions of poverty and filth are familiar from other novels about India; you can be sure that any mention of a stream, river, lake or washpan will lead directly into a lingering description of the water's fecal content. It's the descriptions of the rich that surprise; rather than living out a Raj-era fantasy of the Indian good life, the rich in Adiga's Delhi live in high rise apartments furnished with rented white couches, consume pizza and counterfeit English booze, and listen to Sting and Eminen on the CD player. In a hilariously ironic detail, even their New Age music is imported; the chill-out music of choice is not Ravi Shankar, but Enya.

The book is a highly entertaining page turner, and the narrator's voice is witty and distinctive. In the end, however, I found the book to be lacking in depth. Rather than fully fleshed out characters, the book relies on caricatures, and the political critique is totally lacking in nuance. It's good in the way a Carl Hiaasson novel is good; it's a fun caper novel with colorful characters in a highly distinctive setting. But Booker worthy? Not to me.
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on January 23, 2009
Despite a few flaws (like cartoonish secondary characters), I strongly recommend "The White Tiger" for three reasons: (1) Aravind Adiga skillfully constructs an intriguing, humorous narrative that moves like the wind; (2) he brings us into a foreign world to which most Americans are oblivious; (3) it presents a moral ambiguity that you'll want to discuss long after you're through reading the book.
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