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2.0 out of 5 stars Is White Tiger at best a Paper Tiger?, December 23, 2008
This review is from: The White Tiger: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 23 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 26, 2008 6:16:24 AM PST
Vivek Sharma says: is an excellent and more telling review by Sanjay that appeared in London Review of Books.

Posted on Apr 12, 2009 10:42:31 AM PDT
reader56 says:
This was very helpful in my decision about whether or not to read this book. Why isn't this review or another one by an Indian reader posted on the "front" page?

Posted on Aug 24, 2009 12:48:17 PM PDT
I completely agree with this review. You have to be a "non-Indian" to like this kind of writing! Indians are sick and tired of writers playing with words, emotions, and "type-casting" the people there.

Posted on Aug 26, 2009 9:23:25 PM PDT
Brad Hoevel says:
This is a fantastic review

Posted on Aug 30, 2009 8:01:51 PM PDT
excellent review. I am getting so sick of books like white tiger, and movies like slumdog

Posted on Oct 23, 2009 8:16:30 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 24, 2009 4:18:02 PM PDT
I did like the book (a lot), but I feel I have been educated by your review.

I read a somewhat similar review of Slumdog Millionaire in the New Yorker and did NOT go see the movie because of it. I failed to make the connection between the critiques of the movie and this book (stereotypes, rags-to-riches implausibility, etc).

Food for thought. Thank you.

Posted on Oct 26, 2009 10:35:42 PM PDT
Mayank Kumar says:
Excellent review. I completely agree.

Posted on Dec 18, 2009 7:21:21 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 18, 2009 7:21:45 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2009 12:33:38 PM PST
Sanjay is a brilliant, brilliant historian, but if the LRB article is any example he is a mediocre reader of literature. He asserts--without ever building a case for why--that the novel "must" succeed or fail on the degree of Balram's verisimilitude. But this isn't a documentary, nor even a work of realism as such. It is a satire, and Balram is a construct deployed for satirical purposes. He is no more a fully fleshed-out individual than is Stephen Colbert's character on The Colbert Report. Balram is precisely the urban bourgeois fantasy of a lower-caste social climber, one of the imagined murderers that Sanjay cites in the news reports that open his review. Surely Adiga, with his background as a journalist, is aware of this moral panic about servants, and he has created a story imagining what might happen if one allowed one of these journalistic constructions to speak. (It is not an accident that crime magazines play a central role in the book.) If you understand this funhouse-mirror approach to character in which unwholesome stereotypes gain agency and take flight, then the whole novel falls into place, and renders pointless the complaints that the characters are "typecast" or insufficiently "real" for the (true? essential?) Indian reader. I'm surprised that Subrahmanyam didn't make this connection.

Posted on Jan 21, 2010 5:29:57 PM PST
Rich Stoehr says:
I finished 'The White Tiger' today and I wrote my own (much shorter) review of my disappointment in the book as a whole, before reading your review or anyone else's. What you had to say here fleshes out so much of what I found distasteful in the novel. Even if it was intended as satire, as other reviewers contend, to me it was poorly done and painted an overly-negative picture. Purely as a novel I found it didn't tell enough of a story. As a picture of a culture beyond the ken of most Americans, I felt it was incomplete and exaggerated.

Simply put, thank you for this eloquent and thoughtful review! I appreciated the extra perspective.
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