The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
“So I stood around that big square of books. Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you, Your Excellency. It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.
"Except here what happens is that your brain starts to hum.” ― Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
This first novel by Aravind Adiga reminded me of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. That is to say it is not your traditional Indian novel, but one that presents the hero as the outsider, a man who is both literally and figuratively underground and invisible.
The novel is narrated by Balram Halwai, "The White Tiger" who over seven nights shares his life story in the form of a letter to a Chinese official. In Balram the author has created an anti-hero who, with both charisma and charm, shares a very dark story about corruption, death and escape from the most extreme poverty into the wealth of successful entrepreneurship. The author uses the metaphors of light and dark to help us understand his traversal of a side of India seldom seen in most tales of that country. The theme of naming/identity also plays an important role as Balram takes on different names as he grows and changes from the simple munna to his eventual magisterial identity as "The White Tiger". The author has created a sort of modern journey, much as Ellison did where the hero overcomes his beginnings, and the corruption he finds everywhere, to create a new life for himself. It is, however, a new life that is strangely cut off from society so he remains an outsider to the end. The brilliant conception of the author impressed me as he presented believable characters, the realistic details about the best and worst of Indian society, and a clear depiction of the nature of the hero at the center of the story. There is black humor that is sometimes excruciatingly funny alongside true regret, and underlying it all hints of a fear (of the past) that cannot be completely eradicated.
The author's voice is original and challenging as he takes you on a journey that, while seemingly straightforward, has many layers of meaning and leaves you with questions to ponder. One of these is why he is writing to a Chinese official; perhaps sixty years ago he would have been writing to a British official? Genuinely deserving of the Man Booker Prize of 2008, The White Tiger is both an engaging enjoyable read and a thought-provoking meditation on life.
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