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Sunday, 24 August 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

by Suzan Abrams

I thoroughly enjoyed the clever writing in Aravind Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, which has since been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008.

I decided that both the title and plot made it the man's novel. In normal circumstances, I wouldn't have bought it but I am pleased when my boundaries as a reader are challenged enough to push me to embrace the experimental and question my own rigid perceptions sometimes.

Here I thought that devoid of the usual female sentiments that highlight romanticism through nostalgic introspections and idealistic notions from in-depth diaspora or family stories currently popular in contemporary Indian literature, The White Tiger took a peculiar turn for the extraordinary with its jarring look at hypocrisy and poverty - that did not once let up - and my belief is that while it may be scoffed at by skeptics who turn up their noses at the Man Booker Prize or otherwise choose to stay snobbish about a potential shortlist, still irregardless... this novel will in about a decade or so become recognized as one of the early important titles together with Animal's People, Six Suspects etc. that began to reflect a darker harsher face to modern day India and so helped change the settings and trends to stories from the Indian sub-continent, published in the millennium.

I witnessed hometruths through the lives of these servants, from fictitious episodes sketched by Adiga, with a long-forgotten familiarity. I'm glad that he chose to settle for profound and gut-wrenching insights, not otherwise observed or admitted by the outsider. Even the insider details as to the comic consumption of alcohol, was wonderfully telling. A lot of the message that comes from a life of servitude is painfully true.

The worst who get it as Adiga rightly points out are the Tamilians - many in different parts of south-east Asia, still in lower-income groups, on regular protest marches for equal rights and while considered to be one of the lower castes are often denied of equal opportunities, even in the year 2008. In almost every community even a traditional Sikh (Punjab) one, there would be different caste groups comprising say, of tailors, carpenters, cowherds, etc, heading back to a time of ancestry and according to a family's surname, or even by the colour of one's skin/complexion, would the individual still be treated accordingly following a vow of silent discrimination, by other members of his community.

Many Indian families who emigrated worldwide carry the caste system with them as faithful heirlooms. Many do talk of their servants with a puritanical self-righteousness; often speaking about them loudly in the third-person as if they were never there. In Malaysia & Singapore, Indian professionals from different parts of India at one time, mostly employed Tamilian servant boys and girls 9-14 years of age from the villages - these childrens' grandparents may have come on boats years before to these countries to work as labourers - and these young servants would sometimes be treated to the milder versions of measures spelt out by Adiga. One 12-year old boy slept at night under the family's expensive dining table. His straw mat was his bed and the table his roof. His owners were teachers in Kuala Lumpur. He wasn't ill-treated in any way besides having to do an enormous amount of household chores, but his sleeping arrangements said it all.

Not all were unkind but a fair number were.

For me, the story dug deep to reveal horrible injustices and while intriguing, entertainment it was not.


My neutral observations of The White Tiger were that every time fictitious servants tried to converse in English, they spoke in present continuous tenses. This trait, apparent in other novels as well. I was amused that Adiga chose to portray women as superficial, useless and cheap or otherwise survivors armed with a sly cunning.


What I disliked about The White Tiger was the framework device and the whole letter-writing episode which I felt was unnecessary. There were only a few lines on China in general terms, scattered about the novel. Adiga could have got away with the comparisons and rivalry in straight prose, I felt.
I also couldn't relate to Balram's craving for the four Muslim poets, which seemed strangely out of place in context with the text. I believe Adiga was trying to impose a literary element somewhere in the middle of the vast mass of general fiction, but that just didn't work for me. It sort of hung in the air...Balram never made it a point to inspect the poems with the clarity he claims to have possessed and it doesn't take many rupees to buy a second-hand book in India. Balram chose to do neither so as a reader, I stayed unconvinced.

I also disliked the section that started from the 'spit puddles'. For me, it had to be the surreal spiritual visions afforded by buffaloes and especially the scene on hanging about at the book-stall for so long that the foul taste of books lingered in his mouth. I suspected that Adiga used the 'books episode' to remind readers that Balram was indeed once a clever student but I felt that all those scenes went-off course from what was otherwise, a tight polished structure.


My favourite character was Ashok. He was so clearly part of the new India that started being essayed about in magazines everywhere in the nineties. Many Indian engineers worldwide, and those running Silicon Valley in America, come from Bangalore.

Then there were those fascinating conversations between the main characters, The Mongoose and Ashok in the car when they were drunk and Balram had to pour out the expensive whiskey. Well, as to the dialogue that went on... That's exactly how a fair number of well-to-do Indian businessmen in real life, would initiate conversations in the event they have had a pint too many. Some may display a brash false bravado, lots of exaggerated arrogance and strutting about and all at once. Aravind Adiga got it spot-on here. His tell-tale scenes were perfect.

I also loved it that for me as a reader all the characters were skillfully developed. And what an intriguing end with the servant's gripping Robin-Hood justice! The last pages were chilling to a point of being enigmatic. The whole story appeared compelling and unforgettable.

I thought how much this differed from Animal's People which was super for its exquisite prose from start to finish and its skilled technical execution where Sinha beautifully employed the 'fire' imagery but which commanded a soppy end afterwards where every single character lived happily-ever-after and all knots were so neatly tied up that I found myself easily abandoning the characters for good, as soon as that last page was turned. There was nothing else to know about them.

But here now and still, I wondered if there would ever be a sequel and if Balram would succeed in getting his comeuppance from a revengeful nephew, some years down the line. It bore thinking about.


Suggested reading on the Dalit community in Tamil Nadu state, India's official untouchables.
I caught a valuable documentary of the same, on Dublin's Gaelic tv channel recently... its been repeated a few times.

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