Monday, October 20, 2008

The White Tiger

By Aravinda Adiga

Adiga’s debut novel has been acclaimed as the one that questions the India Shining story, the one that puts paid to the hype of the emerging super power. It describes an India that has been left behind in the New India dream of the middle classes. In a state that is obviously Bihar, Adiga creates a character called Balram Halwai and gives him a voice. It is a voice that is unlike any that we have seen so far in English Indian fiction – brutal, simmering with obvious anger, yet laced through with sardonic dark humour. Balram Halwai is a man who has come up from the depths of grinding poverty to become one of New India’s stories of successful entrepreneurship. And in a series of letters he writes to the Chinese Premier on a state visit to India (a devilish ploy by Adiga, given our obsession with comparisons with China), he describes the route he takes to get where he is.

Balram is born Munna (there are so many children in his joint family in Laxmangarh, the elders forget to name him and it is left to a school teacher to do so), the son of a rikshaw-puller. As in the case of all the men in his family, he is forced to drop out of school and work in a tea shop when one of his sisters needs the money for her marriage. But Balram is no ordinary boy – he is canny, intelligent and has the street-smartness to figure a way out of the misery of the tea-shop worker. He takes driving lessons and becomes the local landlord’s driver. And thus begins his life of servitude to the landlord and his family. For a driver is not just a driver in the Indian household – he is the cook, if there isn’t one, a masseuse and a general man Friday. For a few thousand rupees, Balram pledges his undying allegiance to his master’s family. When Ashok, the America-returned son of the master moves to Delhi, Balram moves with him as his driver. For the ‘sponge’ as Balram calls himself, the move is most fortuitous. For it is here that the India of Light and the India of Darkness collide. This is where migrants from the Darkness, like Balram, meet the shining new malls and glass-towered suburbs of Light. This is where they see the true nature of their servitude. And this is where Balram acts out the most decisive chapter in his route to entrepreneurship – the killing of his master.

For most middle class Indians, this is an uncomfortable book. We know there is something wrong in a world where the price of a dress or a meal in a restaurant is as much as the salary you pay your driver. Adiga brings home to us truths that we’d much rather not see – the divide between the two Indias, the geographic inequality of progress, the corruption that vitiates our democracy. Yet strangely enough, it is not a bleak book. Balram Halwai becomes an entrepreneur, creating jobs and bringing prosperity to more people like him. The sheer venality of the route he employs and the absence of any remorse might make us squirm. Yet, he does manage to escape the fate he was born to, becoming a success in spite of the system. It’s a bit like watching Guru and the Ambani story. There might not be murder in that success story, but there sure was corruption.

Adiga’s book is a compulsive and riveting read. His Balram Halwai is a character that is sure to remain in the reader’s mind for a while, like the policeman Khatekar in Sacred Games and the bar girls in Maximum City. As I finished reading the book, the Booker announced Adiga as the winner. Does The White Tiger feature among my favourite Booker winners? No. Adiga is no Salman Rushdie. Nor does he write as beautifully as Arundhati Roy. But he tells a topical story in a compelling almost un-put-downable manner. It definitely is one of the better books to come out of the Indian fiction scene in the past few years.

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