Thursday, February 26, 2009

Out-slumming 'Slumdog' - The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Call it the Slumdog effect. It feels like books set in India's dark underbelly (and boy, is there a dark underbelly!) are suddenly everywhere. But if that is the only reason you start reading The White Tiger, or the reason you don't pick up this book, you do it a great disservice.

The White Tiger is the debut novel of Aravind Adiga, a Bombay based reporter previously with Time, and Financial Times. And it is a stunner. The book is the narrative of a driver, driving his master around in the dust and grime of Dhanbad in heartland India, and later, memorably, in Delhi. It is the narrative of a man who describes himself as 'half-baked indian', 'entrepreneur' and, simply 'murderer'. It is written as a series of letter from the driver, Balram Halwai (who must be one of the most original fictional creations coming out of an Indian's pen since Saleem Sinai) to the prime minister of China. Over seven nights, Balram narrates the story of his life in the 'chicken coop' of heartland India, his life as the invisible man in the front seat of a Honda City as life of consequence carries out its business in the back seat, and finally, as an 'entrepreneur' emerging out of cold-blooded murder.

What is most striking about The White Tiger is how remarkably un-Indian the writing is. And I mean that in a descriptive way, not as praise, or as a pejorative. It is stark, and entirely devoid of sentimentality. Balram is not given to sentiment. He sees and says things as they are, breaking them down to their lowest, basest components. And he doesn't flinch. Neither does Adiga, as he takes the reader on a ride through the lives of the forgotten people. He looks at India from the practical, unsentimental view of someone at the bottom rung of the ladder. And what he sees is not pretty.

If you are looking for a balanced view on caste relations in India, how it got here, how liberal ideas are creating progress in the status quo and what remains to be done, you are reading the wrong book. If, on the other hand, you are interested in looking at this complex nation of a thousand cultures from an almost anti-Bollywood perspective, make Adiga your guide. Here is my guarantee - it will be a short few hours (because the book flies), and you will find yourself alternately laughing out loud and grimacing from literary equivalents of kicks to the groin.

If it is only to hear the original voice of Balram Halwai (and by extension, of Aravind Adiga), read this book!

1 comment:

  1. I thought The White Tiger was a very ordinary book. The storytelling is very unauthentic - it is designed to please the western audiences more than Indian ones (similar to slumdog millionaire). For a more local narrative of the north Indian underbelly, I recommend "The Story of my Assassins" by Tarun Tejpal. Not as good as his first novel, but definitely slumdoggier than anything you may have read.