Thursday, December 11, 2008
The White Tiger was this year's recipient of the Man Booker Award for fiction. There has been some buzz among the literary critics that the quality of novels nominated for this award has steadily decreased, and complete disbelief that this particular book won. On the other hand, among the blogging community, it has been positively embraced, and I wanted to give it a chance.
The book is written as a first-person narrative by a successful, self-proclaimed Indian entrepreneur, who is telling his life story to a Chinese premier about to visit India for the first time. The voice of the narrator is cynical, callous and crude, yet has a hilarious, dry sense of humor. He describes his life as a poor son of a rickshaw driver, who was never given a name by his parents but was dubbed "The White Tiger" by his teacher because of his unique intellect and potential in a village of the downtrodden. The government later names him "Balram", and provides him a birthdate so that he can vote for the local, corrupt landlord. Balram goes on to paint a vivid picture of life in India...one of light and darkness, rich and poor, corrupt and virtuous, materialistic and loyal. Balram learns how to drive and becomes a driver for a family of corrupt landlords, and learns much, despite very little schooling, from his habit of eavesdropping. He yearns to break free of his servitude and become "a big-bellied man". As his master becomes more and more debased, so does Balram. Once loyal and law-abiding to a fault, Balram now becomes angry, begins to use the master and he has been used, hire prostitutes, drink, and ultimately, plan to rob and kill the master. Balram's life originates in poverty and "darkness", but in his quest to live in the India of Light, perhaps finds himself in the darkest place of all. At the end of the book, however, we find our narrator has clawed his way back to moral ground and is at peace with the circumstances by which he made his break for freedom.
Adiga provides rich prose in describing the un-navigatable chasm between the haves and the have-nots. One of most entertaining analogies used was the "rooster coop", which, as the narrator described, is what India is known for:
"Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country."
This may not have made my TBR list had it not been for its recent popularity, and I am glad it was brought to my attention. I'm not sure where the critics are coming from, but I believe the award was well-deserved.