Book review: The White Tiger – Arvind Adiga

Cover of "The White Tiger: A Novel"
Cover of The White Tiger: A Novel

Munna, aka Balram Halwai, the narrator and main character of Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, narrates the story of his journey from a village in the Darkness to becoming an entrepreneur in the Light.

Starting out as a cleaning boy in a small tea shop in his village Laxmangarh, Munna moved to the city of Dhanbad with his elder brother to become a cleaner at a bigger tea shop. But his yearning for a uniform and a better life attracted him to the drivers that he saw at the tea shop, and he convinced his family to let him learn how to drive. By a strange quirk of fate, he soon gained employment with Mongoose, the son of a landlord (Stork) from his village. Learning the ways and means of the house, his cunning and intelligence enabled him to move with Stork’s younger, US returned son to Delhi, the city that eventually corrupted him. Detailing the sequence of events that led him to murder his master and flee to Bangalore, Balram narrates his life story in the form of seven letters to the Chinese Prime Minister who is visiting India shortly, in order to acquaint him with the “real India.”

I have to admit that I approached this book with a great deal of skepticism, which is why I read it this late! (It won the Booker in 2008.) I typically do not like Indian authors (chicklit authors aren’t included in this discussion), as they seem to write solely for a Western audience, depicting India as a completely backward country filled with murderers and marauders, and Indians as either backward, narrow minded people or people who fawn over white skin and want nothing more than to ape Westerners (think Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss). But there are some, like Suketu Mehta, whose hard-hitting Millenium City took a brutal and honest look at the underbelly of Mumbai; Jhumpa Lahiri, who beautifully evoked the pathos and stories of Bengalis living abroad in Unaccustomed Earth; and Chetan Bhagat, whose books have mass appeal because he can connect to readers, young and old alike. (His 2 States took an honest look at the difficulties that youngsters face if they want to marry outside their caste.) I add to this list of believable authors Arvind Adiga.

Dharavi slums, Mumbai
(image via Wikipedia)

Representing India as two Indias, the Darkness and Light, Adiga takes a dig at the “India Shining” campaign launched by the BJP. The Darkness represents rural India, where poverty and illiteracy and feudalism still exist, the Light refers to the metros and fast-growing Tier I and II cities, which were the focus of the India Shining campaign. The Great Socialist, the political party that features in the novel, takes a dig at Mayawati, who rose to power in order to empower Dalits, but since then has only lined her pocket with cold hard cash. Adiga’s character sketch of Munna could fit almost any migrant worker, the so-called floating population that comes into big cities in search of work and a way out of their grinding poverty. His eventual corruption and betrayal of his master is a reflection of the corruption we see all around us.

Though he does focus on poverty and illetracy, on the great divide between rich and poor, this is a novel that is believable because India still remains a land of contradictions. The gaps have narrowed, but the economic and social divide remain.

All-in-all, it’s an interesting read, and I’d gladly recommend it to anyone.

Have you read the book? What do you think about it?

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  1. A very nice review. I too, probably would not even have considered reading this but for your review.

    Years ago I read A Fine Balance and was so put off by the sheer brutality, that I shy away from novels that I perceive might be similar.

    After reading your post – I just might look in the library for this one.

    • Do read it, and do let me know if you liked it! It’s quite an honest look at India, at the polarities between the classes…it’s a bit brash and a bit queasy…but it’s good. Hope you enjoy the book!

    • I don’t think India should have hosted the games in the first place. The money could have been better utilized for development initiatives in the country. But I think they’ll somehow manage to pull the games off successfully and then the fiascos might just get swept under the carpet.

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