The whole world is talking about Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize but I got to read it only now. The write-ups before the Booker were uninspiring and I stayed away. Come to think of it, I think only Arundhati Roy deserved her Booker, Kiran Desai’s book was lame and Rushdie’s book convoluted. The White Tiger is a ‘made for Booker’ product – clinical and following a formula, with the right ingredients in just the right amounts.
The narrative is in the form of a letter that the protagonist is writing to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo on the eve of his visit to India. It plays out on the lines of a confession. Set in modern day India, the book traces the life of Balram Halwai from impoverished Laxmangarh in Gaya to the city lights of Bangalore. Starting off as a driver, Balram turns into a succesful entrepreneur and in the course of that journey he murders and robs his master. The plot is simple and unpretentious and that makes it eminently readable. The simplicity is keeping in with the allegorical style that Adiga has used. However, this is where the whole plot is suspect. The benefit of using the allegorical style is that it leaves the onus on the reader to try and discover meanings and thoughts hidden in the novel. Classic modern examples are Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? One can find hidden meanings every time you read it. I dont see too much of that happening with The White Tiger and that is a smart move by Adiga.
He has used two main leitmotifs – Darkness and the Rooster’s Coop. Darkness is the stark reality – of life in Indian villages, of ignorance and poverty. And the Rooster’s Coop is about servility, of serfdom and the infamous Indian habit of reticence and irresponsiveness to injustice. The imagery is stark and tends to get nauseating, he tends to go overboard with the descriptions of dirt, grime and filth. At times it feels like he is playing to the galleries. He has however captured the ethos of both Delhi and Bangalore brilliantly. The digs on bureaucracy, the allusion to ‘the great socialist’ and the police force sit well.
In terms of characterisation, Balram is drawn pretty well, though his reason for the murder is not convincing enough. And this is largely because the build up to the killing is not laid out well. Ashok as the business man is painted with the soft human colours but again not well etched, there are several instances when his actions lack logic. The language is simple and Adiga has done well on that front keeping in mind that Balram is semi literate. There are flashes of well placed humour as well.
Amitav Ghosh will feel indignant that all the research and hard work he put in to create Sea of Poppies came to naught beside The White Tiger, and rightly so. The White Tiger, a decent read? Yes. Booker? No.
The White Tiger hardly mews.