"The White Tiger is selling good in the market as it expectedly should". Siddharthya Roy reviews Arvind Adiga's "The White Tiger".
Man Booker winner ‘The White Tiger’ by Arvind Adiga is currently commanding a big rage in the book market. Most book critics and book columns have held it high in their ratings and given it generous applause. To an extent rightly so.
Adiga’s first person narration of Balram Halwai, alias Munna, starts in a nameless village in the rural Hindi Belt near the Ganges. A region he calls the ‘Darkness’, as opposed to the urban ‘Light’. The age old yet very popular, rags to riches wine is effectively bottled in this deprived boy to successful Bangalore entrepreneur using contemporary format. Adiga shows good story-telling skills in the uncommon narration format in which Balram, later rechristened Ashok Sharma, tells the story of his life through emails to none other than Chinese Premier Wn Jiabao! The narration is fast paced with action based events following each other at close intervals. Though not un-putdownable, the plot is thick enough to hold the reader’s attention until the end. It has all the signs of a ‘hit’. It has the prescribed action, sex and a generous helping of in-your-face shocking sequences. It wouldn’t be surprising to see White Tiger in a ‘movie based on best-seller at a theater near you’ avatar soon.
The above is however not saying that there’s nothing in the novel for the thinking and questioning reader. Rather there is substance for thinking and questioning in the novel. Both the protagonist Balram and his antagonist, or rather substrate character, Mr. Ashok, show good transition and progressive character sketching. The former goes from good to bad and so does the latter. The difference between the two is that Balram breaks his pre-ordained mould and cleaves his destiny, whereas Ashok closes in on his destined nature, that of a brutal landlord. Balram goes from being a deprived and exploited motherless child of an illiterate family to a cunning businessman, whereas Ashok changes from being a humane, liberal and free-spirited person from America to the evil hearted corrupt Indian businessman. Notably however all through this transition the two characters wonderfully retain and show streaks of their core value, rebellion. Rebellion that initially borders on and later directly leads to criminality. The pitting of these two lead characters against each other in the reader’s vision is the strongest aspect of Adiga’s novel. The love-hate relation of the two is wonderfully clothed in sympathy, loyalty, pity, contempt and selfishness. The additional internal self-contradiction of the two characters individually, adds to the delight of the reader. All of this unfolds in a very contemporary Indian society setting that urban readers can identify with owing to what they see and believe in their everyday lives. Also praiseworthy is the presence of a protagonist from the deprived sections of society. It is a welcome change to readers who are mostly dished out only rich protagonists with little or no mundane monetary worries. Adiga, through Balram’s eyes, holds up the unethical and cut throat ways of a rat race society we see in today’s India. He mercilessly brings out the hypocrisy of many familial and societal relations.
The aforementioned however does not absolve Adiga’s White Tiger of shortcomings, both in content and formative. First the latter.
Though the premise of parlance used in the novel is everyday and hence simple, Adiga goes overboard with it. Vile words such as “arse” “boob” “shit” are overused rendering many patches vulgar. The only metaphor in the novel is “beak”, for penis, that has been ‘dipped into’ every part of story possible, and not so possible. There is no subtlety in emotional expressions or understanding in any of the characters. As a result of this there is no play of words and formation of sub-streams within the main flow of the story. Adiga leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination with which s/he can possible play with even beyond the pages of the book. This lack of depth in story-writing and language, endangers the White Tiger’s longevity in readers’ memories and later referrals.
Coming to the content of the story, the whole plot relies on a foundation of clichés with lots of typecasting thrown in. The corruption free and professional ‘American heaven’ is constantly used to contrast, and hence condemn, the “corrupted fucker” infested ‘Indian hell’. This clichéd thought, as with its other occurrences in creations other than Adiga’s, is blissfully ignorant of the plight of thousands of USA inhabitants including migrants, Blacks, Hispanics, ethnic Indians, low income White families and so on. Adiga’s character Ashok’s statements seem to say American under-privileged are not “screwed”, to borrow Adiga’s jargon, by their corrupt masters. Adiga loathes the Sonia Gandhi led Congress Party, by name at that, with it’s dealer leaders who carry out their corrupt deals sitting in the President’s House on Raisina Hill. He then pits it against a nameless, but thoroughly identifiable, Socialist Party. As per the storyline these two political parties take turns at exploiting the Balrams, Kishans and their fathers in the ‘Darkness’ by the Ganges. One wonders what makes Adiga specifically leave out the Right in India under whose aegis this novel’s premise, the fallacious India rising on outsourcing and software, took place? The Socialist Party Vs Congress Party scenario and the outsourcing and software scenario belong to two distinct times that are many years apart. Then why does Adiga stretch his creative license so much to bring the two together? As a corollary, why does Adiga use so less of the same creative license to actually blur the identities of the villainous ‘Great Socialist’ with his ‘red headband’ sporting minions, instead of being so close to fact? Protagonist Balram revels in the pursuit of doggedly ignorant monolithic typecasting of Muslims, Communists, Politicians, Police and so on. This typecasting is seen even in Adiga the author when he paints every character from Kusum Granny to the vitilligo afflicted driver on to the cunning village bus conductor, not sparing even the kid nephew of Balram. All these characters have been painted in single colours, pre-dominantly black, with no variation as is generally seen. Why such insensitive typecasting in a novel that bears the USP of showing the disparate reality? May be because that plays well to the market galleries. May also be because it makes the author’s job easier than what would have been had he done more detailed sketching. The only ones to escape this are protagonist Balram, antagonist Mr. Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam. Balram’s character, by an author’s compulsion, has to be shown in-depth with shades of gray. The other two are shown to have remnants of a conscientious human in them owing to their American upbringing!
To sum it up, The White Tiger is selling good in the market as it expectedly should. Adiga shows many traits of a good storyteller and the White Tiger of a first novel.