Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

When I first saw the shortlist for the Booker Prize, back in September of 2008, I was surprised to see a South Asian name there which I did not immediately recognize—Aravind Adiga—which made me curious. Just who is this guy with the Indian name, I thought to myself. As a librarian of South Asian heritage I should really know these things. So I did some research and found out that his background is in financial journalism and in working as a South Asia correspondent for TIME magazine. The White Tiger is his first novel.

At the time I thought, Oh, he's such a newbie to literary fiction. There is no way he is going to get the prize when he's up against such prolific and well-established writers as
Sebastian Barry and Amitav Ghosh. But, hmm, a new South Asian writer was now on my radar, and, so, out of sheer curiosity, I put the book on my reserve list on the Brooklyn Public Library catalog.

When I received the book and started to eagerly read, I ran into a strange roadblock. The book has an unusual structure that was (for me) difficult to get attuned to. It is written as a kind of series of oral letters (a spoken-out-loud blog, perhaps?) made by Balram Halwai, the protagonist, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. While I found this "frame tale" somewhat off-putting and artificial, there was enough of a spark in the insistent voice of the main character, charmingly vulgar and yet elusive, that kept me going. And I am glad that I did, as it quite soon grabbed me by the throat until I read it all the way through.

I should reveal that I recently traveled back to India, just this past summer, so I had fresh memories of visiting disparate places: friends' homes where servants were not treated poorly, but definitely were part of the "conveniences of modern living" as well as urban slums where whole families were living in rooms a fraction of the size of the guest room at my friends' place. If I had to put the memories into one word, that word would be "guilt." Therefore this book, written from the perspective of someone rising up from what he calls "the Darkness" to become a servant-chauffeur of an incredibly rich and thoughtless family, and to later become an entrepreneur in his own right—albeit through extremely shady means—well, you can see why this story would grip me.

So, fellow readers, I have given you my initial response to the book, but I am curious to hear about your response. Do share with us in the comments below, and our conversation will be under way. Feel free to respond to any aspect of the book that struck you, but, if you are looking for some inspiration, here are some questions I am curious about:

Much has been made of the fact that author Aravind Adiga, although coming from a privileged class himself, has written this book from the perspective of someone from the poorest class within India. Arguments have been made regarding how authentic is the voice of Balram Halwai. When you read this book, did knowing (or not knowing) Adiga's background make you perceive the writing from a different stance? How relevant is his background to your understanding of the book?

In one interview, Adiga went to some pains to state, "I hope it's clear that I am not the narrator." What are your thoughts on the reliability of the narrator? Is he someone you implicitly believe? If not, how do you sift his statements?

Class is a key issue in this book, as it exposes the dramatic difference in the lives of the rich and the "half-baked people," as Balram refers to himself and others from disadvantaged backgrounds. How are class differences presented in the book? How aware or unaware are the various characters of the economic and social forces that affect their lives? And is there an inherent contradiction in an uneducated narrator poinpointing the injustices and inequalities that affect his life?

I'm also curious to know, blog readers, what you thought of the book's "open letter to Wen Jiabao" frame tale structure or how this worked for you (or didn't).

That's it for this post then; looking forward to your responses and to an enjoyable discussion about this fascinating novel!


Anonymous said...

This is a good selection. I appreciate the diversity represented on this forum. I have not read the whole novel yet but am enjoying every word of it. Arundhati Roy is my favorite and ever since she won the Booker for her novel, she has written some truthful and revolutionary non-fiction, which will make a Socrates proud. I can sense that Adiga has similar sensitivity and penetrating intelligence. He can see many levels and layers and their interconnections in everyday reality in India. His portrayal of materially well endowed but emotionally immature rich is quite profoud.

Malika said...

Great write up. Thanks for supporting Brooklyn Public Library!

Anonymous said...

The roosters in the coop “see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they are next. They do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The same thing is done with human beings in this country”.

I salute Adiga's amazing courage the more I read his book. I hope some politicians, priests and pandits read it in India. Booker was so deserved. I have never visited India but Mumbai attacks brought some "elephants in the land" in the headlines recently. Brad Pitt made a similar comment on Larry King about the injustices and discriminations and poverty that prevails in a land of hundreds of thousands of gods and so many blind spots. Not that injustice and discrimination dont happen all over the world (or history) but to this extent and degree, in a land with so many gods and temples, the conitinuing injustice makes me wonder if cults of religion and patriotism really make a difference to the dark side of human nature. Humans find complex rationalizations, subtle justifications and feel-good interpretations to play the power and control games to their class/tribe/hearts/caste's (or is it the mean/selfish genes) content. How do you interpret modern day India and its disparities? Just curious.

sheila said...

Great selection. I plan to check it out and have passed on the blog link to a friend who just returned from a trip to India.

Anonymous said...

Karl Marx might be defunct as an economist but his insights into the dark nature of capitalistic narcissistic elite is quite realistic. It is being corroborated by the financial meltdown right now. The irony is that motly the rich will read such novels while the poor will be too occupied about the next meal. The elite have the poor and the politicians on a leash not only in India. The exploitation of the dispossesed by the powerful is a universal phenomenon. May be Marx has already reincarnated some where in India to rewrite that religion still is the opium of the poor. What is achieved through religion in India is achieved through propaganda in America. But paradoxically, only in America one can say such things on the mass media but not yet in India.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:41 wrote: "in a land with so many gods and temples, the conitinuing injustice makes me wonder if cults of religion and patriotism really make a difference to the dark side of human nature."
Hey Anonymous 2:41, I don’t think religion is to blame. As long as there is poverty, there will be gods. As long as there is unconsciousness about lust for power, there will be gods. As long as humans play the blame game, there will be gods. That is why Spinoza said, "Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand."
Instead, governments have failed, education systems have failed, institutions have failed, authority has failed—not religion.
Sure Indians (mostly Hindus) invest a lot in religious exteriors (variety of gods and innumerable temples) but one of the cardinal dimensions of religion is not the exteriors but the “Interiors of Consciousness.”

By blaming the desperate coping strategies of the harassed poor, one cannot deny what mystics of all epochs (regardless of their religious identity) have EXPERIENCED in their interiors.
In all cultures, the limitations of ordinary language, the pathologies of power politics, the narcissisms of parenting practices get in the way of interior transcendental truth which is essential inherent potential of all human beings regardless of their religious persuasions. The exteriors are arbitrary. Only the inner dimension--Consciousness--is the universal essence of being human. That is why inner development or (evolution of consciousness) is a solitary, individual, formidable, lifelong affair. Realized beings are found in all traditions. No religious symbol system can do the “inner work” that is necessary for attaining that extraordinary State of Being called the Buddha Mind, Christ/Krishna Consciousness, Unspeakable Tao, aka Satori, Samadhi, Shen, Nirvana, Kensho, Fana--in the varieties of religious experiences. Religion is based on Perennial Philosophy, not the Period Pieces of postmodern literature.

Quin McCoy said...

I listened to this as an audio book. I think it is amoung the top three books I listened to this year. Indeed it addresses class but to me seems a story about how success and Morality are exclusive in this world Adiga creates. One almost has to cheer the protagonist as he learns to "play the game" he learned by observing his former employers.

Anonymous said...

From the introduction: "When you read this book, did knowing (or not knowing) Adiga's background make you perceive the writing from a different stance? How relevant is his background to your understanding of the book?"

The fine art of writing fiction is all about being able to take multiple perspectives, about empathising, about inner connection, about self-awareness, about deeper insights into human nature and human condition, about knowing where genes end and the culture begins, where culture ends and class begins, where class ends and true self begins. The true self, although rarely discovered, is the self which can witness the magnificent drama of human existence in its causes and effects. Aravind Adiga's brilliant first book offers a promise of cultivating trans-cultural, trans-class consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Curious to know why caste system in India still prevails. The post world II third world is in shambles. The powerful create exclusive networks and rest is politics and nepotism. Its the same everywhere. Plutonium is easy to denature than the nature of man. Since religions and education have failed the world over, the only hope to change the crooked timber of humanity is genetic engineering.

Joy Leftow said...

thanks for an honest review.

Anonymous said...

India is going through the birth pangs which Europe went through in the Industrial Age. Politics is anthropology writ large. Scarcity of existential goods and services needed and desired by greed and fear filled beings generates intense competition. Survival strategies are hard wired in the brain and reinforced by everyday experiences. Corruption and machiavellianism are to a large extent a response to scarcity, injustice and underdevelopment, not a failure of religion. Instead of investing mostrous amount of money in genetic engineering and weapon manufacturing, India will do much better by investing in eqality of oppurtunity in education.

yesha said...

Greetings, all commenters! Thank you for your thoughtful words. Please take a look at the next post for some of my thoughts in response to your comments. Looking forward to hearing back from you!

Here is the link for the next post: