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!