Monday 24 May 2010

Book Review: Aravind Adiga – White Tiger

Long-Suffering Sister bought me this book as an Eid gift (with a £20 note inside which was nice of her). The booker prize-winning tag didn’t go unnoticed either, so I expected a good read.

The White Tiger of the title is Balram Halwai, a Bangalore businessman who recounts the events of his life throughout the book in the form of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister of China. Born to a family so poor that they don’t even bother naming him, he finds himself in a world where the poor are barely visible to the rich and powerful except as beasts to be abused and exploited.

Balram takes us through from his origins as an impoverished village boy who finds his way via small town India to Delhi and its excesses, both social and political. Here he ends up as the chauffeur of a rich landowner’s son who has just returned from America which gives him the chance to see how the elite of India live.

Balram is an interesting character. Even as a village boy, he isn’t the complete innocent – aware of his place in the world, of his fathers miserable life which sets out the pattern expected for his own life and of what could happen to him if he tries to upset the order of things. He is quick witted and immoral and as he moves up the chain from village boy, to house servant to chauffeur, we find him getting more devious and more corrupt as at first city life and it’s distractions begin to lure him in and later his masters behaviour and attitude becomes less bearable.

This is a sharp, at times shocking book which doesn’t aim for a magical, exotic India, but a very real, very raw one. The tone of the book is angry and subversive, even when the narrator is saying something funny.

The structure of the novel in the shape of seven letters does mean that the story stops and starts a little, although where one letter ends it gives some insight into what the next one might be about, piquing the readers interest.

Although Balram is an intriguing character, it is hard to sympathise with a single character in this book. From the corrupt politicians and landlords to Balram’s granny in the village, to the other household servants, every character appears cruel, greedy and out to claw his way to the top of the heap by any means necessary. This is certainly not a book to inspire or provide any kind of a happy ending. I thought perhaps the novel gave an unfair assessment of India which it illustrates as an utterly horrible and irredeemable place.

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