A Review Of The White Tiger By Aravind Adiga 

Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’, a Booker Prize winning debut, marked a growing revival of stark realism and social commentary in Indian fiction, and bought a, if somewhat cliched and overdone, honest portrayal of a country undergoing prominent socio-economic and democratic changes in a fresh limelight.

The novel follows the trials and turmoil of Balram Halwai, a perennial opportunist and entrepreneur, born in an unnamed backward state (supposedly a modern-day Bihar) of India. The book is written in the form of confessional letters, sent over seven consecutive nights and addressed to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. The story begins with Balram’s birth. Son of a rickshaw-puller, he is smart, but is forced to forego his education to pay his cousins’ dowry. As a kid, he observes rampant corruption, and starts working in a teashop. After he learns how to drive, he lands a job as a driver-cum-servant at the house of one of the village’s landlords. There, he blackmails the current head driver into giving him his job and goes to Delhi with the younger of the landlord’s sons, Ashok and his wife, Pinky.

Ashok, who has recently returned from America after marrying Pinky, and forms a sort of distant friendship with Balram, while Pinky is condescending towards him. In Delhi, Balram witnesses Ashok bribing government officials and partying, himself growing more and more ambitious and discontent with his situation. After Pinky runs over a slum kid in a drunken state, that Balram witnesses, he is pressured into admitting to the crime by Ashok’s family. Pinky, guilt ridden, leaves back for America. Balram, finally sees the absurdity of his life, caught in a “rooster coop” of India’s poor, that makes them subservient and accepting of abuse, and his coop-mates actively stop someone from escaping the coop, “guarding it from the inside”. He decides that the only way that he would ever escape the coop would be by killing Ashok and running away with the bribe money Ashok will deliver soon.

The book has many cross-linked themes, Americanization of India during the early 2000s being a prominent one; Pinky acts as a caricature of the modern Indian-American. Ashok is caught between two different worlds, the one he has formed with Pinky, and the one that has been thrust upon him by his family. Balram, going through a somewhat similar situation, is caught between being a doggish, street-smart ‘city mouse’, and an ambitionless rural simpleton in the big city. The novel also touches on other themes, like the caste system, but uses it as a backdrop instead of a driving plot device. Overarchingly, the novel is about the quest for freedom and riches in the largest democracy in the world, a country which for all its talk and thought on freedom and privilege of choice, has a thin claim over justice and parity among its people.

White Tiger is an important, if not an objectively great, book. Some drawn out sequences and topics, bland prose and an erratic flow of language hamper the experience of reading the book, but it is hard to put down, and its irascibly charming and unique characters stick and stay with you for a long, long time. 

16 August 2021
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