Monday, December 22, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger addresses the changing face of India, particularly all that is typified in the emergence of Bangalore as the outsourcing capital of the world, the centre for start-ups and the magnet for would-be entrepreneurs.

This book penetrates the bowing and scraping and the namasting to reveal the culture of caste and the snare of corruption. It is written in the first person as a series of letters to an international leader about to visit India. This novel is an attempt to prepare and educate (like the statutory warning on a cigarette packet) the leader for an experience of the real India. This tactic is typical of the Bangalorean bluster and bravado but from a literary perspective it is weak and unconvincing.

The author, Aravind Adiga, was born in India and later lived in the country of his birth, working as a foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Adiga was raised in Australia and has undertaken study in the USA and the UK. This has given him a distance from his native country, a heightened ability in crap detection and a prophetic courage. In this his first novel, Adiga accurately captures the burps, the farts, the spitting and the squatting of everyday India.

What begins as a witty yarn about the narrator’s life story becomes a well-executed exposé of the injustice that pervades Indian society and the arse-licking that seems necessary to succeed in the culture. Hindi films, brothels, religions, black market business are all addressed and become the targets of Adiga’s pointed pen. There are no sacred cows in The White Tiger.

The ‘white tiger’ motif is used to describe the narrator’s rise from servant status, the emancipation from his caste and his rise to the position of master. It is also an apt image with which to illustrate Adiga’s rare literary skill which is at the same time attractive and acerbic, charming and cutting, smooth and savage.

The entrepreneur writer loves to put his philosophy into a nutshell:

“The road is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar to get ahead on it.” (p57)
“The bigger your belly—the further you get on in life.” (p64)
“There are only two destinies—eat or get eaten up.” (p64) And to sum them all up:
“Let animals live like animals; let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence.” (p276)

Adiga is adept at quaint but telling one-liners like these:

“I am not an original thinker but I am an original listener.” (p77)
“Is there any hatred more than the hatred of No. 1 servant by No.2?” (p77)

The White Tiger is a challenging book to be read by Indians, particularly politicians and business leaders and those who want to understand the belly as well as the face of India.

This Booker Prize (2008) winning book will be read with great profit by leaders in any culture as it raises the searching questions about how many people got kicked or killed on your way to the top.

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (London: Atlantic Books, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 53.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Two front covers of The White Tiger.