Thursday, July 1, 2010

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This is a tough book to review.  The White Tiger is the July selection for my monthly library book discussion group, and I knew hardly anything about it before I started -- just that it's set in India, and it's about a man who's telling his life story, and there is some kind of murder involved.  And that's OK -- sometimes I think it's better not to know anything about a book when you start.

This is not a flattering portrait of India.  One of the blurbs on the back says there's "not a whiff of saffron or saris to be found" and that couldn't be more true.  If the idea of India brings to mind beautiful view of the Taj Mahal or gorgeous women with hennaed hands and sparkly jewels, this is not the book for you, to put it mildly.  This is not romanticized at all.  If you have read Q & A by Vikas Swarup (also known as the movie title, Slumdog Millionaire,) that is a whole lot closer to what you should expect.

In fact, it reminded me quite a lot of Q & A.  Both of these books are about young men born into horrific conditions in India, and how they basically pull themselves up by their bootstraps and use their wits to survive.  The comparison pretty much ends there, however.  There's no dancing and singing and uplifting love story in The White Tiger -- just a lot more of the filth and horrific poverty and oh my God, the corruption of India.  If you are squeamish or faint of heart, you might not enjoy this book.  Like Q & A/Slumdog, there's a lot of description of the unpleasant living conditions in India -- the pollution and disease and lack of sanitation.  A few times I had to put the book down and take a break.  Not a book to read while eating.

Anyway, back to story. The main character of The White Tiger, Balram, is born into extreme poverty in northern India -- what he refers to as The Darkness.  According to the book, there are two Indias, The Light and the Darkness -- two different worlds depending on if you're rich or poor.  Balram's so poor, he doesn't even have a real name.  His family just calls him Manna, or Boy.  When he goes to school he's given a name by his teacher, but that's about all he gets from his school, since the teacher is stealing the school money meant to be used for books, uniforms, and lunches.  And Balram's family yanks him out of school when he's a teenager anyway, since he has to get a job smashing coal to pay for his cousin's dowry and wedding.  It seems like all the poor people in India are faced with this downward spiral of no choices, no opportunities, and no real government to look out for them.

Everyone has to hustle to get ahead, and Balram manages to learn how to be a drive a car, and eventually to get a job as a driver with a rich family, where he gets quite an education by keeping his eyes and ears open.  I really did feel sorry for Balram -- he does start out basically honest, and it seems like he's trying to resist falling all the corruption that surrounds him.  This entire book is filled with people either getting or taking bribes or favors, which I found so depressing.  However, I still kept turning back to it.  Balram is not a pleasant character, and does some terrible things to get ahead in life.  Really terrible, horrific things.  This story is one of those fascinating train wrecks -- I knew it would end badly, but couldn't stop reading because I had to find out what happened.

I don't know if I would have read this book if it hadn't been a book club selection.    Coincidentally, I read this just before Fingersmith, another book about criminals.  Ultimately, I think I liked it -- it gave me a lot to think about. It made me think about the choices people have depending on their circumstances.  As bad as the economy and my job situation are, I'm far, far better off than most people in India or in Victorian England.  How far would you go to get ahead in life?  What crimes would you commit to make a better life for yourself and your family?  I can see that this is going to make for a great discussion.  I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but it definitely gave me some perspective.

2 comments:

  1. I'm thinking this is not the book for me, huh?

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  2. Well, you're interested in other cultures, but Balram is definitely an anti-hero. I'm pretty sure you'd dislike the way he turns out.

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