Thursday, October 10, 2013

A man's journey up the Indian social ladder

The white tiger
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, has been vaguely on my radar as a book to read since it won the Booker Prize in 2008, mostly because it's by an Indian author and partly set in Bangalore, the city that my parents are from.  It's quite polarizing - people seem to either love it and think that it really speaks to the corruption that is ingrained in every level of Indian life, or hate it and think that it is far too extreme and depressing.

It is narrated by a man whose name changes with his social class.  First, he is called Munna by his family.  Not a real name, but a description of what he is to them.  His first teacher names him  Balram, a name he uses for much of his life.  And then someone calls him The White Tiger, and then he finally chooses a name for himself.  Most of the story takes place while Balram is a driver for a very wealthy Indian family that moves to Delhi.  There, Balram is exposed to the corruption at every level of society, from the poor all the way up through the highest levels of government.  And he decides that, in this game of winners and losers, he is going to be a winner.

This is most clearly related in two similar but contrasting events, both of which involve fatal car accidents.  But in the first, Balram is poor and so he is helpless to do anything against people who have far more money.  In the second, Balram is not poor and you can see how he has morphed into someone that he previously would have despised.  And, therefore, could easily become a target for someone who resembled the old him.

The circular story of:  man is victim, man plots revenge, man becomes corrupt, man becomes target is not a new one.  It chronicles the rise and fall of many individuals.  What made this story work for me was the narrator.  Balram is larger-than-life, filling every bit of the page and then settling into your life.  You can easily imagine him sitting back in a leather chair, holding a cup of chai, telling you his story in a very self-satisfied manner.  Balram is one of those Indians who went from being victimized to victimizing others, and he is quite happy with his progress.  I read this one on audiobook, and it was truly fantastic.  I don't know if I would have enjoyed the story so much in written form because it is really quite disheartening.  There are not many characters at all for whom you would feel sympathy.  There are not many bright lights in a miasma of corruption.  It's not a happy book.  But really, most books that look at life in India are not very happy because there are so many things in India to expose in the hopes that talking about it will embarrass people enough to try and change it.  Like so.

Definitely a great book to read if you want to understand more about India's social classes and how they interact.  And if you like a really great narrator!

3 comments:

  1. I've had my eye on this one for a few years as well, but never got around to picking it up. I do love a really good narrator; thanks for a reason to search this title out again!

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  2. I will have to look for this one in audio format. I have a written copy, but for some reason haven't gotten around to reading it.

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  3. I tried to read this and never got into it. I think the disheartening bit worked too much on me.

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