Sunday, 12 June 2011

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

From The Week of April 10, 2011

Western nations needed centuries to develop civil states strong enough to beat back the authoritarian ambitions of monarchs and magnates. Wars were fought, royals overthrown, to complete a gradual transformation from tyranny to democratic liberty. By contrast, other parts of the world have captured their freedom swiftly and suddenly, so much so that the civil states Western nations rely upon to provide integrity and honor to society are, in these newly freed countries, embryonic, incapable of withstanding the corruption that is so endemic to nations in flux. Mr. Adiga, an Indian-born author, has beautifully captured the societal and personal fallout when a rapid economic expansion modernizes a nation far too quickly, resulting in an absurdly uneven distribution of the newly created wealth.

The White Tiger is the story of Balram, a once-impoverished Indian man who, after growing up in a countryside devoid of opportunities, has largely escaped his family and relocated to the big city in an attempt to move up in the world. He narrates his adventures through a series of sardonic letters addressed to the Prime Minister of China, writing them while seemingly keeping close eye on a crime in which he may have some personal stake. He narrates in detail how he came to work for a wealthy family, starting out as a lowly driver and gradually working his way up, at least among the servants. The family barely takes heed of Balram until, one night, they are put into their servant's debt. But will Balram be able to capitalize on his opportunity? He has come so far to escape the darkness of rural India. Can he take the fateful, final steps to complete his transformation into a modern man, with modern powers and modern wealth?

Though the enduring theme of the two India's is the foundation that puts Mr. Adiga's delightful and clever book on firm, award-winning ground, Balram gives this piece its soul. The reader watches the playful child become the frustrated man as a boy's simple life gives way to a man's need to make something of himself, a dream that is ruthlessly and obliviously stomped on by both his impoverished relatives and the wealthy family he's hired into. We're aware, throughout, that Balram is intelligent. What isn't clear is how far he's willing to go to earn the freedom that his privileged patrons take entirely for granted. In this way, The White Tiger is Balram's long, slow tumble towards his own kind of ruthlessness, as circumstance burns the sympathy out of him, replacing it with a determined hardness that will not permit him to take less than his due. It is a credit to Mr. Adiga that he can make a man falling from the innocence of grace and into the self-interest of merciless criminality seem compellingly sympathetic.

This is first-class fiction, a thick coating of dark comedy wrapped around a hard core of grim reality in a world moving so fast that many are being left behind. (4/5 Stars)

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