Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review – The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

The book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 was in circulation for a long while at the library. I guess it has done its rounds and I finally managed to lay my hands on it.

My first reaction after a couple of pages was to put the book aside. It describes the dark side of India that I do not want to read about. I mean we have seen so many foreign documentaries that show the filth, the poverty and so on. Almost like what Slumdog Millionaire did… this was even worse. And it goes on through all the pages of the book. Brand India takes a beating… and some of it is rather exaggerated.

But despite being upset with the author, you do realise that there is some truth in what he writes. Maybe not totally as he projects it. 

Notwithstanding first reactions, if you have picked up the book, chances are you will continue to read on like I did. The author has an engrossing story to narrate. The language is simple, easy to read and the the book does not drag. But does it deserve a Man Booker Prize? That is questionable.

The protagonist, Balram Halwai grows up in Laxmangarh, Bihar (  referred to as Darkness). Balram refers to himself as half baked – someone who did not finish school and has partial knowledge, like so many children in India, who are pulled out of school to earn a living. No boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school’.

An intelligent child who impresses the school inspector, who calls him a white tiger, a rare prized animal. He is promised a scholarship, but unfortunately is pulled out of school when there is a marriage of his (girl) cousin, and the family needs more earning members to pay off the debts that result .

The story is narrated in letters ( seven of them) that Balram writes to the Chinese Premier who is due on a visit to India. Why the Chinese Premier? China is making impressive progress in all fields, however it lacks entrepreneurs, and the Premier wants to meet some of them on his tour to India.  And Balram considers himself an entrepreneur – a half baked successful entrepreneur.

The story progresses as he moves from working in a tea shop to how he gets the family to support his driving lessons. This lands him a job as a driver of the richest family in the village. How he moves with them to Delhi and the city life as seen by the poor. The conversations that he eavesdrops on between his employer ,his brother, his wife, the politicians they associate with, all as he drives them around.

He describes the glass houses the rich live in while the workers wait on them. See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?? Losing weight and looking like the poor."

The corruption, rigging of elections, the evil landlords, filth, poverty. Name it and it is all there in this book.

"It's amazing. The moment you show cash, everyone knows your language."

He likens the life of the poor to the roosters in a coop. The birds are huddled in the coop as the butcher picks up a bird and kills it, the others await their turn. They do not rebel. Just like the worker class. Why? Because of family ties. They remain faithful to their employers, for if they didn’t, there would be terrible repercussions on their family.

Ultimately, Balram does not seem to care about his relatives back home, he knows they will probably be erased from the earth, yet he decides to flee from the Roosters Coop, murders his employer Mr Ashok ( I have not given away the plot for those who may have wanted to read the book- it is mentioned all along from the early pages) – steals his money, and runs away. With his ill gotten wealth he starts a business of his own. He is now ‘one of the rich’ and behaves like one.

And so he ends his tale through his letters to the Chinese Premier. It could have been addressed to just about anyone. Did I miss something apart from the entrepreneur bit?

All in all, a book that makes an interesting read. I know I have to return the book to the library soon. Which I will without regret. I am not too sure if I would like a copy of the book to sit on my book shelf.


  1. I had the same reaction when I started reading this book last summer. But I went on reading it. It is a bit exaggerated in some parts but overall totally believable. And yes, I am not sure I want it on my bookshelf either. A very good review Radha.

    I recently read and reviewed a very tame, feel good book compared to the White Tiger.

  2. A good and honest review.I liked the sentences in red colour and their choice.The review whets my desire to read the novel.Thanks

  3. Hey Radha! First to leave a comment. I've read White Tiger and did not like it. Reviewed it roughly a month back. ( I was rather angry after reading it! But with the passing of time, I wonder if my dislike of the book was because it kind of shakes you up and enters the comfort zone of our lethargy and apathy? Of how we live insulated lives and do not react to the human suffering around us?

  4. Nice Review. I agree with most your views. There are more "have nots" in India than "haves". The writer takes us into Halwai's mind, whether we want to or not.

  5. I have read this one and I liked it! It is not a hero's story! But many of it is believable. I was living in Gurgaon at the time of reading and could connect to the world described in the book!

  6. Good review, although how can I tell, I haven't read the book! And I will not, having read this post, I am now even more sure what my reaction will be.

    Strange - I don't like feel good books/movies, neither do I like these intentionally depressing ones. Hard to please?

  7. That reminds me , I had purchased the book with great enthu... I have to hunt it out now. Your review motivates me.

  8. Nice review, Radha!

    I read the book some months ago. I think Adiga's writing style is very effective,but overall I did not like the book.

    In my opinion, it seems to be written keeping foreign readers in mind. The author seems have written events with some exaggeration to make it appealing to readers not familiar with the Indian situation.

  9. A very good review..
    I have not read the book yet..
    Though reading your review,it seems good that i didnt read it!

  10. A good book review. I read the book last year, and although I was shocked at first, I liked the book.

  11. I have not read the book and something tells me that I may not like it.
    Any way I am an avid reader and I simply love reading. Currently I am reading and reviewing books from around the world. So good to connect with another book lover.

  12. That book has been lying on my shelf for long now, I share the similar reaction, however i could not gather enough will to complete the book. Adiga seems to have a big appeal with the English readers here. His latest book 'between the assassinations' was being heavily promoted and I nearly got myself into a 'book reading' session along with him. I may give his other book a chance. Nice review.

  13. A very honest review. I am not sure I would want to read it though. I can't say that I have seen all the dark sides of India, but I do know that, writing about it seems to get you awards! You can criticize about your mother to your closest friend, but you can't make her look bad in front of the whole world! Hypocricy? Maybe!

  14. I have the book, but i am yet to read you said, initial few pages puts u off..let me try once again :)

  15. must read the book . Dont know why it has evaded me or have I evaded it ? I liked your review .

  16. Jaya - Thanks. And what was the book you read?
    KP, Eve's Lungs - Thanks
    Deepa - Your review was very good. Yes, the book invokes mixed feelings
    SG: True, but I am not sure if it was very realistic.
    Arundati - I understand what you mean! You are not the only one.
    Nona - You are one who liked the book without any reservations, it seems.
    Indrani, Neha - do read the book. Especially if you have bought it.
    Manju- I know a lot of them write for the western readers, but Adiga's story telling ability kept me from keeping the book aside.
    Arati - I did not dislike the book totally. Some parts yes.
    Lotusleaf - the book was interesting.
    Aparna- would like to know what books you are reviewing.
    Deepak - You did not finish the book? Very unlike you, I should think
    Jyothi - interesting analogy

  17. Excellent. To way to attain quick fame is to degrade India in every possible way. There may be some truth, but sad part is exaggeration. Every nation has similar problems, but forget exaggerate, they don't even write about them.

  18. I think I should have a look at this book

  19. wow !! what an great review:)

  20. There're so many shades even to the underside. Yet to read the book.

    Considering the tenor you described, and come to think of it, other than Ruskin Bond, I'm hard pressed to recollect another author who's taken a gently view of India, maybe one might add William Dalrymple to the list, and who else?

  21. Rajesh - Very true. But write about the conditions in the third world and it is an instant success.
    Haddock - do read it and let us know your opinion.
    Anamika - Thanks
    Anil - I am reading Darlymple's Nine Lives. Mark Tully also writes a fairly accurate account. Maybe not gentle, but atleast it is not all degrading.

  22. I have not read this book at all.. but going by the reviews you have given i guess i could invest into it a bit ...


  23. I have read the book,and didnt like it much as I dont endorse his views.
    Indian enterpreneurs are not like him.a murderer, unfaithful servant and a person who doestn even care for his family.

    His protagonist is totally screwed person.

  24. Exactly my sentiments upon reading it very recently. But it made we decide to tell others also not to call their employees their 'family' - when they can't possibly mean it.


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