Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger:
The lower castes are emaciated, drink cheap domestic whisky when they have pocket change, and frequent slant-eyed Nepali prostitutes. If they are lucky enough to be employed as a driver for a wealthy businessman, they'll be assigned the unsophisticated Maruti Suzuki. The emerging middle class proudly sport pot bellies, drink the best imported single malt Scotch, and search out blond blue-eyed prostitutes from Ukraine. They expect to be driven around in the elegant Honda City.

Aravind Adiga's first novel offers an exposé of an India breaking out into the world of late capitalism--aggressive, brash, cynical, driven. It tells the story of Balram, an otherwise nondescript young villager of lower caste--his jati is of pastry makers--who arrives in Delhi and is soon hired to be a chauffeur by two brothers who have recently become rich. In the economic pandemonium of present-day India with its call centers, high-tech areas, and sprawling shopping malls, Balram can aspire to even more upward social mobility. Picking up cues he is exposed to from the business class and the government officials tied in with it, Balram decides that crime and dishonesty pay handsome rewards. The rags-to-riches trajectory takes him to Bangalore, a metropolis of outsiders, with its Electronics City and time zone in synch with the business day in New York. A typical conversation there, perhaps overhead in the Cafe Coffee Day, might go like this: "An American today offered me four-hundred thousand dollars for my start-up and I told him, 'That's not enough!'" (p. 255).

Balram does become a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore, though not in the high tech field. The means he uses to be successful are feudal in nature--bribes, intimidation, chutzpah--this after committing a grisly homicide using a decidedly low tech tool. Is this Frankenstein-like creature in any way charismatic or endearing, as a couple of reviewers have suggested? His incessant scheming and insensitive view of humanity are not characteristics many readers would themselves embrace.

This novel weaves a fine line between parody and stereotyping. If the author's intent is to present a pastiche of the contradictions of contemporary India, it results in a devastating denunciation of the country. But there is an element, too, of Adiga adopting uncritical stereotypes: of the Indian businessman, policeman, government official, wealthy housewife. The result is far from a nuanced portrait of Indian society's fundamental complexity.

Few literary devices of interest can be found in the novel. There is no value added to its epistolary structure--Balram's ramblings addressed to the Chinese premier. The writing has the markings of a journalist publishing satirical pieces in Mad Magazine. While he hasn't written for Mad, Adiga has served as a correspondent for Time magazine, the Financial Times, and MSNBC. Like many Indian writers with a literary reputation in the West, he was born in India, worked and studied in a number of English-speaking countries--Australia, England, the U.S.--and has returned to live in the subcontinent. Adiga is not technically an "ABCD"--an American-born Confused Desi (or South Asian immigrant)--even if in spirit he may resemble one. If the low-caste Balram in any way represents Adiga's literary alter ego, then the problem of adjusting to a society rapidly navigating the change from traditional to late capitalist is one the author himself is facing. Condemning the pollution of the Ganges, the size of the Hindu pantheon, and the thug behavior of the "Great Socialist" party adds up to someone who has little affection for India's quirks.

The story of Balram is not really funny. For some readers, it will represent the arduous pathway traversed by a desperate lower caste villager who proves to be that exceptional white tiger--a rare sight to behold. For other readers, the account of Balram will not amuse because it is a blanket indictment of contemporary Indian society: the supposed inseparability of its predatory capitalism, rampant corruption and, in certain Indian states, their nominal communist norms.

We will agree with Adiga when he writes: "A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank.... The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen," replete with "cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh" (p. 22). This is not a particularly Indian story, however.
--Ray Taras
Read an excerpt from The White Tiger, and learn more about the novel at the publisher's website.

Aravind Adiga was born in India and raised partly in Australia. He attended Columbia and Oxford universities. A former correspondent for Time magazine, he has also been published in the Financial Times.

The Page 69 Test: The White Tiger.

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, is the author of the forthcoming book, Old Europe and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Taras has also reviewed nonfiction on the blog:
Andreï Makine, Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer
Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America

--Marshal Zeringue