Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The White Tiger
This readable and entertaining novel by Aravind Adiga comes with an incredible amount of hype. Its portrayal of an Indian "entrepreneur" who launched his career by murdering his employer (this is not a spoiler, it is revealed early on) is described as "dark and unsettling."
Dark, yes, but as in dark comedy. It may be there is somewhere in India a prosperous entrepreneur who got his start through murder and robbery, just as there certainly were in the U.S., the UK and any other country built on the industry of entrepreneurs. But it would be silly to think that this is the rule and it's not likely that is what Adiga was trying to convey.
It is satire, an Indian Babbitt, in a way, but not, as one blurb would have it, a book as powerful as Native Son or Invisible Man. It won the Man Booker Prize and is written with dazzling wit and surprising grace. The construction of the book as a memo to the Chinese premier is clever, and allows the narrator, Balram Halwai, to declare that the age of the white man is over and the future belongs to the brown and yellow.
It's easy enough to swallow in view of the rapid economic growth in India and China, though personally I think the future of America is more like that of Western Europe and that white people will play a significant role in global affairs for some time to come.
The wonderful characterizations of Balram's family, his employers, his servant milieu carry the reader along on a fascinating journey into the micro-economy behind India's new-found economic success. The withering cynicism of Balram's description of Indian democracy makes the country at first seem uncivilized, though this rampant corruption is not totally unknown in the history of Western society, either.
Balram, the rebellious and murderous servant, is as rare as the white tiger, and as ferocious. His rise as the son of a rickshaw-puller and server in a tea shop to manager of a car service catering to the high-tech startups in Bangalore via a stint in Delhi as driver for the "landlords" of his hometown is an enlightening saga.
In the end, as with Babbitt, the reader is left with an insight into the hollowness of materialism, but also with a debunking of alternative ideals like family, socialism, or democracy. The optimist in me sees it as testimony to the robustness of India's economic awakening. In the normal course of events, India will grow out of the morass of injustice and corruption portrayed in the novel -- as the U.S. continues to evolve from Sinclair Lewis's grim description of early twentieth century life here -- hopefully without violence.