Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Adiga pulls no punches in his first novel which explores the haves and the have-nots, the Lightness and the Darkness in modern day India.  Our narrator and anti-hero is Balram Halwai; born in the Darkness and desperate to get out.  His journey is complicated by ancient caste systems and hierarchies, but a lucky break sees him working as a chauffeur in Delhi where he learns how to be an “entrepreneur” - although his interpretation of this role and what it entails is shown with an acerbic and satirical slant.

There’s an angry tone in Adiga’s writing.  For all of Balram’s witticisms Adiga uses him to explore and comment on social issues.  It’s part shocking, part funny.  We see Balram stuck outside an American-style mall, looking in, but allowed to enter once he changes his clothes.  We see ownership, slavery and squalor.  Balram tries to “dip his beak” into a Russian blonde but runs screaming when he sees her dark roots.

This novel doesn’t have characters; instead we’re given a grotesque array of caricatures, all cruel, twisted, perverted, corrupted or just plain weak.  The ending when it comes is abrupt, the outcome is predictable.  We see two extremes of India and nothing more. 

But maybe they aren’t as far apart as all that.  The Darkness isn’t just down to geography and social status - you can bring the darkness of moral hypocrisy with you wherever you go.  Adiga’s narrator brings this novel to life, but ultimately the centre seems hollow.