The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


The White Tiger
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.

I have been hesitating for a long time to put this review together. But although it's been two months since I finished The White Tiger, I still have such strong feelings about it that I had to try and write my thoughts while the memory is still fresh. So, a lot of my thoughts below are still just coming together and every time I read someone's thoughts on this book, I find myself thinking, oh yeah, that's a good perspective.

I can think of one other book that made me feel this strong about it - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I didn't like it too much but was there a lot to say about it. I found my thoughts sashaying back and forth, even days after posting my review. This is actually a very good thing - when a book makes you think so much that your thoughts constantly rebel with each other. I like it when I don't reach a consensus instantly, or ever. Unfortunately though, both books have left me not eager to read more works by these authors (John Boyne and Aravind Adiga).

The first word that comes to my mind when I think of The White Tiger is "crude". This book is not pretty in its choice of words or its plot, and I mean that in a good way. It's refreshing, albeit very unsettling, to read a book that doesn't try to beautify its settings or characters. Bad stuff happens, there are cunning people in this world - better show things as they are and not as one wishes them to be. That seems to be this book's motto. The protagonist, who in the course of the book, ends up having four different names for different reasons, starts off very poor, the son of a rickshaw driver. He is pulled out of school very early and made to work in a tea shop to help contribute to the family income. At this age, he is actually very innocent and gullible, though deep inside, he has a desire to have a good life. He is also an ambitious character who doesn't want to do just any kind of work to keep his life afloat. He only wants jobs that pay well and don't require him to keep scrubbing floors.

He finds a person to teach him to drive and pretty soon gets a job in the city as a chauffeur (a word too elegant for his actual status) for a family related to a landlord back home. But when this book begins, we already know that he has murdered his master* - the same master who is portrayed as considerate and respectful towards his servants. How our protagonist gets from this My master is great phase to eventually killing him forms the crux of the story.

The White Tiger is written in a strange format - our guy is actually writing a letter to the Chinese Premier, who is scheduled to visit India soon and who has expressed an interest in seeing how entrepreneurship works in Bangalore. Our guy sees himself as the best example of an entrepreneur (what his job actually is isn't revealed until the end) and wants the Premier to learn the true nitty-gritty story behind entrepreneurship in India, not some glossed-over version that will be shared by the Indian Prime Minister. This then is why the tale he narrates is so sordid it made me sick.

Yes, this book has a lot of cheating and conniving characters with low respect for anyone (their peers, women, their masters, people poorer than them, and their families). The story, as the crow flies, is relatively straightforward. Guy gets job, guy works for his new master, guy kills master - this much we kind of know at the beginning. But condensing the story thus will take away what this book really is about. The social strata in India is complex - personal experience has taught me that much. That's not to say that other countries don't have such complex social hierarchies but that just doesn't fall in the scope of this book. Every person in India has a place - trying to jump across social layers is heavily frowned upon and discouraged. So, if someone was born poor, say a fisherman's daughter, she is likely to be viewed as such even if she came into riches later. The White Tiger portrays this social strata extremely well. I have to warn you - there is nothing pretty about this picture. I have many times felt angry and upset reading this book although really, the author is probably right. I say probably, only because I don't have much hands-on experience with India's social structure and so will not try to validate what the author says.

In The White Tiger, because of this stark separation of people into their own strata, we as the reader see the unpleasant aspect of such a society. If a rich person (remember - rich, poor, powerful, weak, it's all relative in this book) runs over someone, he immediately gets his driver to take the blame. There is no way for the driver to refuse because he doesn't know how to read or write, all the police folks have been bribed anyways, and besides, the richer person in this game has already pocketed one or two lawyers. When the drivers of all these rich and shallow masters meet up, they waste no time in dishing out the dirty laundry from their masters' house. Despite how much he struggled at the beginning of his "career", our protagonist treats his subordinates with scant respect when they are starting out. It's really all a means to an end - the means can be very disgusting pills to swallow.

I liked The White Tiger for being so brave in its depiction of an India that is disgusting, divided, and biased. I haven't read many (any?) books this bold. But, that doesn't mean I liked it. One of the things that annoyed me so much was how much the author tried to make me hate the narrator. Sure, he is a jerk, even if he is poor and trying to make do in a world designed by the rich and for the rich. I wouldn't have minded a gray shade to his character - people aren't black or white anyways, they are all gray with varying degrees of good and bad characteristics. But Adiga was insistent that we not like anyone in this book, even by a tiny fraction. So if I cannot like anyone, what was the point of the book - who do I support eventually? The rich landlord who will kill anyone who messes with him? The misunderstood foreign-bred Indian who had righteous opinions only to cave in to the corruption of the people around him? Or the poor man trying to get somewhere in this world and stepping over any impossible stone on his way to his destination? The ultimate message from this book is very shaky. That people are innately corrupt and could care less for positive virtues is something I refuse to accept. There are people like that and if The White Tiger was just trying to narrate the story of a few such people, it would be a better book. But branding an entire group of people as corrupt is like writing a dystopian story without hope.

In this weird motley of characters, there is no middle class. There is only the powerful one and the meek one. (The meek becometh the powerful, and this vicious cycle continues.) Adiga's book focuses so heavily on what's wrong with the Indian society that he doesn't speak anything about her good facets. Because there is good. There are people who will go to any length to provide water supply to their poor town. There are rich people who will speak loudly for the many silent meek people who are forever trampled. There are times when the country will come together, the maid holding the engineer's hand, the eunuch holding the politician's hand, however rare this may be. By not talking about this positive side, The White Tiger feels very one-sided eventually. For that reason, I hesitate to recommend this book. Ultimately, I would say - Read this book for an insight into the dark underbelly of India, but remember that this book shows just one side of a coin - there is a whole lot missing that makes this book itself very biased.


* I deliberately use words like master, servant, and meek in this review to stay with the spirit of the book and the relationships between its characters.

This ebook is from my personal library.

15 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

Wow, I can tell that this book really moved you. I'm very curious about it now.

JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing said...

This is a great review! Obviously the book moved you very much, but even more intriguing is the fact that you're not anxious to read more by the author. I might just give this a try...

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Books populated with characters who are uniformly loathsome really bother me. I'm with you -- it's no more nuanced and realistic to write purely awful characters than it is to write purely good ones, but authors who do the former get all this praise for being, like, unflinching about human nature. Even the most pessimistic of misanthropes surely has to concede that there's some flinch in human badness.

Vasilly said...

I love it when a book makes you think even if you don't necessarily like it. White Tiger has been showing up everywhere lately, so I may give it a try one day. Nice review.

Belle Wong said...

Great review, Athira. This definitely sounds like a very difficult, despondent book to read. It's sad to think of that cycle repeating itself.

tanya (52 books or bust) said...

I remember when The White Tiger came out it was seen as different form most other Indian lit at that time - It wasn't a sprawling family drama. And from that point of view is was kind of refreshing. Now, there is lots of different stuff coming out of India, so you're right, this book might seems a bit crude. I also read Last Man in Tower by him, but was disappointed.

Lisa Sheppard said...

I think I liked this one so much because it is so unremitting, so crude. I guess I would hope that anyone who would read this kind of book would also be someone who reads more extensively and understands that they are only seeing one side of India.

Athira / Aths said...

If you read it, I will be very curious to hear what you think!

Athira / Aths said...

If you read it, I will be very curious to hear what you think! By the end of it, I definitely felt like I cannot read more by this author. I think in a weird way, this book tired me out. I do like books like these that make me think a LOT, but I also like to see some reason to agree with the author and not disagree on all points.

Athira / Aths said...

You said it perfectly, so much so that I had to feature your comment!
That's how I felt too but didn't say as eloquently. The world isn't all
bad, so writing a book that's not dystopian to show the world like that
makes it very hard to read it. Even dystopia has plenty of admirable
characters, because ultimately all books are based off on human
characteristics.

Athira / Aths said...

I cannot wait to hear it if you give it a try. I have certainly read mixed reviews on this one.

Athira / Aths said...

It was sort of amazing though sad to see how that transformation
happened. It also made a little sense in the grand scheme of things. But
ultimately, it just made me mad - maybe what the author intended.

Athira / Aths said...

You raise a good point - this book was certainly different from the other kinds of books coming from the subcontinent, and I really loved that about it. I unconsciously stay away from books that are family drama types, just because the field is saturated with them. So this was good in that sense. I'll probably not read any more by this author though, even though this one was refreshing and that guy can certainly make the readers think.

Athira / Aths said...

Exactly! That's what I hope too. Not just because I come from India, but I would hope that's the case for lit from any other country. It's pretty hard to come off a book like this one and have any kind of positive opinion.

Athira / Aths said...

I do hope that you will read it. I actually want more people to read this book so that I can compare notes with them.