I had never read Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Winner, The White Tiger, so when I decided to read his latest I wanted to go back and read his earlier one. The structure of Adiga’s Booker winner is a bit unusual. The story is told as a long letter (actually a series of letters) to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. He writes these letters each night (or morning) and follow linearly as “The First Night” through “The Seventh Night”. The writer is a man who refers to himself as “The White Tiger” (“a thinking man and an entrepeneur”). Balram Halwai (alias Munna, aka “The White Tiger”) is writing on the occasion of the Premier’s impending visit to India, and Balram has taken it upon himself to bring the Premier up to speed on India in the modern world. Along the way Balram relates his philosophy, explains the caste system, the state of his country, and how to be a success in the new age.
Balram admires China as one of only three nations who have “never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia”. And he believes that the 21st Century will see the descendancy of the white man, and the ascendancy of the yellow and brown man. Balram is particularly proud of how he lifted himself up from ignorance and poverty in his small village to become a Mumbai driver to a rich man (Mr. Ashok), then an owner of his own taxi, then the owner of a fleet servicing the outsourcing industry. Part of his rise (and this gives nothing away, since it’s revealed on pg. 38, the end of “The First Night”) is the revelation that “eight months later, I slit Mr. Ashok’s throat.” His village (Laxmangarh), had power divided among four landlords, identified as The Buffalo, The Stork, the Wild Boar, and The Raven – so-called because of a combination of their appearance and their tendencies. Balram himself got his nickname when a school inspector visited and was impressed with Balram, The inspector had singled him out with
“You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?…The White Tiger”.
But Balram’s “White Tiger” is a predatory animal. With a single-minded purpose.
…in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.
And only two destinies: eat – or get eaten up
Adiga tells the story with a humorous edge, but with serious intent, as he reveals his India. When he writes on the Ganga river, that popular tourist photo-op, the “river of emancipation”, he warns not to take the suggestion of having a dip in the Ganga,
…unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.
Balram is an advocate of the self-made man, the entrepreneurial system. He compares CHina and India in this respect, and touts the outsourcing mania that “virtually runs(s) America now.”
…you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
There’s an ironic, tongue in cheek passage! His favorite phrase (picked up from his former boss’ wife, “Pinky Madam”) is What a fucking joke. On muslims: “if you ever figure these people out, send me an e-mail.” On servitude: a servant gets to know “his master’s intestinal tract from end to end – from lips to anus.” The caste system is explained as a system that keeps a well-ordered society, everything thing in its place (he refers to this as everyone’s “Rooster Coop”), everyone happy: sort of a zoo law.
And then thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947 – the day the British left – the cages had been let opne; and the animals had attacked and riooed each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law.
Then there’s this delicious passage on books:
So I stood around that big square of books. Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you…It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.
Except here what happens is that you brain starts to hum.
In 2008, Adiga’s novel was up against (for one) Sebastian Barry’s wonderful The Secret Scripture. Not having read Adiga’s novel at the time, I was convinced that Barry got screwed. Taking nothing away from the Barry work, now I’m not so sure. Reading this has turned me around somewhat. It’s an expansive, yet humorous look at the third world as seen when one peers into the face of India. A face that Adiga has proffered so well.
The White Tiger hits the mark. And so does his latest novel Last Man in Tower. It’s just that the latter is much less ambitious, focusing on an apartment complex and its inhabitants. The theme is limited to urbanization and redevelopment, a major issue as so-called third world countries rapidly advance toward modernization. When a builder wants to buy up their cooperative property tower, dangling an enticing amount of cash to each resident (strictly based on the square footage of each dwelling), most residents enthusiastically look forward to it. There are some exceptions but most are won over with additional enticements, secret or otherwise. But one last hold out threatens to torpedo the whole deal. The story mostly deals with the increasing pressure that the other resident put on the lone holdout, Masterji, a retired school teacher and widower.
Again, the focus is Mumbai:
Bombay, like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow to this swampland near the airport.
Loved this take on free will:
‘Man is like a goat tied to a pole.’ Meaning, all of us have some free will but not too much.
And there are other very thoughtful passages that reverberate long after the novel concludes. The school teacher doesn’t want to move because all his memories and the life he had with his wife, and the daughter they had lost there, are associated with the tower he’s living in. He thinks of her often. And as the possibility of leaving this place behind, and perhaps losing these memories grows more concerning, he begins to think of his past and his shared memories in a deeper way. He thinks of this as the “expanding square footage of his inner life.” He even has visions of his wife in conversation with him, advising him.
A man’s past keeps growing, even when his future has come to a full stop.
Urbanization, and its impact on people’s lives (we call it gentrification here), is an increasingly problematic aspect of modern life, on a global scale. I’ve seen it tackled in world cinema as well (it’s a particular concern of the great Chinese artist Xiaolu Guo). I’d certainly recommend this be read, as the concern for this important problem cannot be limited to India. The pain of urbanization and the disruptions that it is likely to cause is very well captured in Adiga’s rendering of the people caught up in the problem. More thoughtful perhaps (at least on a more limited range), but also less humorous. A nice back to back pair, though. I look forward to another, which I would certainly read.