Thursday, September 29, 2011

The White Tiger is a Book of Rare Quality

The White Tiger, to our knowledge, is the only letter to a Chinese Premier to ever win the Man Booker Prize. And rightfully so. Author Aravind Adiga has penned a brilliant debut novel that has been widely praised across the pond but has yet to receive its just dues in the US. This novel pulls the curtain back on India’s economic revolution in a refreshingly original, honest and often humorous voice.

The story that unfolds, while distinctly Indian in the details, could be set in just about any “third-world” country: boy is born into rural poverty, migrates to urban area, work hard, grows some balls and ambition, puts some coin in his pocket, consumes his way into the emerging middle-class and becomes a connoisseur of Budweiser, WWE, Russian prostitutes and all the other trappings of the good life.

But it’s the man at the center of this hurricane that makes the book a treasure.

Balram Halwai is a man that’s impressed by English liquor and cheap denim. And just like the eponymous big cat in the title he is truly a rare animal. A man for whom success is measured by conspicuous consumption. He’s also a shrewd and conniving entrepreneur whose ambition has led him out of the “darkness” of his rural village and into the bright lights and filth of Mumbai. After smashing in his employer’s skull in a Dostoevsky-esque plot twist he opens a thriving taxi business. As a businessman on the rise he’s offered respite to reflect on his views and life in a late night letter to the Chinese leader.

He details his humble and difficult beginnings, his lack of schooling, his tenure as an abused chauffer and the delight he takes in indulging in the material delights of the new Indian economy. He is also a bit of pig. His views on wealth, women and the good-life all seem as though they’ve been formed by an MTV reality show and he posses few redeeming qualities. But he’s a compelling character because no matter how casually he swallows the bitter pill of his pitiable beginnings and gushes over his modest success the pain in his life is vivid and universal.

The White Tiger tells the story of two Indias through the eyes of the downtrodden. He provides a refreshing narrative of the social convulsions coursing through modern India void of the sentimentality that often dooms such projects. While this is hardly an original topic what sets The White Tiger apart is that Balram is no victim. In fact, “hero” might be more apt, at least in Balram’s mind. He’s crass, materialistic, ignorant and a true “success” story of India’s modernization. His tale is unique -arguably even ground-breaking- and undoubtedly adds to our collective understanding of the human experience.

Adiga deserves all the credit in the world. He’s created some inedible characters and woven a fascinating tale. We can’t wait to read his next offering, Last Man In Tower, due to hit bookshelves later this year.