Rating: 3 stars
I picked this book up from my local library on a hit and run in the letter As. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to read, and it feels as though there are too many books but not the right ones. It happens in book shops and in libraries. I’ve developed a technique of going to a letter in the fiction section at random and pulling a book from the shelf based on whether I like the spine and whether I’ve heard of the author before. In a book shop, I’ll read the opening paragraph. If I want to carry on reading, I’ll give it a go. In the library I’m more likely to borrow it without more than a glance at the blurb on the back cover. It’s a risky strategy, but sometimes it works.
It worked in this instance. I enjoyed The White Tiger well enough. It was serious but not too serious. It was angry, but angry in a sanguine way.
…India has never been free. First the Muslims, then the British bossed us around. In 1947 the British left, but only a moron would think that we became free then.
Balram Halwai writes to the Premier of China, to explain to him how India is the land of the entrepreneur. Balram uses his own life story to demonstrate why India produces so many entrepreneurs, and how China can learn from India.
In the small hours of the night, seated beneath a chandelier, typing on a silver macbook, Balram describes the corruption in India, the injustice, the gap between those who have wealth and power and those who don’t. He describes the filth that exists in the most sacred river in India, a filth that flows from the small villages of The Darkness into the cities where the entrepreneurs thrive. He tells of the paradise that exists in every small village in India, with its malnourished children, its corrupt civil servants, its abused education and healthcare systems. Balram is bitter, and his bitterness comes through as sarcasm. He is most of all bitter about the divisions that were magnified by British rule, and that ruptured in the years after the British left.
To sum up – 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.
Balram is a resourceful man. He sees opportunities and makes sure he takes full advantage of them. When his father’s wish for him to escape his village through education fails, he instead escapes through a mixture of cunning and opportunism. He makes no pretence of being a good man. He has insight into who he is and what he is prepared to do to become one of the Men with Big Bellies who eat. While I appreciated his chutzpah, I’m not sure that I liked him. He was no better in the end than the people he claimed to despise. I suppose it’s a cautionary tale about how corruption pays dividends when the system within which you live is built on corruption.
I also didn’t like the portrayal of women. Balram is a man with a particular view of women – that they control men, and demand unreasonable things of them, that they are unsympathetic, hardened creatures who stop men fulfilling their dreams. The magazines popular with his fellow drivers are fantasies around the rape and murder of women. While I sympathised with Balram’s anger about political corruption and the abuse of the poor, he lost my sympathy with his acceptance of the abuse of women. The character holds views that are prevalent in India, and in having Balram hold these views the author is making the character as realistic as he can be. Towards the end, he acknowledges that there are problems in his society with the way women are viewed and treated and, true to form, he exploits this, playing to the concerns of businesses who want to protect their female workers.
I was talking with colleagues recently about places around the world to which we have travelled, and we discussed India. I have never been. I used to want to, but in recent years there have been so many news stories about violence against women, both Indian and non-Indian, that I no longer want to visit a place where there is such a lack of respect for women. Reading this book hasn’t helped change my opinion.
That said, I understand what Aravind Adiga is attempting in this book. He is holding up a mirror to India’s social injustice and political corruption. He isn’t offering any solutions or methods of improving the system, but he is highlighting the things that are wrong with it. The only trouble is, Balram as a character is blasé about the problems and so left me as the reader feeling equally indifferent about the world he inhabits.