After having read the excellent Uwem Akpan’s debut novel, I turned my attentions to Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger. It is another first novel, this time from an Indian writer and like Akpan’s novel has been drawing a lot of attention. It is even in the Booker Longlist for this year. It is an impressive debut and I was curious to see what the fuss was all about.
The first lines immediately drew me in. It is in fact written as a series of letters over a period of seven days to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Through these letters, Balram Halwai wants to tell the story of how he rose from the position of lowly servant to respectable entrepreneur. And it is quite a tale. Be prepared to be hooked. From the beginning he is different from the rest of his family in his desire to be something else than what has been planned for him. And he is prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve his goals. So he eavesdrops on people, resorts to blackmail and finally, commits murder. As I said it’s quite a tale.
Balram is an amoral and deeply cynical character but despite this, he is an oddly charismatic one. One can’t help but be fascinated by him and his story. He commits murder yet still honors the memory of the man he killed. He saves his nephew yet ponders the thought that it might one day be necessary to do away with him. Perhaps the trait he possesses, which we can all identify with, is his enormous will to make something of himself despite all the odds against him. And the India described in this tale certainly stacks the odds against him. There is the caste system or in Balram’s words the Rooster Coop that prevents anyone from getting out. It is the kind that is self perpetuating and perpetual because the family conspires to keep its members in it in order to survive. How to get out? Only someone prepared to see his family destroyed will be able to fly the coop, as Balram points out. Then there is the immense poverty and pervasive corruption that eats away at everything and anyone. This India is brutal, corrupt and downright ugly. In Adiga’s hands, this India is fascinatingly drawn and more importantly his prose rings with the uncomfortable ring of truth. Given all of the above who is to say that Balram’s act was perhaps the only way to be free?