India, a country of contrasts and extremes. A land, where the rich and the poor co-exist in a weird sort of harmony and where a 5-star hotel might be followed by a dirty slum with no sewage or electricity. With every other novel I read about India, I get yet another piece of the puzzle, trying to put this country in some sort of frame and to explain it to myself. I can’t so far. It still looks as if I have got only the corner pieces of the puzzle, but the middle ones are still eluding me. I need to go there as it seems that each and every author I meet has a totally different perspective of India, refracted through the prism of his own experience.
First there was Salman Rushdie with his magical realism in Midnight’s Children. He portrays a magical India on the verge of its independence from the British Empire. The ups and downs and the successes and failures of the country are mirrored through the life of Saleem – one of the special children born in the first minutes of India’s independence. Midnight’s Children is a tale of strength and perseverance, betrayal and revenge, hatred and jealousy and it draws a magical India with its exuberance and vividness.
Then there was Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram. If there is ever going to be a novel that makes you fall in love with India, this is the one. The ex-convict on the run doesn’t spare us the ugly details – the slums, the poverty, the crimes. However, he builds a beautiful image of India – the country with the happiest, most generous, and most smiling people in the world. These contradictions come to co-exist in a perfectly ordinary fashion and the reader gets the sense one cannot exist without the other – it is exactly because of India’s extremes, that the country is so wonderfully lovable and inspiring.
And then there is Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The beautiful and magical India doesn’t exist in this bitter novel – it is all about the ugly, the poor and the corrupted. Told in the form of a letter to the Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao, The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, a poor Indian boy born in the Darkness but winning his way up to the Light. The Darkness refers to the lower castes of the Indian society – poor people who are not given a chance to rise in the economic ladder due to prejudice. In the Darkness people are barely surviving – they are dirty, smelly, illiterate and the greatest achievement for them will be to become servants and eventually leave the Darkness and work for people in the Light. The Light refers to the higher castes – exuberant, vibrant cities with their shopping malls, expensive cars, magnificent buildings and rich people. Adiga heavily criticizes the structure of the otherwise modern capitalist Indian society – a place where your success in life is predetermined from the day you were born.
Balram Halwai is a son of a rickshaw puller, born without a name or an age. His parents used to call him Munna, an Indian for boy. They were too busy being poor to give him a name. A prominent visitor to his school gives him his nickname – a white tiger is a rare animal, very different from its surroundings. In that sense Balram is different – he is among the few who manage to escape the Darkness and find their way into the Light
In his letter to the Chinese prime minister, he often refers to himself as a self-made entrepreneur. His humble beginnings lead him from the small poor village into Delhi – working as a chauffeur for a wealthy Indian family. As a servant, Balram begins to overhear things – things that make him desperately seek to break out of the rooster coop:
Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench…The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.
But the roosters are not trying to escape even though they can plainly see what the future offers. In that sense, the guilt for the social division in India lies as much with the rich as with the poor. Balram despises them – the 99.9% trained to live in perpetual servitude. Individual action is the key to breaking out of the magical circle and taking responsibility for your own life. And that is exactly what Balram does – he commits a crime to break out. He validates his actions through his own exceptionality:
I think the Rooster Coop needs people like me to break out of it. It needs masters like Mr. Ashok – who, for all his numerous virtues, was not much of a master – to be weeded out, and exceptional servants like me to replace them.
The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and it is indeed a compelling, brutal and cynical description of India – raw, uncivilized, violent, and prejudiced. The author discusses the painful theme of social inequality and ultimately whose responsibility it is to act. And yet, I didn’t like the novel. Firstly, the author doesn’t sound convincing through the words of his own character – I constantly caught myself imagining the educated Aravind Adiga instead of the ignorant Balram Halwai. Secondly, the voice is too bitter for my taste – the criticism is overwhelming and at times it sounds like an angry child, whose favorite toy has been taken away. Thirdly, the novel is arrogant, spiteful and full of hatred – I understand where the author was trying to go and what he is trying to show and I admit the theme is important and must be paid attention to. I don’t believe he is exaggerating – in fact India is most probably exactly the way he describes it. And still, his way of describing it repelled me – it was so bitter that I literally hated the main character – for his actions and for his words. Maybe that was what the author wanted, maybe not, but at the end I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. And this was definitely not because of the theme but because of the way it was presented. Lastly, I am disturbed by Balram’s rise from the poor to the wealthy – he murders his master, steals his money and sets his own business. I agree, if you want to change your life and your circumstances, you must act. And yet, is this the kind of act the author is trying to promote – I literally don’t see the “exceptionality” in Balram’s character – I only see yet another common criminal, whose only achievement was that unlike the rooster coop, he was able to see and act. However, his success is not based on personal qualities, but rather on the act of crime. Maybe succeeding in India because of your qualities is near to impossible for the common man from a lower caste, and yet murder?
I might be thinking too much and I might be over-criticizing but that’s only because I really really didn’t like the novel. While reading I kept getting the unbearable urge to hit something – it made me so angry to see such a subjective and bitter way of describing the social inequality in India. I understand India is not a magical land of extremities – and yet I believe Adiga focuses exclusively on the negative, which makes his novel difficult to believe and engage with.