Despite the sad fact that the species is dwindling, India is still known as the “Land of the Tiger”. Rarer still is the White Tiger, Panthera tigris, the albino tiger. The White Tiger has become legendary around the world, captivating zoo-goers, wowing Vegas magic audiences, and even serving as the ultimate gift to heads of state. With long ties to India, the White Tiger remains symbolic of that countries’ uniqueness, power, grace, and stature. With his Man-Booker prize winning book, White Tiger, Aravind Adiga takes a cynical look at his native land and helps to demolish such hubris-filled symbolism. His is a nasty, satirical, gloomy vision of the land worshiped by those who long for an overthrow of American hegemony.
As the world sinks into a recession, verging on depression, it is funny to think back just three years to the flurry of books like The World is Flat which foretold the future dominance of India and China in the global market. It was vogue to bash the United States, the world leader in freedom of politics (Democracy) and economics (Capitalism). Amazingly, these two parenthetical words have lately been tarnished due to their chemical bond with the rusting hulk of America’s reputation. Freedom must not be cool anymore, because the elitists have latched onto the oppressive regimes of Venezuela, China and India as global economic leaders. Only in the United States has it become kosher to bash your native land.
Adiga proves otherwise in this raucous tale of caste disorder, Indian slums, government corruption, greed, avarice, materialism, familial rot and general lawlessness. And he does it through the eyes of Balram Halwai, the most despicable protagonist since Toole’s Ignatius Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces. Balram is portrayed as a typical Indian from a typical family in a typical village. The streets run with filth, feces, and the spittle of paan-chewers. Family members overpower one another with guilt, squeezing every last rupee out of one another. The family water buffalo is afforded more respect than any other member of the clan. The boys are married off for a dowry of trinkets and the girls are seen as nothing more than a drain on the family’s wealth.
All of this is just the tapestry, unrolled in the background, the real story is one of a solitary murder, and the rationalizations of that murder as Balram narrates the events of his recent past. Told over seven days, Balram is relating his story via e-mail, in frenetic sessions at two in the morning to a visiting Chinese dignitary. Arriving with hopes of touring the new, progressive India, Balram wants to enlighten the foreign guest by showing him the REAL India. It is through this vehicle that our author, Adiga is allowed to do the same for the real tourists: We, the readers.
This book is more for literary fans than fans of crime fiction. There is only one murder, and even though it drives all other events in the tale, this book will appeal more to people who are interested in headlines, history, and politics. In these areas, the book excels. It is a masterpiece of local color, of descriptiveness in the darker hues. There is nothing beautiful here other than the writing talents of one of the lucky billion to have survived the India he describes.
As sad as it is to be smeared with the filth of India, it is a refreshing, normalizing experience. I grow weary of hearing how shitty my country is and how perfect it is everywhere else. What the Olympic scrutiny of China did for that country, this book has done for India. Just don’t mistake my glee for a case of schadenfreude; I am the eternal optimist who cannot mistake the glaring signs of progress all over the world in every area imaginable. I just hate that my own optimism is overshadowed by the ridiculous expectations that America-haters place on the developing world, which still has a very long way to go indeed.
I am convinced that more progress could be made via optimistic hard work than through the hate-filled revolutions that fanatics from both wings attempt to wage. But hard work is impossible when we do not begin from a place of honest introspection. Lying to ourselves about how horrible our world is and how much better things are elsewhere are self-defeating and impediments to progress. I applaud Aravind Adiga for his help in keeping us grounded and aware, and showing us what improvements to strive for.
A wonderful read, this book is one that I would recommend to our regular posters over on our “Three Things” forum. I don’t know how much it would appeal to regular crime readers, since it is a tad unusual for the genre. I want to give the book 3.5 stars, but rounded down for not quite fitting in here.