three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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0

A-The White TigerThis debut novel of contemporary India recently won the esteemed Booker Prize. The author, who attended Columbia and Oxford universities before embarking on a journalism career, lives in Mumbai, India.

The Story: Through letters to the soon-to-visit Chinese premier, Bangalore businessman Balram Halwai, the "White Tiger" of the title, relates his rags-to-riches story—and the story of class conflict in India. "Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness," he writes. Born into the Darkness, those rural areas of debilitating poverty, the uneducated but opportunistic Balram works his way up into the company of the wealthy (who live in the Light) when he becomes a chauffeur for a wealthy Delhi family. Though obsequious, Balram blisters over with resentment and anger at the Indian elite as he witnesses their exploitation and corruption. And as a "social entrepreneur," Balram will do anything—even commit murder—to change his destiny.
Free Press. 276 pages. $14. ISBN: 1416562605

Telegraph (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] blazingly savage and brilliant first novel. … Gridlocked in corruption, greed, inhumanity and absolute inequality—of class, caste, wealth, religion—this India is unredemptive." Neel Mukherjee

Times (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"At first, this novel seems like a straightforward pulled-up-by-your-bootstraps tale, albeit given a dazzling twist by the narrator’s sharp and satirical eye for the realities of life for India’s poor. … But as the narrative draws the reader further in, and darkens, it becomes clear that Adiga is playing a bigger game." Adam Lively

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The result is an Indian novel that explodes the clichés—ornamental prose, the scent of saffron—associated with that [sort of] phrase. … It’s a thrilling ride through a rising global power; a place where, we learn, the brutality of the modern city is compounded by that of age-old tradition." David Mattin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The White Tiger echoes masterpieces of resistance and oppression (both The Jungle and Native Son come to mind). … [It] contains passages of startling beauty—from reflections on the exquisite luxury of a chandelier in every room, to descriptions of skinny drivers huddled around fires fueled by plastic bags." Lee Thomas

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Adiga, who formerly worked as a business journalist … report[s] on his country to an outsider without needing to apologize for the constant sweep and scope of his narrative lens. … The White Tiger occasionally reads like a primer on how the classes in India fight and scrap to make this type of ascension as rare as a white tiger." John Freeman

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There is much to commend in this novel, a witty parable of India’s changing society, yet there is also much to ponder. … My hunch is that this is fundamentally an outsider’s view and a superficial one." Kevin Rushby

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Adiga] captures this incongruous land by blending a Chuck Palahniuk-style confession with a Nanny Diaries ironic insider’s look at India’s wealthy. … Yes, it’s fresh, funny, different, and it will please those looking for insights into contemporary India, but The White Tiger offers something less than it might have achieved." Tony D’Souza

Critical Summary

At the end of the novel, Balram predicts that "brown and yellow men [will be] at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the world." Certainly, The White Tiger is a parable of the "new India," a rapidly growing global powerhouse of middle-class call centers juxtaposed against crushing class conflict and corruption. In contrast with other Indian authors, Adiga does not sentimentalize such conflict; instead, like Richard Wright’s Native Son, to which the novel was compared, he shows how savvy manipulators can rise above it. Most critics thought that Adiga brilliantly told this story with wit and pathos. A few, however, thought that he lectured in parts, caricatured extreme wealth and poverty, and missed an opportunity to say something meaningful about Balram’s desperation instead of mocking upper-class life. Either way, Adiga is an author to watch.