There are many, many books written about India. On a recent visit I asked my colleague for some recommendations on books that she thought ‘would give you India on a plate’, or that captured part of the spirit of India. At the top of the list was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize ‘The White Tiger’ was described by one critic as ‘blazingly savage and brilliant’. This is exactly how I would describe it, and perhaps add ‘raw’. One of the ‘must read and keep on your bookshelf to be re-read’ books.
It is set in Bangalore, or Bengalaru as it is now known, which is India’s IT capital. The main protagonist runs a transport service for call centres, but that comes at the end of the story.
The narrative is driven by a series of letters that become a restrospective diary. In the first chapter the protagonist says
“Don’t waste your money on those American books. They’re so yesterday.
I am tomorrow”.
This creates the sense of dread that continues throughout the book, because you have the thought that he is right, but what is to come in the book to justify the statement?
He is born in ‘the Darkness’, which by his definition is India away from the ocean. Further into the first chapter the Protagonist, now with the name Balram, after being noticed by the school inspector is taken out of school to work at the local tea shop.
“You are angry with me for taking you out of school, aren’t you? [says the tea shop owner]
I said nothing.
“You hate the idea of having to break coals, don’t you?
I said nothing.
He took the largest piece of coal in his hand and squeezed it. “Imagine that each coal is my skull: they will get much easier to break”.
And so his career and his life begins.
He gets a job as a driver in Delhi for a family from the region where he grew up. There are descriptions of his life and interaction with the family and also his interaction with other drivers. He prides himself on being a free thinker and as often as he describes the mental shackles that keep everyone in society in their place he describes his defiance of these restraints.
“I bought my first toothpaste that night. I got if from the man who usually sold me paan; he had a side business in toothpastes that cancelled out the effects of paan.
As I brushed my teeth with my finger, I noticed what my left hand was doing; it had crawled up to my groin without my noticing – the way a lizard goes stealthily up a wall – and was about to scratch.
I waited. The moment it moved, I seized it with the right hand.
I pinched the thick skin between the thumb and the index finger, where it hurts the most, and held it like that for a whole minute. When I let go, a red welt had formed on the skin of the palm.
That’s your punishment for groin scratching from now on.
In my mouth, the toothpaste had thickened into a milky foam. …
Why had my father never told me not to scratch my groin? Why had my father never taught me to brush my teeth in milky foam? Why had he raised me to live like an animal, Why do all the poor live amid such filth, such ugliness?
Brush. Brush. Spit …”
He then explores the idea of the Rooster Coop and the idea that a cage is not needed for the roosters because the roosters control each other. He asks why the ‘Rooster Coop’ traps so many millions of men and women so effectively. His answer is twofold – firstly because of the ‘pride and glory of the nation’ – no one wants to let down the nation of India. The second reason is a bit more brutal ‘ only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed – hunted, beaten and burned alive by the masters can break out of the coop’.
So it is a story about caste and the caste system, but in modern India the system is more complex. The castes are fragmenting but they still exist. Furthermore at least in the book, the system is often undermined by violence.
A crime is alluded to, and when it comes it leaves you feeling a bit ambivalent. You can’t be sympathetic because it is a brutal crime, and by this stage there aren’t really any good guys.
‘Listomania’ has The White Tiger as the number 3 on the list of best books about India. Number 1 and 2 are The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry respectively. Also on the list are A Suitable Boy and Midnight’s Children. All classic ‘India’ books and stupendously well written, but The White Tiger has resonated the most with me.
I was extremely lucky recently and had a work contract in Kolkata. I had such a good time – loved the city, loved the warmth of the people, loved the food. Reading The White Tiger balanced it out. The book is grim, it is entertaining and it should definitely be in your anthology of books about India.
What about you? Have you read The White Tiger, are there any simple ways to describe India?
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