January 14, 2010

The 'Other' India (Book Review of White Tiger)

In the West, India is a marketable brand. Witness the recent ad campaign for "Incredible India" featuring various brightly colored pictures of India with the descriptive color emblazoned across it in white type. The Taj Mahal is "Pure White". Bags of spices are "Technicolour." A shot of red clad worshippers is "Mystic Maroon." The award winning ads are only the most recent in a series of ads designed to market India as a tourist destination. Earlier ads showed Westerners who had settled in India as yoga instructors or meditation masters. Like the visual authenticity of the "Mystic Maroon" ads, these earlier ads portrayed India as the original land of spiritual enlightenment, a Mecca for those "conscious" tourists who wanted to invest in India's "spiritual capital."

All in all the ads reflect an old Western preoccupation (detailed in the excellent book Imperial Encounters by Peter Van der Veer) with India as an idealized Orientalist paradise of true and original religion.

Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, angrily explodes that fairytale image with a gritty and darkly humorous look at the "other side" of idyllic India--a world of gated communities, caste discrimination, rampant inequality and worm-eaten civic institutions. In interviews, Adiga stated that one of the inspirations for his book was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as well as the work of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and the influence is marked. The White Tiger is an arresting mashup of Crime and Punishment and Native Son, a gritty true crime story told from the perspective of a brilliant and determined murderer.

When we meet him, Balram Halwai is writing a letter to the Chinese Premier Wen Jibao from his office in Bangalore, and the novel unfolds as a series of letters to Jibao in which Halwai relates his improbable rise to prosperity in the Indian middle class.

Born a servant to a family of sweetsmakers ("halwa" means sweetness in Arabic, and I'm assuming it has the same meaning in Hindi), Halwai nevertheless grows up in poverty in the northern Indian village of Laxmangarh, with his father pulling rickshaws to make ends meet. As Halwai introduces his life, we are given vivid snapshots of the events that define him as a character--his early intelligence, his female relatives, the horrific act that defines the heart of the novel, even his fear of lizards. As a literary voice, Halwai's character is unmatched by almost any character I've read in modern literature. The unnamed narrator of Invisible Man of course comes to mind, as does the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart."

I cannot do justice to the book in this review. Suffice to say that, in my humble and rather uninformed opinion, Adiga has really gone deep into the Indian postcolony--probing its faultlines, showing the complex relationship between caste and class, and even illuminating the ties between the rural and urban areas of India. I thought his description of the relationship between master and servant accurately captured its tension and its alternation between paternalism, cruelty, servility and small acts of resistance, that I have personally witnessed in my travels.

I have two questions for our readers. One, have you read the book? If so what did you think? Two, what kind of reception has this novel received in India?


Sim1 January 14, 2010 at 1:25 PM  

Well, since I gave you the book, I guess you already know I loved it ;)


Austin Thompson January 17, 2010 at 12:13 PM  

I am always pleased to see the impact of progressive African-Americans on other parts of the world. Having been to India I can definitely understand the critical perpective from which the novel was written. Def something I will add to my "to read" list before I return to the U.S.

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