White Tiger


by Aravind Adiga

Adiga leaves no doubt about where he stands – he is cynical, at best, about India’s democracy. The claim of democracy is that it levels the playing field between rich and poor, ensuring justice for all, because the masses can vote.  Now India may have adopted a democracy, but according to Adiga, it has done nothing to level the playing field.

There is one line, repeated throughout the story, where the author’s voice with regard to this democracy comes through clearest – “What a **explative** joke.” Crude, maybe? Blunt, definitely.

I recently read Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers, a journalist’s account of the life of the impoverished in Mumbai.  She and Adiga address the very same issues about life in India – poverty and injustice.  They ask similar questions and answer these questions through story.  Boo’s focus was on the instability that comes from poverty – how can the poor climb to a place of stability and what keeps them poor?  Adiga’s focus was a little more focused on inferiority and servitude – what keeps the poor in servitude to the rich? How can they escape and gain the true freedom and independence of an entrepreneur?

Both writers see the circumstances in a very similar manner.  They relay the corruption and injustice of those in power as forces that keep the poor in poverty – politicians and police who only act on your behalf if you line their pockets and rich people who will step on the poor to keep their reputation clean.  This injustice and glass ceiling finds no greater gut wrenching example than when the White Tiger’s master asks him to take the wrap for his wife’s indiscretion – confessing that he ran over a young child when she had done it amidst her drunken stupor.

Not only do they see the powerful holding down the powerless, they also see poor keeping down the poor.  In Boo’s work, any slum dweller who gets a taste for power uses it to keep others down rather than lift others up.  Adiga uses the metaphor of the Rooster Cage, exploring why the poor remain in a position of servitude even when their appears an opportunity to rise above it.  Most powerfully, he relays a circumstance where the White Tiger is ashamed when his master chooses to massage his own feet.  Why not be pleased that in this moment he was freed, instead he feels shame.

It is at the point of plot climax that Boo and Adiga diverge.  Boo’s plot climaxes when a poor family chooses to embrace justice and naively hope in the courts receives justice.  Adiga’s plot climaxes when his subject protagonist embraces the reality that the only way to freedom is through dishonesty, murder and bribery.  Boo embraces the realism of injustice but offers the hope of injustice.  Adiga seems to embrace the reality and delves to the deepest pits of cynicism.  Maybe his purpose is just to fully embrace the realism of the Indian circumstance, but there appears to be no glimmer of hope even if faint.  His novel reflects either an overwhelming cynicism or a purposefully overdone parable against a pervasive belief that India is advancing beyond it’s dark roots.

Maybe it is in his metaphors of darkness and light that we get our answer to his focus.  Consistently throughout the novel, Adiga refers to the villages as the place of darkness, the place where there is no technological advancement and where landlords rule through corruption and caste.  The White Tiger eventually makes his way to Delhi, a place of light so to speak, but finds the same bribery and corruption.  Moreover, in his own soul, the further he distances himself from the darkness of the villages, the more the darkness of immorality and corruption enter into his own soul.  This may well be a metaphor against the prevailing thought of modern Indians, though I’ve read enough Indian literature before.  His parable suggests that the more India embraces the light of advancement, the more they continue to actually advance on the same old systems of injustice.

All in all, this book was an enjoyable read.   I was led strongly to wonder how this young village boy, christened the White Tiger, would evolve into a self-made entrepreneur.  And when his corruption came to a head in the murder of his master, I continued to wonder if there would be an moment of redemption, this wonder kept me reading. In the end, though, I tended to prefer Boo’s version of India – heavily overwhelmed with corruption and poverty but retaining that glimmer of hope that always seems to exist in human society.

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