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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

(My exams are officially OVER, leaving me with six days of absolutely nothing to do, the first of which I spent in Kolkata yesterday, mostly in the wonderful Oxford Book Store at Park Street ......among the prize catches were Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theatre" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth")

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" is a remarkable novel in many ways (leaving aside the Booker brouhaha and the fact that it is a debut novel)The first, and in my humble opinion, the most important thing is that it is, quite simply so intensely readable......I know for a fact that a lot of very voracious readers actually avoid what they refer to as the "Booker-Vooker types" because of what they perceive as complexity in tone and content, inscrutable cultural allusions and sometimes off-putting literary gymnastics in general.

No such troubles here. Adiga's voice is instantly engaging, he talks to us but never preaches, never tries to play gotcha, and manages to be racy without being shallow throughout the length of the 330-odd pages. Moreover, all too often, his character Balram Halwai, "servant, entrepreneur, murderer..." and the "White Tiger" displays often startling insight into the way the world ticks, cloaked in down-to-earth hokum and sly humour.Having a first-person narrative is slippery ground at the best of times, and it requires a very steady hand at the wheel. (In this aspect, Halwai's saccharine-like tone to Premier Jiabao, to whom he tells the story; reminded me a lot of Mohsin Hamid's " The Reluctant Fundamentalist", where the central character Changez's dialogue with the American stranger lends a dangerous edge to the already taut narrative)

For the most parts Adiga has things under control, except perhaps the parts where he desrcibes the parts where he describes the young Halwai describing his father's death due to TB: I felt that the graphic descriptions of a government hospital in disarray, were akin to emotional pornography and looked more in place in an 70's Bollywood flick where the greatly aggrieved child would morph into Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man with a deft camera-stroke.

Having said that, Adiga's portrayal of ordinary village life(in this case, in a village near Dhanbad!) shines luminously. He fleshes out his characters lavishly. One thing Adiga will never be accused of is pulling his punches. And in the feudal system which has the average Indian village in a chokehold, he has got the soapbox of a lifetime. Whether it is the landowners(called animal names like the Stork), the pathetic obsequious peasants or greasy local politicians, Adiga digs in with obvious relish. He makes much of the "other India" the land which he calls the Darkness. It is this darkness that Halwai is so desperate to escape, and he leaves no stone unturned to realize his dream. The Darkness oozes slime, it reeks....and its inhabitants with it. Whether it is Halwai's painstaking efforts to educate himelf, or his pathetic work at the tea-shop or his overbearing stereotypically matriarchal granny, Adiga makes you laugh while making you sit back and think. Sustaining black humour is easier said than done... sample this passage where he talks about the way the poor stay poor:

“Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Here Adiga treads a fine line, for he opens a Pandora's box when he chooses to base his whole plot on the debunking of the "India Shining" blend the personal with the political, using one man's story as a mirror to the society as a whole. It has been done before, but never with such irreverent, take-no-prisoners styled wit.

In Halwai, Adiga has created a bona fide original, a truly unforgettable character, who leaps straight off the pages. He is street-smart, wildly ambitious and till the end, rigidly unapologetic till the very end. For all his supposed grief when he realized that he had to kill his employer, he never hesistated in the actual act itself. He is always very mindful of the fact that he is destiny's chosen child, the one who will make the miraculous leap from the Darkness into the Light. And for that, he is ready to do whatever it takes.......this is perhaps best portrayed when he talks casually about maybe having to kill his nephew, who knew about his crime, someday. Halwai is about as remorseful as Tom Ripley, and a lot more fun.

This is no mean debut. Adiga has at a single stroke, catapulted himself into the big league. Let's see how he fares in the days to come. A month ago, his second book, Between The Assassinations, which he supposedly wrote before this one, was released and has been doing brisk business,expectedly. I hope to get my hands on that one, soon, though I gave it a miss yesterday, in favour of Roth and Rushdie.

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