Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: The White Tiger

Book: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Claim to Fame: Man-Booker Prize winner – 2008

My Short Review: Very well written, strong and well defined characters, dark humor, very interesting story line, easy to read.
My Rating: 5 Stars (yes! All 5!)
Well, I cannot avoid this task any more. I have to make up my mind, sit down and pen my thoughts on this book. Even before I start my review for this book, I should mention that I am totally totally honored by my friends’ trust in my taste in books. I have had at least 20 emails from various people asking me if I have read “The White Tiger” and what I thought about it and if I would recommend it. Geez! That’s the first time I came close to feeling that my opinion is valued (at least when it comes to books!). Thanks, Folks. I hope my review doesn’t let you down!

But the bad side to this is that there is tremendous pressure on me right now. A pressure to make sure I present all sides of this multi-faceted Man-Booker Prize winner.

Frankly, I cannot make up my mind on this one. I am sharing an intense love-hate relationship with this book right now. The “Literature Enthusiast” in me loved this book and the “Indian” in me hated it.

Let me start by giving you a brief description of the book. “The White Tiger” is a novel is epistolary format – the whole book is a single letter - A single letter written over 7 nights - A letter addressed to the Premier of China; A letter written by a person who claims to have a true understanding of the current status of India; A letter written by a person who is a Chauffer turned Murderer turned Entrepreneur.

Balram Halwai is India’s very own “rags to riches” story. He is originally from Laxmangarh, a small tiny village in northern India. His dad is a rickshaw driver and for those who are not aware of rickshaws, this is a physically demanding job that is definitely not lucrative. Balram is forced to leave school and work in a tea shop to supplement the family income with yet another meager salary. Sick of being stuck in the poverty rut, he leaves the village in search of wealth. For Balram, there is no looking back. He lies his way into becoming a chauffer for a wealthy “recently-returned-from-New York” boss and then murders his way into becoming an entrepreneur.

Balram Halwai is not your typical evil rogue. He is just another man who is sick of the “rooster coop” (this is the collective noun he gives to describe the servants of India) and wants to break out of it and do something worthwhile in his life. He doesn’t want to be the one waiting in the parking decks of expensive malls discussing inane stuff with other similar “roosters”. He wants to be the one who gets to leave his chauffer with his expensive car in the parking deck and walk around in the malls. In spite of his criminal actions, it is impossible to hate Balram. At least, I couldn’t. He lied, he cheated, he killed, he didn’t respect his parents, he blackmailed, he broke every rule possible in the rule book but yet, it is impossible to hate him for what he has done. I really enjoyed his sense of humor as well – not the straight forward funny humor – but a dark humor. His satirical view of life was a different perspective – something that I enjoyed reading.

Aravind Adiga is a truly talented writer. The book kept me hooked from the very first line to the very last. There was never a single boring line in the entire book. I enjoyed the style of writing and I enjoyed the twists in tale. I personally thought it was very very well written. I read a couple of reviews before I started reading the book and most of them seemed to mention that the letter to the Premier of China was a very weak pretext for the frame of the story. I thought it was a perfect way of showing how Balram had changed. His confidence in himself is admirable. He even has the audacity to think that he has risen to a level in life where he has the right to brief the Premier of China on the true state of affairs in India.

However….(you knew the “however” was coming, didn’t you?).. In spite of liking everything about the writing, there were a lot of things about the book that disturbed me. One important thing was the way Aravind Adiga has portrayed India. Someone who lives in India knows that India has two sides – the rich, educated side that dominates the IT industry and also a poorer side that just cannot be avoided. It wasn’t the portrayal of the poor that bothered me. It was lack of values that everyone seemed to be demonstrating that kinda got to me. I must say that I have always been proud of the family values we cherish, the respect we give our elders, our belief in God (not matter what religion), the pride we feel when we talk about the country…(I could just go on but I really should stop here coz I have made my point).. But somehow, the characters in “The White Tiger” disregarded most of these values. Adiga does mention, in an interview, that the thoughts and feelings towards India and Indians are solely Balram’s and in no way reflect his feelings for the country. But even then, I felt that the whole book gave a false image of the values of Indian people – both rich and poor. Or rather, I am scared that people who haven’t been to India and who don’t know what it is like will get a really wrong impression based on the things the read in books like this.

I know many of you belong to that category. Have you read “The White Tiger”? What was your impression about the India that was portrayed in the book? If you’ve read the book or read reviews about the book I would love to hear your views on this one.

In spite of saying what I said about the portrayal of India, I am still giving the book full 5 stars. I must say that it was very well written and a must read! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants to read it. It is an easy, quick read and very interesting. I really enjoyed reading it and I hope you do too!


Nymeth said...

I've seen mixed reviews of this one, and as Booker winners tend to be hit or miss for me I was on the fence...but you made me want to read it. It sounds like the narrator is meant to be disturbing, but I still understand why you're concerned that it misrepresents India. And I'll keep that in mind when I read it.

Jo-Jo said...

What an honest review--It sounds like I will definitely have to read this one. The only book that I've read about India was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and I LOVED it! It was definitely a chunkster of a book but well worth it for me. Thanks for the review Ramya!

softdrink said...

This wasn't even on my radar...but now I want to read it! So good job on the review!!

S. Krishna said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this one! I've been waiting to read it, and now you've convinced me I need to move it up on my TBR list. I TOTALLY know what you mean about the fight between the Indian in you and the literary enthusiast in you. This was a really great review, thank you so much!

Diane said...

This book looks really good. I received it recently but need to fit it in my reading schedule. Thanks for the great review.

Lezlie said...

I will definitely have to give this one a try. I also will be keeping your comments in mind when I do!


violetcrush said...

I have this book in my TBR, I kind of skimmed through it and liked what I read. Nice Review.

Priya Iyer said...

nice review! i hav been wanting to read this book for quite some time now :)

Sathej said...

Have been planning to pick this up sometime..but have heard mixed views. But now, shall pick it up as its got five stars from you :)

Pratima said...

I just reviewed this book last week or so. I share your views completely! I absolutely loved the book too and waiting to read another book of Adiga..

Ramya said...

@nymeth - I was a little apprehensive before picking this up as well because I had heard so many negative reviews. But it is a really well written book and you should read it!:)

@jo-jo - This one is WAYYY shorter than shantaram and has no boring parts in between..:) I am sure you'll like this more (at least, I did!)

@softdrink - I am glad my review made you want to read this one. It is definitely a good read.

@swapna - I'd be interested in reading your review of this when you are done as well.. And yes.. I am still torn. but I'm glad I found words to express my dilemma:)

@Diane - read it and come back here to discuss it with me!:)

@Lezlie - awesome!:) let me know when are you done reading it..:)

@violet - It is definitely a well written book and easy to read..Very simple language and a nice writing style..:)

Ramya said...

@priya - hey you!:) what are you doing reading my blog? Aren't you busy getting married??;)

@sathej - Read it definitely.. but I must warn you that most Indians tend to hate it because of the way the country has been portrayed.. hope you like it better!

@Pratima - you reviewed this last week? I missed reading your review.. am heading over to your blog right away for checking it out!

Trish said...

Great review, Ramya. I wanted to read this one before since it won the Booker (and so far I've loved all things Booker), but I didn't actually know what it was about.

Interesting about the representation of India. I've only really started to read books from and about the Indian culture, and I have to admit that I'm fascinated. But I totally know what you mean about making one man's voice stand for millions--life isn't that clear cut and sometimes we lose the different sides of the story. Ok, enough rambling--gotta go find this book!!!

Ramya said...

@Trish - That's exactly my point. But I guess no one's going to be able to do justice to the portrayal of any country. Every country has its diverse population and by concentrating on one segment, you are taking the risk of over-representing that category..hmm.:) now, I'm rambling..:) guess it is addictive!

Anu said...

Hi Ramya,
I have been reading your blog for some time now, and really loved this review of yours.... i have read a number of reviews of the White tiger, and all of them seemed one-sided and i wasnt able to decide whether to read it or not.. thanks for showing me both sides of the book. shall now try to get a copy, read it, and then let u know what i think...

3M said...

I was totally surprised that I liked this one -- rated it 4.5/5. I haven't had that much luck with Booker Prize winners and I also loved The Secret Scripture, which I read first.

All in all, though, I was impressed. I do understand your misgivings, though, as I have had similar feelings with books written about the region where I'm from.

Great review!

sri said...

the white tiger review was awesome....totally agree wid u until the last paragraph...
...ya guess the characters did seem to lack values but it made me feel that that the whole gamut of emotions dat balram went through wouldve been felt by almost every indian living outside the social bracket comprising the urban elite.The only thing dat was different was the fact dat Balram had the drive to break out of the 'rooster coop' instead of just 'thinking' of breaking out, Furthermore the lack of values did seem to set the book apart from most other 'Indian books'...It made me feel real happy to finally see one book which threw being god fearing...being patriotic and all other associated values straight out of the window...twas high time somebody did dat..:). I have had enough of bein an Indian with tremendous pressure from the the gods above and the society around...and maybe it isnt too wise voicing this out ...maybe i shouldve created another Balram Halwai to voice ma opinions( which am sure will be shared by scores of other 'Patriotic' 'god fearing' Indians) without being ostracized but Isnt it high time we started lookin at 'The white tiger' and maybe 'Slumdog Millionaire' too and say 'maybe exaggerated a bit but yup dats the way things truly are in this wonderful country of ours' and work towards making things better rather than fooling ourselves saying our country is nothing like wat the book or the movie portrays...:)
....jus my humble opinion which i know will not be shared by other sane people and which will certainly not be as widely read(if at all read )by ppl unlike urs...:)

Manju said...

Except for your last paragraph, I agree to everything in your review. I would really want to comment on your last para. A person who goes through the toughest of times, hardest of circumstances is bound to get cynical about things around him. Everyone wanted the money out of Balaram, no matter if he was alive or dead. That's when you say "enough is enough" to draw a line and take a stand. In fact Adiga showed the better side of his character towards the end. He chose to be what he is. He could have chosen the "wrong" path, become a criminal or something..But he atleast started a firm and provided employment to people. I a sorry, our values should tell us how to put them to practice and not just preach. What Adiga says about India in this book is true to the every word. They are just facts. You need to tell good is good and bad is bad..

Ramya said...

@anu - awesome! do let me know what you thought of it!:)

@3M - Thanks! yours was the first review I read and it definitely made me want to pick up the white tiger fast!:)

Ramya said...

@sri - thanks for posting your comments here as well..:) makes it so much easier to have it all in one place..:)

@manju - thanks for the comment.. looks like my "last para" is getting quite a bit of attention;)
i agree with you when you say that a person is bound to get cynical based on the circumstances that balram's been through - that would justify his action at the end. But what about his complete disregard for his family and the people in the village he grew up in?
And yeah.. I am definitely glad that he did something good for himself in the end!

sri said...

I kinda believe nobody is born with family values and the regard that a person has for his family is totally dependent on his relationship with his family.If i was in a family like Balram's, one which which always expected something more in return for whatever it did, It would be really easy to come to the decision that balram did

Again this is only my own opinion and any sane person who is not as morally and ethically deprived as me might feel otherwise...:)

Anna said...

I haven't read this one. Actually, I hadn't heard of it until reading your review. It sounds interesting, though not sure it's my cup of tea. Great balanced review, though!

Diary of an Eccentric

Goms said...

Before I read the book the unanimous review was a love-hate relationship with this book. I agree with 90% of the author's view purely because my knowledge of the village life is hearsay. But the drivers (servants) in the city are no way treated the way balaram gets treated. In fact, the employers want to treat them well. So I do agree that there is a lot of exaggeration by Adiga. Check out my complete review and let me know your thoughts.

nishitak said...

Good review! I loved this book. Before I read it, I was a bit concerned about the "How does it portray Indians" aspect of it. But somehow, I was not offended by it. It really felt that he was voicing opinions that many people would feel but did not voice it.

My book review is here, in case you want to check it out...


Pallavi Oberoi said...

Yes a book that is disturbing! But what a book. And I agree whole heartedly with you giving 5 stars!

The book is disturbing because you know the story can happen and is happening everyday in some form in India.

I have never been able to see the house maids/bais/bhiyas/drivers same way since reading this book.