Ah. The smell of old books. It has a story in itself. How many before might have enjoyed reading it! The feel of those pages, its freshness fading away… it is something surreal. Even the fragrance from the book is quite intoxicating. Pardon me, I’m digressing. But it is such a magical experience to have a book in my hand, to let it speak to me, and take me into its realms. Any book, be it new or old, has this effect on me.
You know the Pensieve that Dumbledore has in his office, the one which transports you into the memories of a person? Today, I’m entering a Pensieve. Or maybe it’s like Harry entering the diary of Tom Marvolo Riddle. You get the picture, right? So here I go. Let me tell you my thoughts as I watch the story unfold, the magic happen before my eyes.
I’m in a room, a small room. For me, time has stopped. But that’s just how I feel when I’m in this realm. The room is sparsely furnished. But I’ve not come to visit the room tonight, but the owner of this room. The furnishings are his choice, and he seems content with that. He can’t see me, for he’s too busy at his desk, writing a letter. He’s tired, but I can see a smile on his face… a devious grin, like he’s content with himself. I look over his shoulder, and see that he’s addressing the visiting Premier of China. I wonder why he’s chosen him to hear the story he wishes to share. Why not anyone else? Why not me, or any other Indian? Maybe he feels another Indian won’t understand what he wants to say, but I don’t feel as comfortable in this realm as I did before. It feels like this man just wants to say something for the sake of telling it. For a story to just one person, without any reason as to why that one person is chosen, doesn’t make it universal. It feels less true already. But I can’t escape the realm till I’m absolutely frustrated, or have turned the last page of the book, and since I’m at neither of them yet, I’ll continue to hear the story. Maybe it gets better, who knows?
This guy claims to be an Indian entrepreneur, looking to guide the Chinese premier to see the real India, one that isn’t in any brochure the Indian Prime Minister might give him. He claims to know the truth about Bangalore. According to him, this is the century of the brown and yellow man, and he is the tomorrow of entrepreneurship. He wishes to begin his story by kissing a god’s arse. And says that doing that will take time, for Hindus have 36 million Gods. Interesting way to put out that fact, with this sarcastic tone to it… 36 million Gods and Goddesses… wow! I’m not very religious, but I am spiritual, so one God suffices for me. I laughed at this part, but so far I hadn’t been excited or wowed by his tone.
Now to the story… his story… at last! He was a chauffeur once, a driver to a very rich family. His masters, Ashok and Pinky, were proud people, and the difference in economic status, he says, was quite big. He talks of incidents which made him realize what they told were right, that he was a half-baked Indian. Now this is something I can’t understand. Yes, there is that gap between rich and poor, higher and lower caste etc. But I don’t feel, in all honesty, that the poor feel the rich are right in everything that they say; especially when being looked down upon. They might cheekily agree to some and pull themselves down in front of the rich, but when in private, they’d possibly call the rich too arrogant and continue to live their lives, rather than continuing to feel low about themselves. The man speaks of a poster which describes him. It’s on the screen of his Macintosh. I can read it as he tells more about himself. How he’s changed from a small and thin person to the potbellied avatar I see before me. His name is Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw puller, who got his name because his parents hadn’t given him a proper one, who is from a village called Laxmangarh in Gaya district where Lord Buddha found enlightenment. He speaks of family problems, of how the holy Ganges is anything but that, how he fainted the first time, and how he was the only one in his family to go to school, where the Headmaster played truant. He speaks of the politics in the village, where there were four big rich men who ran the village, and everyone feared them. He speaks of how he got his famous nickname and how his elder brother once took him out of school to work in the coal mines after his family’s riches were sucked up by the family of the groom when his sister was married off. And ends writing for the day telling us he slit his master Ashok’s throat. So far, I’m in two minds. I like this entrepreneur, for he speaks some truth regarding various issues the country faces, but he exaggerates. He admits to being a murderer. But I’m not convinced at all by him either. I feel neither sympathy nor empathy for him, and I can’t understand some things. If he’s Indian, he doesn’t sound anything like one. He uses phrases that make me feel his more American.
I’m there as he continues his letter. He talks of how his father died. How his brother and he carried their father to the only hospital on either side of a river when he was critically ill, only to find that there was no doctor there. How through others at the hospital, they came to know the politics that happened there. These other people were critical too, having jaundice or seriously wounded. Reading this, I felt sad. I read about such situations in the newspaper often. I agreed with Balram here, though his tone was still boring. He goes on to say how he got a job at a tea shop, and how he became interested to become a driver after overhearing a conversation because it paid more money.
Even at this place, Balram’s narration feels monotonic. His life feels only negative, and he has only negative things to say about the country. He talks about the learning curve for him as a driver, the infighting and seniority issues among the servants once he gets a job. He talks of the misunderstandings of religious notions, and the politics involved in staying powerful and leading an easy life. He talks of carelessness in governing of Indian schools, and the secrets that a person has and wants to keep that way in order to survive. It goes from one negative to the other in the same old dull tone. The only place I felt something for the character is when he’s forced to take the blame for a mistake Pinky madam commits. And that not only made me sad, but also later on, made me feel respect for Pinky’s character. The story proceeds with these same lines even after that. The eventual ending is that he gets greedy and slits Ashok’s throat, moves to Bangalore with his nephew and starts a business there, only to find negative things in Bangalore too. The book ends soon after that, thankfully.
Now that I’m out of the pensieve, I’m not sure if I felt happy or sad in this story, The White Tiger. The character, Balram, felt lifeless for the most part, and he didn’t excite me or hold my interest as he wrote his story. He says at the start that “He knows Bangalore”, but other than the ending five or six pages, there is hardly any mention of Bangalore. I couldn’t understand some of his actions and some of his expressions at all. I’m not one to say India is perfect, or what is said in this book is absolutely wrong, but what is said is exaggerated. Being an optimist and a realist, I feel the situation maybe bad, but not as worse as portrayed. Overall, I feel this is an overcooked fiction. If you can take exaggeration in negatives of the country on the chin, you can try it. I can understand why it won the author Aravind Adiga the Booker Prize… it speaks a lot about the issues, but to me, it feels irritating. Here’s a one-time read if there was one. It’s heavy, page turner in the beginning, but slow-paced as it develops, effective to tell some truths but not the whole picture. A comment on the back cover says, “Compelling, angry and darkly humorous”. Angry yes, and definitely dark. But it’s not very humorous and I definitely did not find it compelling!
IN A GIST:
Positives: Some harsh truths brought out, Interesting way to narrate
Negatives: Highly exaggerated and dramatized, Monotonic to the point of irritating after the middle parts of the book, Neither character nor character’s actions are highly compelling.
Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publishers: Harper Collins India
Price: INR. 350
(17th Nov, 2013)