1000 Books in 10 Years; Vol. 200: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger.  By Aravind Adiga.  The book has been heaped on with praise.  It won the Man Booker Prize, and has been compared to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Richard Right’s Native Son and Upton Sinclai’s The Jungle.  And it was on sale for $9.99 at Chapters!  So I picked it up and after sitting on my shelf for over two years I finally decided to read it.  Its protagonist, Balram Halwai, like the protagonist of Right’s Native Son, comes from an impoverished family and eventually gets a job as a driver.  But for me, that is where the similarities end.  Balram is the product of a small village, (or as Balram calls it, the Darkness) not the inner city (though they are equally destitute in different ways), and he also has more ambition than Right’s protagonist.  Adiga’s protagonist is his own person.  He is a character not dissimilar from others in literature, but certainly Adiga has created a unique character that is all his own.  I would call him a working-class hero (or perhaps anti-hero, after all, how could a hero of the working-class be anything but an anti-hero), but Balram is a member of the destitute first, and he’s a part of no class, but rather a caste.  He somehow manages to graduate from the ranks of the destitute to the ranks of what Americans would call working class (though in India they would call it caste), and though he thinks such a graduation would bring him a happier life than what his father had as a rickshaw driver, he is merely a driver of another sort and that nature of the relationship between himself and the ruling class is no different now that he is driving a car instead of a rickshaw.  The book does a great job in outlining the differences in the standard of living between those the upper castes and lower castes.  To really understand this relationship though, one needs to thoroughly study the history of the caste system in India.  Though it is similar to the class system, there are some dramatic differences.  Calling Balram a member of the working class is misleading, but for the sake of convenience that is what I shall to refer to him.  His every waking (and for that matter sleeping ) moment is defined by his master’s wishes.  Because he is raised to accept this, he does, but even as you are raised to be a servant it remains a bitter pill to swallow, and it is a bitterness that never leaves your tongue.  Balram is forced over and over to confront the exploitative nature of the relationship between him and his master, and as is the case with any person, there is only so much one can take. His is not a story of suicide though, but of murder.  He murders his master and steals a large sum of money that was meant to pay off politicians and with it starts his own business.  But it is not only his master that he murders, but his only family as well, not directly, but rather indirectly as the family of the master will take revenge upon his family since it cannot get a hold of Balram.  It is a long journey from the Darkness to the murder.  Some critics have found Balram’s narrative to be funny.  In fact, it seems that most have.  But perhaps those critics are not members of the working class.  For me his voice is tragic.  He is born with the instinct of self-preservations as we all are, but the system in which he is born turns him into a vile character rather than a virtuous one..  He lets his family go hungry.  He kills a man.  But in truth he wants to do none of these things.  But what other choice is there for him.  He is either to allow himself to be a slave, or fight back.  And while fighting back may seem the noble thing to do, in his context it means to become a murderer and to allow your family to die.  There is no virtuous choice for Balram to make in this novel, merely a choice between two evils.  Balram confesses to all his crimes in a series of letters to the Premier of China who he has heard will come to visit India.  In his confessions we see a weak man who knows that he deserves better than the life he is living, and so he does what he must do to have the life he deserves, and that means both becoming a stronger person, and becoming a killer.  When he finds himself in the position of master, his virtue finally comes through in the way which he treats those who are now below him.  I don’t think this work is on the same level as Sinclair’s The Jungle or Richard Right’s Native Son, but it certainly has a kinship with these works.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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