Gripping portrait of Indian society

2008-12-03 00:00

TO settle down to write a book review while the city where the author lives is under siege — as I write this, commandos are struggling to free the last of the iconic hotels in Mumbai — is a strange experience. Aravind Adiga is a Mumbai resident, and just a couple of months ago was on the crest of a wave when The White Tiger deservedly won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

But now his portrait of a divided, brutal Indian society, where the way to the top is to be more ruthless than the next guy, takes on a new dimension. As I read it, I found the rollicking, picaresque tale of his anti-hero, Balram Halwai, gripping, hugely entertaining and by the end, a little disturbing. But, in the light of subsequent events it has a prophetic tinge and offers more, and more uncomfortable, food for thought.

The novel is written as a series of letters to the president of China from Halwai. The president is planning a visit to Bangalore, where Halwai lives, and before he comes, Halwai feels it necessary to put him right on a few points about India and its success story. And so he tells the tale of his own success, from his days among the rural, uneducated poor to his current entrepreneurial triumph. He has found a niche in the market and filled it profitably.

But as the reader follows Halwai’s story, it becomes darker. He has not hauled himself up by his bootstraps in the time-honoured way of the poor boy making good. He has got there by crime — even murder (I am not giving anything away — the back cover tells you that Halwai is a murderer, and he is not reticent about it either). He celebrates leaving “the darkness” of his village and the poverty of its inhabitants for “the light” of the city and success. But it is a success that comes at a heavy price, if not — at least so far — for Halwai. Although, of course, the loss of innocence has its cost.

The White Tiger is a potent debut novel and a powerful, political evisceration of a society where divides run deep and, unless attended to, will inevitably lead to disaster. It might be fictional disaster as entertainment, as Adiga depicts, or disaster on a big, and very real, scale.

Margaret von Klemperer

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