By Chris Dagonas
As this is the first installment of this series, I think a brief introduction is in order. Once a month, I meet with a group of friends on a Sunday evening to discuss a work of literature. Books discussed have spanned from A Tale of Two Cities to The Luminaries. As part of the meeting, we usually share a few beers, or a whiskey, and a party-size pizza. Last month, we read Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”.
The Pizza: Party-size pepperoni from Pizzaiolo
The Drink: Basil Hayden’s Bourbon Whiskey
The Book: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
In a corrupt society, what actions are justifiable? This is the key question at the centre of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger. A white tiger is known as an individual, one that stands out from the streak. It operates alone, and is often larger and stronger than its orange counterparts. A white tiger is born once for every 10,000 Bengal tiger births.
Adiga’s debut novel follows Balram, a young man who grows up in “The Darkness” of rural India, in a lower caste. The novel is written as a series of letters to a Chinese minister of Finance, so the reader learns that Balram has made something of a success of his life (though what and how are questions to be answered later). His school experience is uninspiring; his teacher sleeps at his desk and steals school funds for his own use. His family is oppressive; His father works himself to death, while his mother, grandmother, and aunties demand obedience and money.
New India, the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies, has been hailed as an economic and political success story by various media outlets. Adiga, through his character Balram, is able to provide a perspective from the eyes of the ordinary citizens. Through the remnants of the ancient, yet still unofficially enforced, Caste system, as well as the crushing poverty and lack of opportunities, Adiga shows how the wealthy population of India subjugates the poor, largely uneducated, majority population and fights to keep them from escaping their circumstances.
Balram, for one, wishes for more from his life than to be a worker at a tea-shop, or a driver for one such wealthy businessman, Ashok. His machinations begin when he is hired as a secondary driver for Ashok’s family, and discovers the senior driver is a Muslim. He threatens to blackmail the man, and expose his religious difference (Balram and Ashok are Hindu) and eventually is promoted to the senior driver position. Though this may seem like a small promotion to the Western reader, it is a higher position of respect, and it also operates as Balram’s introduction to the capitalist ideal of getting ahead by any means.
The lack of any real presence of authority is another problem that plagues new Indian society. Police, teachers and government are hardly thought of by the poor, and to the rich any of these authorities can be simply bought off to look the other way. In fact, many of Balram’s driving missions involve taking his employers to bribe government officials. Modern news stories of horrible gang rapes have brought India’s crooked legal system into the spotlight, and make Adiga’s insights ring true all the more.
The rest of his work, such as it is, sees Balram taking Ashok and his American wife, Pinky, to go shopping at one of the many fancy malls in Gulagon, a wealthy suburb of New Delhi. On one such mission, Pinky is intoxicated and takes the wheel from Balram, thereby hitting and killing a boy on the side of the road. Balram is coerced into signing a confession and is prepared to go to prison to protect the honour of his employers, but is saved at the last second.
“I was looking for the key for years, but the door was always open.” This couplet is repeated several times throughout the novel, and it captures perfectly the author’s view of the self-perpetuating caste system. As Balram grows in confidence, he comes to several realizations, which he shares with his reader. The most striking of those is the comparison of his situation to that of a chicken coop. He describes the close quarters, the awful smell, and the ignorance of the chickens that their lives will lead ultimately to their death for the consumption of others. He describes how chickens will not want to be freed of the coop, even when given the chance. The comparison is made to the population of the lower castes of India, which creates a system of perpetual servitude, and only a few are able to escape.
Balram’s actions, and his attempts to escape servitude and gain his freedom, become more and more morally opaque as the story continues. As we read, he is describing his slow ascent, or descent, into the morally corrupt actions necessary for success in New India. His final maneuver is heinous and terrifying, yet he justifies his actions, as well as the subsequent backlash toward his family, and the reader is left questioning just how clear the line is between good and evil, especially when one grows up and lives in Balram’s circumstances.
We were unsure of what to make of Balram, as he is clearly a victim of a larger, corrupt society, yet readers often hope for morality in their protagonists. Yet, Adiga does give us one moment of redemption, late in the novel, for Balram. A constant line used by Balram throughout the novel is “What a Fucking Joke”. He learned it from Ashok’s wife, Pinky, and uses it repeatedly when describing India’s economy and government. As an aside in the story, there is an election occurring throughout Balram’s year in Gulagon, where the presumed front-runner is known simply as “The Grand Socialist”. In the end, as the quote indicates, the election produces little actual change.
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, The White Tiger provides an eye-opening look into India beyond the headlines, and in Balram, creates a character at times abhorrent and sympathetic. A bildungsroman and revolutionary tale, The White Tiger might be the perfect book to get into the hands of Indian high school and college students. Assuming no bribes are given to stop that from happening.
The mid-April meeting will be a discussion of Camilla Gibb’s “The Beauty of Humanity Movement”.
(The Finer Things Book Club – A monthly pizza, liquor, and literature Summit.)
Chris Dagonas is a Toronto-based teacher and writer who also writes for Same Page Team www.samepageteam.com, a sports and pop culture website with a Toronto focus.