Aravind Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, paints a vivid and disturbing picture of life in the strikingly different cultures that comprise modern India.
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Having weathered the election and the holidays, I think we're entitled to the kind of comfort that comes from listening to a favorite author spin a signature tale.
There seems to be something profitable in bashing an amorphous entity that cannot strike back for reasons of legal, face-saving or pure lack of organization. So, in the great tradition of Scott Adams vs. The Corporation, John Grisham vs. The US Legal System, Dan Brown vs. The Vatican, comes Aravind Adiga vs. India.
Mother India is the villain of the piece,splitting her citizens into those who live in the Light ( i.e. the rich, high caste, business people or politicians) and those who live in Darkness (everyone else), corraling her Denizens of the Darkness into the trap of poverty and servility (called The Rooster Coop), and instilling stark lessons of survival to anyone wanting to rise to the top.
Our hero (some hero! I'm not sure he is even an anti-hero, perhaps a surviving victim) is Balram, who comes from an impoverished village, finds employment as a driver to a rich businessman, commits murder, bribes the police and finally becomes an entrepreneur rolling in dough in the new world of "Outsourcing" in Bangalore. Our western sensibilities would be outraged that such a bastard is the hero, but Adiga sends a searing statement that crime pays, that in order to be a successful businessman in India you need to be a crook, you need to pay bribes, you need to wipe out competitors uncrupulously and you need the cops in your pocket - and therefore Balram is your new Indian hero! And yet, Balram admits that he is sitting on a powder keg that can erupt at any time and topple the order of privilege, sending him back to the "Darkness."
All this however, is told in a humourous epistolatory letter by Balram to none other than the premier of China (that other great Asian Tiger)on "how to become an entrepreneur in 7 days". It's a sit-down read, with Balram's chatty, cynical and colourful observations of life in India, constantly punctuating the action. The scenes come across from the servant's viewpoint, where he is not privy to everything in sequence, as he has to focus on his duties or his driving and has to later assemble the pieces together to make sense out of them.
I strayed from giving this book a fifth star because I felt that some of the scenes and characters were exagerated, almost to caricature, to give us effect. I mean, drivers who do not know what a cell phone is, give me a break! I was in Sri Lanka last year ( a southern neighbour who is a bit more impoverished than India these days, because unlike India, S.L. had the ability to launch an internal civil war to try and right some of its wrongs) and even the trishaw drivers in that country had cell-phones - it was their way of being available 24/7.
There are no redeeming features about India in this book, if there were, they were lost amidst the pile of inequities and injustices that seem to plague that country. Balram talks of "revolution" many times, but the country is so varied and fragmented that it's in complete stasis. Or perhaps, all the US and European countries who have made India their manufacturing plant, will launch a military attack (making Iraq and Afghanistan look like tea parties) to protect their assets and quell any unrest if it ever occurs.
I wished that Adiga had balanced off his India with some of her redeeming features. To dismiss the mother ship as "what a fucking joke" was another reason for my witholding that remaining star.