The central character and narrator of this novel -- Balram, the "White Tiger" -- is like an Indian Raskolnikov without the guilt. Unlike Dostoevsky's prototypical anti-hero, however, Balram's crime is founded on a morality and world view we can actually root for (well, maybe that's my own morality and world view showing through. Still.)
This novel is at once heart-wrenching, disgust-provoking and deeply satirical (also very, very funny). It seethes
with anger and conveys well -- primarily through a scathing irony -- the injustice that has so rightfully led to the anger in a way that every slave narrative should. For this is how I would characterize it: this is a book about the economic and social structures that enslave huge segments of the world's population and that demand, may even require, nothing short of human sacrifice to redress.
Adiga's India rivals Rohinton Mistry's in A Fine Balance in terms of the horrific descriptions of the living conditions of the impoverished in India, but the character arc is in the opposite direction. Also, Adiga goes further in making his book entirely about what it actually takes for a rooster to escape the coop, or the tiger to escape the cage (I enjoyed the humans-as-beasts symbolism, which is powerful and prevalent, used to illustrate the effects of entrapment and servitude from a number of perspectives). Where A Fine Balance
achieved its thematic goal by leaving the reader feeling oppressed and hopeless, The White Tiger
achieves a very similar goal by leaving us enraged and discomfited. There is more hope here, I think, but it is a bleak sense of optimism founded upon a reality so gritty, and a protagonist so flawed, that it might better be described as numbed collusion. Progress is inevitable, but so is the corruption that lies at the heart of it. In A Fine Balance,
we were worn down and broken by the injustice portrayed; here we are co-opted and made complicit in it.The White Tiger
has an immediacy and sense of modernity that A Fine Balance
lacks, although the latter precedes it by just 15 years. The high-tech entrepreneurialism upon which Balram's success is founded is also India's and marks the difference between the stage of industrialization at the heart of each novel. AWT's contemporary globalism is reinforced through the highly effective framing device of Balram's seven-day (are we meant to draw a biblical parallel?) letter to the visiting Chinese Premier, which provides an up-to-the-minute context for the politics and economics.
At the risk of taking the comparison too far, I was able to put A Fine Balance
down and retain some sense of distance from its sadness, desperation and filth -- it was describing, after all, caste-on-caste subjugation. Shameful as this is to admit, I felt one step removed. It remained a story about a place I've never been, and one that didn't seem to influence my life. As I sit here typing a book review to be distributed over the Internet on my Dell computer using Microsoft software, for which I've occasionally needed to call a 1-800 number for service (all of these companies, among others, are identified by name in AWT), that distance has evaporated along with my sense of comfort and complacency.
Ashiga, educated at Columbia and Oxford and living now in Mumbai according to the jacket blurb, offers a controlled but relentless satire that lets no one off the hook: not any of his characters, nor any of his readers no matter what part of the globe you call home.
An extraordinary read, highly recommended.