|Cover photo courtesy of The White Tiger blog.|
The White Tiger is an extraordinary novel about modern day India, a country which we take for granted as “the world’s centre of technology and outsourcing”. The narrator albeit protagonist takes us faithfully from his humble village of Laxmangarh through the tunnels of what we might regard as the underbelly of the biggest democratic country in the world, to the bright lights and chandeliers of Delhi and Bangalore. A reviewer in USA Today describes the novel as “one of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel from an Indian journalist living in Mumbai hit me like a kick in the head...This is an amazing and angry novel about injustice and power.”
We meet the white tiger three times. Once at a rundown, neglected village school of Laxmangarh where a visiting school inspector christens him as such a one destined to fight corruption and alleviate his nation’s poverty because he has successfully recited a sentence written in English on the blackboard. The second encounter is at a local tea shop where he is forced by his grandmother to work and earn money by breaking coal to feed the ovens, just to be jeered at by his class mates:
“What is the creature that comes along only once in a generation?” one boy asked loudly.
“The coal breaker,” another replied.
And then all of them began to laugh.
Upon our third encounter with the white tiger, which is at the National Zoo in Delhi some months later, the narrator of the novel who is also the protagonist and “the white tiger” has this to say: “Then the thing behind the bamboo bars stopped moving. It turned its face to my face. The tiger’s eyes met my eyes, like my master’s eyes have met mine so often in the mirror of the car. All at once the tiger vanished.”
Meaning, our protagonist faints. This is an astonishing novel written by the Oxford and Columbia educated author, Aravind Adiga. The novel has altogether seven chapters. All the chapters are there. Except the third chapter, which presumably covers the period of time the narrator blacked out. Which is odd for a novel to have chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7, eh? No matter.
The narrative turns out to be an open letter addressed to “His Excellency Wen Jiabao, The Premier’s Office, Beijing, Capital of the Freedom-Loving Nation of China” who is about to visit Bangalore. The Premier needs to be informed about the realities of India. “Mr Premier, Sir,” our protagonist starts graciously, “neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can only be said in English.”
And these things that can only be said in English become the faithful tone of honesty referred to earlier. The White Tiger is indeed an angry novel: that anger felt as truly belonging to the 21st century; anger felt by the poor against the rich; anger felt by the least developed and less fortunate against the industrially rich and powerful, the ruthless and merciless. And by the by, as we reach the last pages of the novel, we realize that our protagonist has a far greater plan than we might have envisaged.
Balram Halwai alias Munna, for that is our protagonist’s name and by the end of the novel he will have assumed several more names and titles, goes through life as a humble school drop-out from the little village of Laxmangarh, works in a tea shop at the bidding of his grandmother (Kusum), runs away to the city where he learns and finally acquires a driving licence, then goes on to find work as a driver for a master, Ashok, who also had originated from the little village of Laxmangarh. Balram works for Ashok and his family consisting of his American wife Pinky Madam, and his brothers Mongoose and Mukesh Sir and their father known as the Stork.
He serves his masters well for a time until one night when Pinky Madam, drunk, takes over the wheels of the powerful Honda City from him in the streets of Delhi at two or three in the morning and runs over a child. The whole family present as passengers is shocked. Balram must be sacrificed for his masters. Necessary documentation has been prepared for him to sign and this in part reads: “That there were no other occupants of the car at the time of the accident. That I was alone in the car, and alone responsible for all that happened.” A lawyer has been bribed, all looks complete.
At which point the protagonist hints that the novel must end. But not before he completes a few more lectures for the Premier. India is a Rooster Coop, Balram advises. “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way – to exist in perpetual servitude; servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.”
While millions of wanted posters with his face on them are stuck on the notice boards throughout India, our protagonist of the 21st novel retires to Bangalore a reformed man. There, to those who come to meet and know him, his reputation as a new man comes to their minds in large capital letters: “Meet Balram Halwai, the ‘White Tiger’: Servant, Philosopher, Entrepreneur, Murderer...”
And the poetry that rhymes with that, runs: “I was looking for the key for many years, but the door was always open.”
Elsewhere, within the vicinities of such geographical locations we hear echoes of same, through novels, poems, dramatic works, films, TV, videos, newspapers and radio programs and we find ourselves wondering how much of ethics and morals is visited in the dying hours of man and his endeavour to free himself from such bondage as the Rooster Coop and all the poverty, squalor and waste of human life that goes with it. The White Tiger is quite a novel and if we in PNG believe that neither the novel nor its author, Aravind Adiga, is relevant to us, then truly ol wantok we are kidding ourselves. Go to Delhi, Calcutta or Bangalore today and you will see on the walls of high rise buildings there the same betel nut spit (paang) we see on our own.