The White Tiger

Did I actually read The White Tiger  before pronouncing the Booker “undeserving”? No I did not. which is why I attributed “undeserving” to common consensus rather than to myself. I had gone by the views of reviewers I trust,  such as Chandrahas Choudhury.  

But I am happy to report that since then, I have, as a service to my readers, read that novel. This surprising turn of events came about as a result of a series of coincidences. I visited Mumbai, and there I found that my brother was in possession of a pirated copy of the book. The horrors of a long-distance flight on Northwest airlines lay ahead of me, and I wanted a book that I could finish by the time I reached Amsterdam. I asked my brother if I could borrow it. He was only too happy to lend it. I started reading it at the airport and finished it somewhere over Asia Minor. Yes the novel is utter crap and Aravind Adiga is an incompetent writer.  

For a novelist who sets out to depict the reality of the “Darkness” – his name for the India that is not shining – Adiga’s ignorance of what he sets out to depict is palpable.  

His protagonist is named Balram Halwai.  He has apparently been born into the poorest stratum of society in a district in Bihar. Schooling has been unheard of in his family and it is only due to  his father’s desire that his sons should escape poverty that Balram and his brother find themselves in school.

When I read the name Balram Halwai, it made me uneasy for some reason that I could not put my finger on. I ignored the unease, partly because I was reading quite fast and mostly because there were so many other ridiculous things in the novel to distract me. Then, when the novel moves to discuss caste for the first time, it suddenly struck me: What is a person, obviously born into a lower caste, doing with a name like Halwai?  If you know anything at all about caste, you will know that the notion of purity is most rigidly enforced in matters of food and drink. Where in India can a lower caste person also be a traditional seller of sweets? 

But wait a minute. It turns out that Balram Halwai is not a lower-caste person after all. After introducing the concept of caste, and the fact that Halwai  means seller of sweets, Adiga finds himself having to explain how instead of selling sweets, Balram’s family is working as landless labourers. Balram’s family is supposedly in this state because his grandfather suffered losses in his business. But hey, when he started off Balram’s story, didn’t he make it sound like the family has been in poverty for generations?

Now, the thing about caste, as sociologists will never tire of pointing out, is that it is different from economic class. A Brahmin family that falls on hard times is still a Brahmin family. They will continue to get support from their friends and relatives who, needless to say, happen to be Brahmins. They will socialise with others of their caste, and their social, economic and cultural aspirations will come from people of their own caste.  People’s fortunes may ebb and flow, but it is very unlikely that a family of traders turns into a family of landless labourers in the course of a generation. That is not how the caste system works, as Adiga would know if he knew the first thing about the caste system. 

There is more. A couple of pages after Balram’s caste is introduced, Balram finds himself  asking for a job from the son of the village  Zamindar.  The Zamindar is also present. The son asks  Balram whether he belongs to a lower caste or an upper caste, and Balram has the opportunity to do some complex mental gymnastics to decide on what answer to give. Again, in which village of India will you find that a person’s caste is not immediately known to everyone concerned? Or if it is not known, won’t it be possible for the Zamindar to immediately determine the caste from the name?    

This is the mess that Adiga makes of just one part of the novel. You will find such instances in every page of it.  The novel is at its worst in the areas where the author is the most ignorant. When it enters into a milieu familiar to him, it rises to the level of mediocrity.

8 thoughts on “The White Tiger

  1. “Or if it is not known, won’t it be possible for the Zamindar to immediately determine the caste from the name? ”

    I share my last name with a former speaker of Lok Sabha. (see here I am a brahmin. He is from my native place viz., East Godavari district. Caste system over time has become fairly complicated, with names not indicating the caste unambiguously.Again, a black and white assertion not recognizing the inherent shades of gray in the social milieu. I haven’t read the said book and you could be very well on the mark. You critique seems pointed and specific though.

  2. Another point, what is common consensus ? A good way could be to look at amazon and look at user reviews may be.

    81 customer reviews and a 4 star rating !! I think going with people you trust is a good way to judge the worth of a book for personal reading. It is not common consensus though. I’d argue it is not even a good way to criticise a book so strongly on media like a blog. You do your readers a disservice who have come to expect better stuff of you. It is lazy by I reckon your own standards !

  3. “Caste system over time has become fairly complicated, with names not indicating the caste unambiguously.Again, a black and white assertion not recognizing the inherent shades of gray in the social milieu.”
    But I wasn’t making a philosophical statement about it being possible to determine the caste of any person in India from his family name. I was talking of a specific context – here, Halwai, as a surname, is supposed to derive from his caste. In such a case, wouldn’t the Zamindar know immediately from the name where a Halwai would be placed on the social ladder *in that village*?
    Also, I would like to know where I criticized the book “so strongly” before I read it. My words were “to go by common consensus, seems to have won an undeserved Booker,” That is strong criticism?

  4. IMHO it is given that you had not read it. But that is just one man’s opinion. In general I feel it is more careless than strong.

    have fun !!! you seem to be in US or Europe.

  5. vijay,

    i find ravi kiran’s analysis very perceptive. apart from the context, as signified by the profession-indicating surname ‘halwai’, there is also the issue of difference in north and south indian surnames..

  6. If white tiger is fiction it has little of those qualities that are required to write a “novel” the “art of the Novel” by Milan Kundera to understand this…

    And if it is somewhere between a non-fiction and a -guide-to-real-India kind of literature then it is presumptious , demeaning and in some areas downright stupid & factually misleading.

    Adiga, has done what some do best, peddle their own estimates, psuedo-realistic beliefs and world-vision in a pedantic attempt at literary pursuits.

    Through the novel every Indian will see that it is nothing but India as seen through Adiga’s eyes. The Indian-who-has-reached-somewhere-in-terms-of-“social-status”, looking down on his own “poor” countrymen in a condescending fashion and belittling their existence. I’m sure that he has never been part of the milieu he describes beyond the mandatory “research” requirements, unlike let’s say what we see in “Shantaram” {Grgory David Roberts}, a novel where very clearly the writer has LIVED through it. It’s the same genre but more honest.

  7. Whatever you have mentioned about the books, if these extracts are true. then i must say Arvind Adiga is a Fool or a Frusted person who traces his descendent from “The untouchables” who don’t have have the knowledge of Caste systems or seems to take revenge. Hence he referred a person of vaishya community as lower castes………..
    Shame on him

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