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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Times of India, October 16, 2008

The sword is sharper

Nina Martyris

The one ambition of the arriviste hero of this harsh novel is simply this: not to sink into the sucking mud of the Ganga. Driven by an almost deranged desire to escape from the India of Darkness to the India of Light, Balram Halwai heads towards the coal bowl of Dhanbad, and ultimately Delhi, escaping a rotting armpit called Laxmangarh, where the "sewage glistens" and the women wait behind doors to fall on the salaries of their returning migrant husbands like "wildcats on a slab of flesh". In the local school, where the teacher is a lying, thieving bully, a visiting inspector gives Balram the name White Tiger, the rarest of the rare, the only boy in a classroom of underfed dunces to identify the photograph of the Great Socialist, the politician who is an even bigger lying, thieving bully.

Balram escapes but carries with him a wound that never heals. The death by tuberculosis of his rickshaw-puller father eats into him, informing his every action and final act of madness. He is determined to be a man with a "big belly", not a man with a "small belly" like his father was. Behind the wheel of a Honda City, the White Tiger soon realises that he has exchanged one zoo for another. He is employed as a driver by the Stork, the man who owns the strip of river that flows by his village, and is ordered to drive his son Ashok, who has returned from America with his Christian wife, Pinky, who, for all her short hair, has a conscience.

Despite his fancy wage and uniform, Balram knows that he is still imprisoned in the coop with other roosters awaiting slaughter. Slaughter must be fought with slaughter, and blood stains his flight to freedom. Like Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, The White Tiger opens with murder. Most foul or fair is the larger question that the reader must answer, and it is this complex, aching morality that underpins the novel.

This is Adiga's first work of fiction and the leap from journalist (he worked with TIME Magazine) to writer, though successfully made, is not completely convincing. The constant ranting against the darkness seems more the writer's upper-middle-class outrage than the hero's own. The first half of the novel is riveting, and has a page-turning intensity, but the grip slackens and by the end the writer seems to have lost his cunning.

Where The White Tiger does succeed forcibly is its savage portrayal of India Unshining, and the depressing betrayal of the wretched of the earth by a system that dares call itself a welfare state. As dodgy tax deals are cut between the Stork and the Great Socialist whose goons pulverise a rickshaw puller for daring to vote, the public continues to obsess over the elections "like enunchs discussing the Kama Sutra''. Ashok, who is just back from the land of the free, and who is sickened by the bribing and spitting and bad roads, is no different__beneath the veneer throbs a zamindar, weak and cruel.

But more than an indictment of the venality of the old rural rich and their urban offspring, the penumbra of menace that encircles this novel is that of revolution and the flowering of Naxalism. Foreigners and others staggered by the poverty of India always marvel at the lack of crime, the absence of insurrection. Why hasn't the guillotine been sharpened so far, when there is no bread in one India and only cake in the other? What would happen if a million Balram Halwais awoke to the fact that the meek usually do not inherit the earth, and were to rise in rebellion? That confection would be red and sticky.

Richer still is the twisting irony of the thoughts that flow through Balram's mind as he sits in his Bangalore office beneath the scattered light of a chandelier__for all Bharat's evils, he knows in his gut that brown men and yellow men will rule the world, for the white man has been finished by buggery, drug abuse and talking on the mobile phone. The Balram Halwais will be the human hoardings of superpowerdom. India will shine, but not before the white tigers have had their kill.

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