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The White Tiger

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga It's difficult to overstate the relief I felt, reading this fable after spending Romanian winter with heady, badly printed encyclopedias. It feels as if I've known more than a few White Tigers in my life and would even consider myself a form of one. Not that I, a Westerner, or possibly even most Indians, have ever experienced hardships quite so strident as "The Darkness". My experience has been Western and therefore a random, pointless sort of backbiting, which this Indian "White Tiger" can only aspire to himself, by obliterating family, caste, and social conventions from The Darkness. To this Western reader -- and that is the writer's intended audience -- The Darkness seems like a convivial place by comparison to any Western suburb stuffed with would-be White Tigers, and that is also the author's intent. Like the White Tiger, we Western Tigers are inured to every suffering save self-centred economic suffering, and we have slowly convinced ourselves that socially-induced fear, not ignorance, is holding us back from success.

Like any comforting fable for children or foreigners, "The White Tiger" is telling a highly simplified tale, as told by a wise fool, using a few recognizable symbols and totems. But it is a balancing act between ridiculing Indian corruption and exposing Western buggery, a blend of condescension and mock irony which, thankfully, managed to convince an audience of English judges at Man Booker.

It's highly likely that less than glowing Goodreads ratings reflect opinions of actual Indians readers, who naturally have a deeper knowledge of India's cultures and politics. What part of Indian culture escapes Mr. Adiga's journalistic contempt by story's end? Like a kind of satire, "The White Tiger" is ultimately taking a conservative tack, ridiculing any political or social calculations which undermine caste and family. Hence his running commentary from the narrator and auxiliary characters against modern conventions such as parliamentary democracy, which turn castes of sweet makers into brutal social climbers and reward any monkey with money for political bribes. Is parliamentary democracy also the reason the White Tiger is so confident he'll easily bribe policemen who spend their day in front of Gandhi's portrait?

For all the scheming behind his mighty name, where did the White Tiger end up, per the book's theme? A minor entrepreneur, bragging about his success to some diplomat from China, writing a letter no one will read. As he bragged again about the chandeliers in his home, I was reminded of news accounts of an American man who killed his family, then burned down his house, somehow believing that this would help escape some debt. The story goes that the chandelier found in his house would have paid off his debts in full.

Overall, I really enjoyed a simple morality tale. It didn't teach me anything I didn't know, and it was likely too simple for a sophisticated Indian reader. It may even be a much improved retelling of magazine detective stories mentioned in the book. So I can't say it earned its status as one of the top 5 Indian works of all time (says one list), but it would make an excellent movie, in the style of American Psycho.