July 23, 2010

The Dark Humour in The White Tiger

Sometimes it’s much better to take a book off the shelf and read it, just like that, without any preconceived notions. No reading reviews or getting “some” idea about the storyline to decide if it’s the kind of genre you like (the same can be said about movies too). That way, the book makes the impact intended by the author - unadulterated. The White Tiger happens to be one such book for me. Sure, I’ve heard that it won a Man Booker Prize (and a debut novel at that). It would contribute towards increased expectations, perhaps? Anyway, it so happened that I had (correction: have) a lot of time to kill and found this book conveniently available at the Infy library. And frankly, I was hooked.

The book is what is known as an epistolary novel in literary terms – where the entire length of the novel is in the form of documents (letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings… and, with the advent of modern technology, e-mails and blogs can also be counted). Without going into too many details (I don’t want to spoil the book for those who are yet to read it), the book is structured in the form of the protagonist’s letter (or rather series of letters) to a Chinese diplomat who is to visit India (all of which takes a week for completion). What I found interesting about the book is, of course, the style of writing and the fact that the story does not unfurl at one go, but at the pace and manner decided by the protagonist (therefore, the author). In that sense, I’d consider the book a bit of a suspense too - the pieces of the jigsaw take time falling and you are constantly anticipating it too. What is really commendable is how the author manages to cleverly weave in a lot of issues between the two Indias (urban Vs. rural) of today, with only the life of the protagonist and his opinions as his means. And the language, mind you, is irreverant! I’d describe it as a mix of outspokenness, cynicism, sarcasm, disdain and dark humour (sometimes bordering on hilarious!). You’ll definitely get a flavour of the book from Page 1. The author plainly (and in no uncertain terms) states the maladies plaguing India today.

Sample a few lines from the book.
(Copyright is defintely to the author. I'm just quoting him. Hope this isn't any violation!).

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

These are the three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever. This last one is the worst; it makes people talk and talk about things that they have no say in ... Would they do it this time? Would they beat the Great Socialist and win the elections? Had they raised enough money of their own, and bribed enough policemen, and bought enough fingerprints of their own, to win? Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.

It's amazing. The moment you show cash, everyone knows your language.

The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor - they never overlap, do they? See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor.

What I find surprising, though, is that there is nothing in the background of Aravind Adiga (from whatever limited/unlimited information I could gather from the Web) that suggests that he could pen such a character (the mannerisms, behaviour and thinking process) with great finesse. I got Googling and happened to read four other short stories penned by him – The Sultan’s Battery, Smack, The Elephant, Last Christmas in Bandra (you can read them all online). Protagonists in these stories also belong to the rural or poverty-stricken India, grappling with their lives. He has also penned another book (a collection of short stories) titled Between the Assassinations.

So finally…
My verdict on The White Tiger? Definitely worth a read!


mridula said...

happy that u enjoyed the book from the start to end!!

Sameera said...

Hmm.. interesting to note an award winning book is reviewed as 'Definitely worth reading!'. After my terrible experiences with other such books I simply chose to ignore this one. After this review.. I might go back to the library. =)

Vijitha Valsalan said...

@ Mridu - Yep! :-)

@ Sam - Yea, I know! Happy reading! :-D