Saturday, October 23, 2010

Haunting darkness in India

Taking a break from the temptation of two more unread Kate Atkinson novels, I've just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It wouldn't have been my first choice; I'm not convinced by the fact that a book has won the Man Booker prize (as this did, in 2008) and I didn't feel in the mood for another culture (idle of me, I know). But a trusted friend had lent it to me, so I persevered through the oddness of the opening chapter and found myself hooked.

Aravind Adiga's first novel, this gives an insight into the world that was hinted at during the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in India - a world where the 21st century sits uneasily close to the India we don't really understand. The hero, Balram Halwai, begins school with the name Munna - which means boy. His father never got round to calling him anything else; his mother is dead and just as he realises that he is bright enough to go to college his family take him out of school in the village and send him to work in a tea-shop. From that village, he finds a job as a driver, and this job takes him to Delhi, where the new India rubs shoulders with the old, where the people from The Darkness of poor, backward India are shunned by the people from the Light, the Microsoft workers and call-centre operatives.

Through this experience, we see how Balram becomes the person he describes from the very beginning of the novel, the 'White Tiger', A Thinking Man and an entrepreneur. He is also, if we are to believe his grandiloquent first chapter, a wanted man - and as the story unfolds, in a series of memos to the Chinese premier who is visiting India, we find out why.

However interesting that progress from clever schoolboy to wanted man might be, it is India that is the star of this novel. This is an India that I find compellingly strained by the tensions of growth and development, wealth and poverty, power and the abuse of power, an India of cruelty, resilience and attention to self. Characters loom out of the pages - the driver nicknamed Vitiligo-Lips, the wealthy young man who has lived in the USA but is sucked back into the corruption and behaviour of his family, the family boss who demands that Balram massage his feet, the prostitute with the dyed blonde hair. And among them moves Balram, moves towards the action that will have his face on 'Wanted' posters all over India while he continues to pursue success in Bangalore.

I may have finished reading the book, but it's haunting me still - and I'm glad I don't have to look for cockroaches and geckos on my bedroom wall as Balram did. I'm not sure, however, that in leaving the Darkness of rural poverty and innocence the Balrams of modern India don't find themselves in a Darkness even more awful than the one they have left.

1 comment:

  1. Aileen from the paper3:28 PM

    I loved The White Tiger. If you liked that, you may also like Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup (the Slumdog Millionaire author) and Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. The latter is (in my humble opinion) the best, and it's high time I re-read it.