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Sunday, June 8, 2008

THE WHITE TIGER

By Aravind Adiga

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Free Press. 276 pp. $24

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger attempts to tell the story of contemporary India, of those few who have money and those great many who do not, of caste and class and stifled desire. He captures this incongruous land by blending a Chuck Palahniuk-style confession with a Nanny Diaries ironic insider's look at India's wealthy. This alternatingly funny and tragic anatomy of abuse and crushed hope is depicted by a well-meaning yet ambitious young man named Balram Halwai. In a quest to better himself, he finagles a position as a driver for a wealthy family in Delhi. What ensues is Balram's blistering description of the inner workings of India's corrupt upper class.

The book is narrated through a long series of unanswered letters from Balram to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao -- who is soon to visit India on a fact-finding junket. This structure allows Adiga to weave the two most ascendant subjects of our day: India and China, two enormous countries dealing with massive social change.

The innocent young man is easy to like, but through hint and literary sleight of hand, we understand early that Balram has murdered someone. Though we don't know until the end precisely who, it's easy to divine that the victim is one of Balram's masters. And what a gallery of rogues this rich family is: Through nicknames based on their characteristics, Balram introduces us to the Wild Boar, the Stork and the Mongoose. He drives members of this gang of thieves around Delhi as they deliver sacks of cash to the politicians they wish to buy off. All of them are so vile that it's hard to choose which one should be murdered; Balram, on the other hand, is a villain we like.

Does The White Tiger live up to its own ambitions? Sort of. There comes a moment in this book where the narrative has a real chance to leave behind the pop and fluff of The Nanny Diaries irony and achieve a deep Orwellian insight. Midway through the story, in a drunken display of raw power, Balram is forced out of his kingdom -- the car he drives -- as his soused mistress takes over the wheel and leaves him on the side of the road. Just how little Balram truly possesses in the world on this dark night becomes tragically evident to him and the reader. But then his mistress drives back, picks him up and proceeds to run over a vagrant child.

It is here that the novel falls apart. The poignancy of Balram's desolation lasts only for a moment. The death of the child is not reported, nothing comes of it, and the book returns to its easy mockery of upper class Indian life.

Yes, it's fresh, funny, different, and it will please those looking for insights into contemporary India, but The White Tiger offers something less than it might have achieved.

-- Tony D'Souza's most recent novel is "The Konkans."


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