Book review: The White Tiger

By Emma Brooks

In search of a new read, I picked one of my housemate’s books “The White Tiger” off our bookshelf in the living room. I was intrigued by the title and also by the book cover, but the only existing blurb said “Meet Balram Halwai, the ‘White Tiger’: servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer…” which did not really give me much to go on. I had never read an Indian author’s novel before and considering that Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for this book, it seemed like a good place to start.

Adiga uses the interesting narrative of a letter to tell us the story of his main character. The first chapter starts as the White Tiger writes a letter to His Excellency the Premier of China. The advantage of using this form of narrative is that we have no real idea of where the White Tiger is going with his letter, and are subjected to his whims and desires to write – or not.

Therefore, what we learn about the White Tiger is entirely his decision, meaning that we have only a small idea of who this man is and what we will be finding out about his life. What unravels before us is the tale of a young boy trying to fight his way out of poverty, and what his society is dictating he should do with his life. Meet Balram Halwai, your faithful servant who will do anything you ask him to.

Balram’s is the classic tale of a person born into poverty and the lower class of society, whose life is doomed to follow the path of all those before him and who will never succeed in breaking out of the mould. And yet, as we read along whilst The White Tiger writes his letter, we discover that he is cunning and has great ambitions. Clearly, his life will not be the same as those before him.

The book provides an unusual yet interesting insight into India and its culture. Through the story of The White Tiger’s life and his experience, we learn of cultural traditions, of the way people are brought up in India, and of the less obvious differences between rich and poor. We learn of the hardship people suffer in India, of poor living conditions and of corruption, and we learn of the differences that exist within different parts of India itself. Through the White Tiger’s letter, Adiga succeeds in telling us the story of a nation that is on the rise yet still has many faults.

We empathise with the main character and his story, even though part of us feels like we shouldn’t. Adiga also succeeds in making us empathise with the White Tiger’s boss Mr. Ashok, even though we know he is a bad character who makes other people’s lives miserable. Yet seen through the eyes of The White Tiger, we manage to feel sorry for Mr. Ashok, which is precisely what makes the book so good: the characters are real and Adiga manages to make us connect with all of them, as we understand their behaviour and motivations. Though we feel horror for The White Tiger’s actions, by the end of the book we also feel proud of what he has accomplished.

It is no surprise that Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for this book, which gives a new perspective on life and culture in India. It is a truly excellent book and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a new read.

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