Halfway between Calicut and Goa lies Kittur, the scene of Aravind Adiga’s collection of stories, set in the seven year period between the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. But then, despite some very 80s characteristics, the timeframe hardly matters, this could’ve been set in contemporary years too, for as a character says “Nothing ever changes. Nothing will ever change.” One instant comparison I could make was with Malgudi Days. That however ends with the similarity of multiple characters in the same town that is described in great detail – you can picture yourself in the town walking along its roads and identifying places and people.
As the book summary says, the stories slowly bring out the moral biography of the town with its diverse set of characters – from the Dalit bookseller whose kosher relationship with the police is disrupted when he is caught selling ‘The Satanic Verses’ to the ‘sexologist’ who ends up supporting a boy with a venereal disease, and from the ‘mosquito man’ who tries to set limits for the relationship between a servant and his mistress to the mixed caste boy who detonates a bomb in his school.
The book worked for me because the author has managed to flesh out his characters superbly across financial class, religion and schools of thought (political, philosophical) and use the friction between them to drive the stories. In that sense, each story is probably a different style, but the subtext of pent-up fury tinged with sadness cuts across.
An excellent read both as an exploration of a microcosm of India as well as the different shades of human relationships and morality.
The experts talk of India and China dominating the world’s economy in the near future. Aravind Adiga’s protagonist Balram Halwai agrees, and even states as much in his letter to the visiting Chinese Premier. But the macabre twist lies in his reasoning, and that’s perhaps why this book is unique.
There are many books that talk about India’s rising middle class and its opulence. There are also ones that talk about the ‘Other India’, the one that lurks beneath the urban sprawl that inspired ‘India Shining’. So the premise is not a new one, but I haven’t yet read a book that explodes the accepted stories of India’s transformation with such a relentless and unforgiving narrative.
The White Tiger is an animal that appears once in a generation, and Balram is given the title early in his life, for standing out amongst his classmates. He takes it to heart and climbs up the class ladder despite being born in the Darkness, where moving out of one’s position in the social hierarchy is impossible. From the Darkness, he moves to Delhi with his master. The city, with its politicians and malls, when seen from Balram’s perspective has a bleak tinge to it.
Balram breaks all the rules that bind the traditional Indian joint family unit and ends up an ‘entrepreneur’ and a murderer. At one level, its a social commentary that starkly shows the difference in lifestyles of the various classes that make up India, and what it takes to break through.
But more importantly, it is more a take on an individual’s morality – Balram’s and even his master Ashok’s, when traditional diktats meet the necessities of the modern world in a nation that has only begun its march towards a complete overhaul. Though one could be critical and claim that some parts of the novel/characters merely reinforce stereotypes, the fact that Balram’s story seems entirely plausible makes the book a winner.