Wednesday, May 14, 2008


This appeared in the May 16 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


In the title story of Lavanya Sankaran’s The Red Carpet, a Bangalore-based chauffeur is bemused by, then comes to terms with, his mistress’ Westernised ways. Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, can be read as that story’s evil twin. Here, we have the character of Balram Halwai who, brought up in a woebegone Indian village, works his way up to become a chauffeur in Gurgaon and then, following an act of premeditated, brutal violence against his employer, emerges as a successful Bangalore entrepreneur.

The novel is in the form of seven letters written by Balram to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, on the eve of the latter’s trip to Bangalore. These letters – the voice alternates between the cocksure and the breathless -- are both confession and life-story. Balram dwells on the circumstances that have fashioned him as well as holds forth on the state of the country. Satire is the dominant mode, and sacred cows are pilloried with irreverence. Much of this is extremely readable; for the most past, Adiga doesn’t let polemic come in the way of plot.

However, full-on satire is a two-edged sword: when used to show up systemic ills, it can also expose the lack of a solution on the part of the satirist. (That's why it's most effective in shorter works, or in sections of longer ones – ask Jonathan Swift.) The White Tiger is certainly a timely counterpoint to those glowing reports touting India's incipient superpower status, but has few antidotes to offer apart from the bromide of bringing the marginalised into the mainstream. It’s further weakened by taking on too many targets: politicians, elections, the police, city planners, the foibles of the wealthy, pollution, and more. Many satires suffer from being toothless; The White Tiger has too many fangs.

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