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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga

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To purchase The White Tiger

Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 294 pages
Availability: The White Tiger - US
The White Tiger - UK
The White Tiger - Canada
The White Tiger - India
Le tigre blanc - France
Der weiße Tiger - Deutschland
La tigre bianca - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent writing and ideas, but doesn't work nearly as well as it should

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 11/9/2008 .
Financial Times . 19/4/2008 Adrian Turpin
Financial Times . 30/3/2009 James Urquhart
The Guardian . 19/4/2008 Kevin Rushby
India Today . 17/4/2008 S. Prasannarajan
The Independent A 11/4/2008 Soumya Bhattacharya
Independent on Sunday . 11/5/2008 David Mattin
London Rev. of Books . 6/11/2008 Sanjay Subrahmanyam
New Statesman . 27/3/2008 Nakul Krishna
The New York Sun A 29/4/2008 Scott Medintz
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/11/2008 Akash Kapur
The New Yorker . 14/4/2008 .
The Observer . 13/4/2008 Francesca Segal
Outlook India . 5/5/2008 Manjula Padmanabhan
San Francisco Chronicle . 27/4/2008 Lee Thomas
Sunday Times A+ 6/4/2008 Adam Lively
The Telegraph A 27/4/2008 Neel Mukherjee
The Telegraph . 9/8/2008 Peter Robins
The Times . 1/5/2008 Kate Saunders
TLS B 11/4/2008 Sameer Rahim
USA Today A+ 23/4/2008 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post . 8/6/2008 Tony D'Souza

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly positive, and a few very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "As Balram’s education expands, he grows more corrupt. Yet the reader’s sympathy for the former teaboy never flags. In creating a character who is both witty and psychopathic, Mr Adiga has produced a hero almost as memorable as Pip, proving himself the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation." - The Economist

  • "Balram’s violent bid for freedom is shocking. What, we’re left to ask, does it make him -- just another thug in India’s urban jungle or a revolutionary and idealist ? It’s a sign of this book’s quality, as well as of its moral seriousness, that it keeps you guessing to the final page and beyond." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "With strong, sympathetic characters, a swell of political unrest and an entertaining plot, the book rattles along at top speed under Balram’s chirpy navigation." - James Urquhart, Financial Times

  • "Aravind Adiga's first novel is couched as a cocksure confession from a deceitful, murderous philosopher runt who has the brass neck to question his lowly place in the order of things. His disrespect for his elders and betters is shocking -- even Mahatma Gandhi gets the lash of his scornful tongue. (…) Balram has the voice of what may, or may not, be a new India: quick-witted, half-baked, self-mocking, and awesomely quick to seize an advantage. (…) There is much to commend in this novel, a witty parable of India's changing society, yet there is also much to ponder. (…) My hunch is that this is fundamentally an outsider's view and a superficial one. There are so many other alternative Indias out there, uncontacted and unheard. Aravind Adiga is an interesting talent and I hope he will immerse himself deeper into that astonishing country, then go on to greater things." - Kevin Rushby, The Guardian

  • "(A)s a debut, it marks the arrival of a storyteller who strikes a fine balance between the sociology of the wretched place he has chosen as home and the twisted humanism of the outcast. With detached, scatological precision, he surveys the grey remoteness of an India where the dispossessed and the privileged are not steeped in the stereotypes of struggle and domination. The ruthlessness of power and survival assumes a million moral ambiguities in this novel powered by an India where Bangalore is built on Bihar." - S. Prasannarajan, India Today

  • "Aravind Adiga's riveting, razor-sharp debut novel explores with wit and insight the realities of these two Indias, and reveals what happens when the inhabitants of one collude and then collide with those of the other. (…) The pace, superbly controlled in the opening and middle sections, begins to flag a bit towards the end. But this is a minor quibble: Adiga has been gutsy in tackling a complex and urgent subject. His is a novel that has come not a moment too soon." - Soumya Bhattacharya, The Independent

  • "It's a thrilling ride through a rising global power (.....) Adiga's plot is somewhat predictable -- the murder that is committed is the one that readers will expect throughout -- but The White Tiger suffers little for this fault. Caught up in Balram's world -- and his wonderful turn of phrase -- the pages turn themselves. Brimming with idiosyncrasy, sarcastic, cunning, and often hilarious, Balram is reminiscent of the endless talkers that populate the novels of the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal." - David Mattin, Independent on Sunday

  • "We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down." - Sanjay Subrahmanyam, London Review of Books

  • "The novel's framing as a seven-part letter to the Chinese prime minister turns out to be an unexpectedly flexible instrument in Adiga's hands, accommodating everything from the helpful explanatory aside to digressions into political polemic. (…) One might note the distinctive narrative voice, rich with the disconcerting smell of coarse authenticity. It is simultaneously able to convey the seemingly congenital servility of the language of the rural poor as well as its potential for knowing subversion. It sends up the neo-Thatcherite vocabulary of the new rich, their absurd extravagance and gaudy taste, but manages to do it tenderly and with understanding. (…) Adiga's style calls to mind the work of Munshi Premchand, that great Hindi prose stylist and chronicler of the nationalist movement" - Nakul Krishna, New Statesman

  • "Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or novel, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are both winning and unsettling." - The New Yorker

  • "(A)t once a fascinating glimpse beneath the surface of an Indian economic "miracle," a heart-stopping psychological tale of a premeditated murder and its aftermath, and a meticulously conceived allegory of the creative destruction that's driving globalization. (...) That may sound like a lot to take in, but The White Tiger is unpretentious and compulsively readable to boot." - Scott Medintz, The New York Sun

  • "In bare, unsentimental prose, he strips away the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point. There is much talk in this novel of revolution and insurrection: Balram even justifies his employer’s murder as an act of class warfare. The White Tiger is a penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India’s new prosperity. It correctly identifies -- and deflates -- middle-class India’s collective euphoria. But Adiga, a former correspondent for Time magazine who lives in Mumbai, is less successful as a novelist." - Akash Kapur, The New York Times Book Review

  • "His voice is engaging -- caustic and funny, describing the many injustices of modern Indian society with well-balanced humour and fury. But there's little new here -- the blurbs claim it's redressing the misguided and romantic Western view of India -- but I suspect there are few to whom India's corruption will come as a surprise. As social commentary, it's disappointing, although as a novel it's good fun." - Francesca Segal, The Observer

  • "I found the book a tedious, unfunny slog (.....) The tone of the writing is breezy-absurd, which means we can’t hold the writer accountable for anything that happens in the book. (...) There’s no accountability in the breezy-absurd school of literature ! Everything goes ! Nothing is real ! Lie back and open wide. (...) Echoes of the Indo-Internationalist club of literature can be heard throughout." - Manjula Padmanabhan, Outlook India

  • "Adiga's training as a journalist lends the immediacy of breaking news to his writing, but it is his richly detailed storytelling that will captivate his audience. (...) The White Tiger contains passages of startling beauty (...). Adiga never lets the precision of his language overshadow the realities at hand: No matter how potent his language one never loses sight of the men and women fighting impossible odds to survive. (...) The White Tiger succeeds as a book that carefully balances fable and pure observation." - Lee Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(E)xtraordinary and brilliant (….) Talk of "lessons" should not be taken to suggest that The White Tiger is a didactic exercise in "issues", like a newspaper column. For Adiga is a real writer -- that is to say, someone who forges an original voice and vision." - Adam Lively, Sunday Times

  • "What Adiga lifts the lid on is also inexorably true: not a single detail in this novel rings false or feels confected. The White Tiger is an excoriating piece of work, stripping away the veneer of 'India Rising'. That it also manages to be suffused with mordant wit, modulating to clear-eyed pathos, means Adiga is going places as a writer." - Neel Mukherjee, The Telegraph

  • "It is certain of its mission, and pursues it with an undeviating determination you wouldn't expect in a first novel. It reads at a tremendous clip. Its caricatures are sharply and confidently drawn. It is full of barbed wit, if not -- and not trying to be, so far as I can tell -- actually funny. It won't win any prizes for subtlety. But it hasn't been nominated for one of those." - Peter Robins, The Telegraph

  • "Balram's cynical, gleeful voice captures modern India: no nostalgic lyricism here, only exuberant reality." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "The White Tiger resembles the stories in Murder Weekly. It is quick, entertaining and full of vividly drawn types: the scheming servant, the corrupt businessman, the spoilt wife. Its lack of subtlety can be wearying, as can its cynicism. But it is a useful counter to optimistic tales of India's roaring economy." - Sameer Rahim, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is one of the most powerful books I've read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel from an Indian journalist living in Mumbai hit me like a kick to the head (.....) This is an amazing and angry novel about injustice and power" - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "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. (...) 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, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The White Tiger is presented as an epistolary novel, a series of letters written over the period of seven nights. It's just an excuse, of course, for the narrator, Balram Halwai, to tell his story -- a supposedly creative approach that, at least initially certainly gets the reader's attention. The person Balram is writing to is the premier of China, Wen Jiabao, due to visit the city Balram is living in -- Bangalore, India -- in a week's time. What, one wonders, could possess an Indian entrepreneur living in Bangalore to write at such length to the premier of China ?
       Balram does have a story to tell, but unfortunately the connexion to his ostensible audience (the Chinese premier) is barely made. Sure, Balram explains that he can tell the premier all about Indian entrepreneurship -- something he hears China is missing -- and he makes the occasional comparisons between India and China, but it ultimately proves to be a feeble excuse for him to unburden himself, and because the premise is so poorly utilised undermines much of the novel.
       Balram does have something to get off his chest, of course, and his letters to the Chinese premier are a confession of sorts. Balram tells his life-story, recounting how he got to where he now is -- a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. And from early on we learn that he is a wanted man, as he writes about a poster describing him and alluding to his misdeeds. And soon he reveals what crime he has on his hands, too.
       But the story he tells circles around the crime and only gets to it in good time, as Balram recounts the whole story of how he wound up in the position he now is more or less chronologically. Born in northern India, in a tiny hell-hole called Laxmangarh, his parents couldn't even be bothered to give him a name, just calling him 'munna' -- 'boy'. The near-feudal conditions there meant that everything was controlled by a very few powerful families, and that opportunities were limited.
       Balram calls himself; "half-baked", like many others in the country -- not allowed to finish school, with only a smattering of all sorts of knowledge. In fact, he was a smart lad, and that was even recognised by a school inspector, who praised him as a 'white tiger', "the rarest of animals -- the creature that only comes along once in a generation". The school inspector promises to arrange a scholarship and proper schooling for the young boy, but, of course, instead his family takes him out of school and puts him to work at a teashop (to pay for marrying off one of the daughters in the family).
       Family ties mean a great deal here, and it is the family that decides what happens to the various members (including when and who to marry) -- and that lays claim to most of everyone's earnings. Balram slowly manages to distance himself from his family, but it takes a while. They do stump up the money for him to taking driving lessons, which he sees as a great opportunity -- and which turns out to be one, as he lucks into a job with the relative of someone from his hometown. Being a driver for Mr.Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, also eventually gets him to Delhi, comfortably far from his demanding family.
       Balram explains why Indian servants are so honest: because of what he calls the Rooster Coop. No matter what the opportunity, a servant will not take advantage of his master -- not when it comes to what really matters. A bag containing a million dollars can be entrusted to any servant, he claims, as doing anything improper would have terrible consequences. The servant might get away with it, but:

only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed -- hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the Masters -- can break out of the Coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.
       'White Tiger' Balram, of course, fits the bill .....
       This is a psychologically pretty interesting situation, but here as elsewhere Adiga doesn't do much with his premises. For one, he doesn't convey adequately why so many Indians are supposedly stuck in this Coop -- with families like Balram's, it's a wonder far more don't go on rampages and wipe them out themselves. And Balram's own pangs of conscience (or indifference) aren't nearly considered enough.
       Along the long way Adiga does a decent job of describing the divide between the haves and have-nots, and the way the servant-class is treated. He's particularly good on Indian corruption, from the vote-rigging of the local elections, where the 'Great Socialist' candidate is unopposable, to the conditions at school, where the teacher steals the money for the school-food-programme and sells the uniforms meant for the students -- but no one holds it against him, because he hasn't been paid in six months and that's simply the way the system works. Anyone in power abuses it for his or her own benefit. By the end, when he's a boss, Balram has certainly learned to work the system too -- which is largely about greasing the proper wheels (and palms).
       Balram's adventures in the big city and as an employee of a man who keeps having to pay bribes to politicians (and whose marriage falls apart) allows for some amusing observations and commentary on contemporary Indian conditions, and a nice contrast of poverty and wealth, but much of it feels a bit forced. Most of the narrative drive comes from the build up to the crime Balram commits, but that also distracts from Adiga's other purposes, making for a muddled mix where nothing -- the crime, Balram's learning curve and then his business ventures, the state of modern India -- is adequately presented.
       Yes, The White Tiger 'says a lot' about contemporary India, but it tries to do so far too hard. Adiga has some talent, but leaves it at loose ends here. What suspense he builds up early on surrounding Balram's crime dissipates far too fast, while he tries too hard with his Indian panorama. And Balram isn't a fully realised or convincing character, either, even though he's talking (or telling his story) all the time, as Adiga's attempt to make him both a peasant-everyman (representative of so many Indians) and a white tiger confuses things.
       "I'm tomorrow", Adiga has Balram claim early on, but it's unclear what kind of tomorrow he represents: his success is found in imitating the dime-a-dozen corrupt wealthy class (which is nothing new) -- and in abandoning his family. The latter seems a much rarer step -- is Adiga suggesting that is the wave of the future ? and that when it comes -- watch out ?!
       Should these 'letters' ever have reached Chinese premier Wen Jiabao he would, no doubt, have been completely baffled by them -- as well as why they were addressed to him. Unfortunately, readers of the novel likely will be similarly baffled. There are some good ideas here, and the writing (bit by bit, at least) isn't bad, but the whole is disappointing.

       (Also: while Adiga is hardly the first writer with a privileged background to write a book like this, it's hard not feel that it's a bit rich coming from a well- and foreign-educated (Columbia and Oxford !) author to take as his protagonist (and mouthpiece) someone so down-and-out that his parents didn't even bother giving him a name and then have the character find success in this particular way.)

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The White Tiger: Reviews: The White Tiger - the movie: Aravind Adiga: Other books Aravind Adiga under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Aravind Adiga was born in 1974. He attended Columbia and Oxford universities, and worked for Time.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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