The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – review

Looking back on The White Tiger, I’m left with a sense that what we are reading isn’t just a tale of a battle of castes, of social inequality, but of the continuing influences (and even still occurring) colonialism. What’s different from the classic Orwellian colonialism from his time in India is that we are no longer talking about an occupying force setting up shop in a foreign land and bending the locals to the will of their oppressors through sheer force.

Instead, it’s an economic and philosophical colonialism. It’s the importation of ideas, of companies, and of culture that has set up shop and has quietly bent a society to the wills and whims of another. The entire book is a letter from the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier, Web  Jiabao, extolling the virtues of a capitalist and “democratic” system that is entirely imported from Britain and other western countries, and outlining how the only way to succeed within this system is to play within the parameters of its own lawlessness.

In the place of colonial powers, a wealthy class of criminals has stepped into the power vacuum, and people of Balram’s class are essentially feeder for service work. It is mentioned often that under different times, Balram and his family would have enjoyed higher standing in traditional Indian society. They would be “sweets makers,” what I’m assuming is the equivalent of a baker. It is only under this perverted economic system that they have been moved to the bottom of society, fighting for work amongst themselves and always tied to the anchors of familial expectations and worries. In fact, it is this tie to his family that Balram must eventually throw off to gain his “success.”

The jobs that seem to be the most exalted by Balram are almost entirely jobs that have been outsourced from America or other western companies, a large figure in this idea of economic colonization. And the group of people Balram eventually comes to depend on as the lifeblood of the taxi business he starts are people chained to these companies, doing telephone work, who have to live bizarre hours to correspond to the waking hours of the people who would be calling them from America asking for help with their computers, their DVD players or what have you. So to achieve a level of economic comfort, young Indians have to configure their lives ever more drastically to the whims and practices of foreign “masters.”

And what sets this off all the more is the distaste Pinky Madam has for the whole thing when she sees it. Balram’s employer, Ashok, has recently returned from America with his wife, Pinky. And while Ashok is slowly pulled back into the culture and its expectations of him, Pinky reacts with horror to it, and eventually flees from it. It is very reminiscent of Orwell writing about India, and how the British occupiers are slowly worn down by the experience of colonialism and how cheaply it values the lives of those being placed at its mercy. At the same time, the surest way for a people at the mercy of colonization to improve their social standings is to become a functioning member of it. If you’re willing to play ball, you can go far, and that seems to be what Balram eventually comes to do.

He turns his back on his family, adopts a ruthless bent that would suit the people who employ him as a driver, and then he finds success running his taxi business after buying off a high ranking member of the local police in the town he has moved to. While The White Tiger can clearly be read as a darkly comic take on life in modern India, I think it works just as well as a commentary on the shift of the idea of colonialism and how the “global marketplace” has taken the place of armies and musket fire.

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