Aravind Adiga 2008, The White Tiger, Atlantic, London.
Lately I've read some novels set in India. One of the most memorable is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Most outline the problems in India, but I think The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is the first I've read which shows a character actually 'breaking free' of the social system, a system of conformity that helps keep a billion people living in poverty and subservience.
When Munna starts driving for Ashok he finds himself naturally wanting to act as a servant, yet when they 'use' him to sign a paper that he'd killed a child, things gradually change for him. Yes, he is intelligent and isn't as close to his family as some. He can be called selfish, disobedient and thoughtless of his family and yet it is these 'good' things (obedience & family feeling) that allow the landlords to keep ruling. There is a lot of room for discussion here – how morally wrong is Munna? When he becomes a landlord he tries to act as it should be done – but how long would that last? Yet if he had acted morally he wouldn't have killed, wouldn't have forgotten his family and, he'd still be a slave. This is a very thought provoking book.
I enjoyed the style of writing – you can tell it's narrated by someone like Munna, but it's easy enough to read. I thought the images evoked by the white tiger (one only comes along rarely), the zoo, and the rooster coop are clever. The way characters are called animals to suit their characters is interesting too. I enjoyed sentences like this: 'He was a first gear person' (p. 142). Also interesting is the description of the traffic Munna drives in, and how verbs evoked emotions eg 'thrashing through the traffic' (p. 139). I liked this one: 'If only a man could spit his past out so easily' (p. 151).
Munna is not a heroic figure to model oneself on, yet his redeeming feature is to go back for his nephew. Will his nephew turn on him one day? An interesting thought Munna has about beauty is this: 'If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India' (p. 276). There may be more truth in that statement than is at first perceived.
I was in turn intrigued, revolted and amazed by this book. I think it is clever to make people think of how things could or can't be changed in a place steeped in tradition and cultural values, and what it could cost someone who tries to break out of the coop.