Other than having a beautiful yet unknown actress, I couldn’t really grasp all of the hoopla surrounding Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s Oscar winner for best film. Slumdog does give a few insights and images into the extreme poverty and precarious conditions of India’s impoverished (see “Slumdog Millionaire: Best Fiction Ever Set in India“) but is ultimately nothing more than a feel good Hollywood film with an improbable ending. Most of the time while watching the film, I kept thinking of the much more powerful novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Then last night I finished Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.
Slumdog and White Tiger have a lot in common. They both won major award (White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Man Prize). They are also both set in India and portray the class struggle, corruption, and hopes of the India’s underclass. But between the two of them, there is a world of difference. The White Tiger is a gritty, angry tale of a poor man’s rags to riches climb, unrepentant — though struggling to come to terms with the means — of what it takes to become and stay rich. On the other hand, Slumdog’s protagonist happily — thanks to Hollywood honestly, a little help of police good will and good fortune — achieve millionaire status; in other words, good trumps evil through goodness. So if you want to see great images of India and a pretty girl, then watch Slumdog. But if you want less picture perfect version of how the poor live in India, try The White Tiger or A Fine Balance.
Now on the cover of my edition of The White Tiger, the USA Today is cited as calling the novel “one of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades. No hyperbole. This debut novel hit me like a kick to the head — the same effect Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Personally, though, while The White Tiger is definitely like a revolutionary’s quick to the head, for overall power and ever-lasting effect, I would probably rather go with A Fine Balance.
My cover also quotes John Burdett, author of Bangkok B. (I am not familiar with either the author or his book): “Adiga is a global Gorky, a modern Kipling who grew up mad. The future of the novel lies here.” Interestingly, I didn’t perceive the future but was reminded of previous novels. My first thought after just the first page was of Rashid Al Daif’s Dear Mr. Kawabata, about a dying Lebanese soldier at the end of the Civil War writing a letter to the famous Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata. The White Tiger is written in the form of a letter to the Chinese premier, recounting the narrator’s life as a poor servant and ending as a wealthy entrepreneur.
Writing from a servant’s perspective is nothing new and immediately recalls Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Ishiguro’s butler is the epitome of British well-manneredness, of knowing one’s place and never breaking the code of class and its corresponding responsibilities. Adiga’s White Tiger is almost the same exact character except that Adiga’s servant eventually takes charge, forcing his way out of servitude and revolting. The White Tiger is, in a sense, the Indian revolutionary’s Remains of the Day.