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January 28th, 2019

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The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Second paragraph of third chapter ("the Fourth Morning"):
We know each other by now. Plus we don't have the time for formalities, I'm afraid.
I got a little thrown at the very start of this book when it became clear that the narrator's name is Balram, a variant form of Balarāma, the elder brother of Krishna. That was also the name of the house in south Dublin where my grandfather lived with his second wife, my godmother, when I was a child (my grandmother died very young and he remarried). I guess I had never really thought about its meaning - it's not obviously of Irish origin, and I suppose it's quite likely that in this case it was also a reference to the Indian god. This coincidence sent me to the online archives; the original owner and possibly builder of my grandfather's house was an Alexander Malcolm, head of the Dublin branch of the Glasgow plastering company George, Rome & Co; he must have been a master plasterer, and it's not at all unlikely that he had some Indian connection, as almost everyone in Britain and Ireland of his class would have had in those days.

Anyway. The book itself is very dark but also funny. It chronicles Balram's rise from a desperately poor village to wealth and prosperity in Bangalore, via a period as a chauffeur in Delhi working for a rich man from his local village. It's a vivid account of an India where the old ways are breaking down, and new money and urbanisation are creating their own rules. Balram is rather a sympathetic rogue, who commits murder and colludes in other deaths to ensure his own path to the top. The story is framed as a letter to Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, warning him about what India is really like. I don't have enough knowledge of India to critique it, but it was well worth the ride. You can get it here.

This won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, beating five books I haven't heard of: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency and Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole. It was my top unread book acquired in 2018, and my top non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, and Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot.

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