Tag Archives: India

Book: White Tiger

White Tiger
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

Simple, funny, ironic portrait of rural India.
318 pages, ★★★★

White Tiger is a novel set in modern-day rural India. Protagonist Balram Halwai narrates the story as a series of rambling, off-topic letters to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (the reason for which, other than for humor’s sake, is never made clear). His letters are fully-loaded with irony and cute mistakes.

White Tiger begins with a letter addressed to, “the freedom-loving people of China”. On page 28, the author introduces rural India (a.k.a. the “Darkness”), where, ironically, the “[daily] buses are never late, at least not by more than an hour or two”. On page 73-74, the author shows us his local bar menu, which is ironically calculated so that two half-drinks are cheaper than one whole. On page 126, his description and ironic analysis of the social effects of Murder Weekly Magazine surprises us: “it is when your people start reading Ghandi and Buddha that you should be worried, Mr Premier”. On page 225, we learn how the Indian poor aspire to look rich (fat and white), and, ironically, how the Indian rich aspire to look poor (dark and skinny). Inbreeding is mocked with the use of the terms “cousin-sister” (page 28) and “sister-fucker” (page 34) throughout. Comically, the author’s letter-writing etiquette also dwindles: by page 45, the author addresses the Premier erroneously as, Mr Jiabao, and begins his third letter with the opening line, “So.” Irony and wit prevail.

The story was less important to me than the description of rural India. We could read deeper meaning into White Tiger (about the Indian caste system, about China-India relations, about poverty, development, Westernisation, morality, or justice, etc.), but I feel that would be unnecessary. Instead, just enjoy the vivid description in White Tiger: that earns four stars in itself. ★★★★

Book: Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind

Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind
This is not a biology book.

Like stimulating conversation based only very loosely on six plants.
381 pages, ★★★★★

Seeds of Change is not a biology book. This book belongs alongside The Importance of Living, A Natural History of the Senses, and Home. This book is really a primer for fascinating conversation.

The book starts with exceeding confidence:

“It is gratifying for an author if a book remains in print; it is even more gratifying if no amendment has to be made because of new evidence” — page xi.

Thus, these two outdated statements, left uncorrected by new evidence humoured me:

“The term, “Negro” is used in this book to refer specifically to a West African black with sickle-cell anemia” — page 4.

“The actual population [of India] today is nearly 700 million” — page 11.

But the contradictions stop there. The book suddenly becomes gripping, describing historical events with interdisciplinary knowledge and an excellent arts/humanities/scientific balance. Here are just a few fascinating snippets:

  • Quinine (without quinine, there’d be no WW2, no Panama Canal, and only 100 million people in India)
  • Sugar (cultivating sugar was brutal work; about one slave would die per ton of sugar produced)
  • Cotton (Liverpool was built to cater to the slave-trade)
  • Tea (an interesting history written from a purely colonial perspective)
  • Potatoes (the Irish harvested corn very differently due to the unique climate)
  • Coca (Popeye’s spinach binges were actually shots of cocaine; but Middle America knew no better and per-capita consumption of spinach soared sixfold in a few decades)

Sweet thoughts in this book include:

“Potatoes floating ashore from the wrecked Armada in 1588 were alleged to have colonised western Ireland” — page 238.

Another thought-provoking snippet is this:

“The illegal drug scene is an oddity that if the opiates and the coca derivatives were legalized, the drugs themselves would be cheap and there would be no criminality, no drug scene and much less money-laundering and thousands of addicts would foreshorten their lives and the genes which give rise to addiction (which may or may not exist) would not not multiply as they do now” — page 295.

I think there’s room for a sequel that features another five plants: hemp, cocoa, corn, rice and bananas. Each of them changed the world profoundly, and each come with an abundance of interesting stories to tell.

The topics in this book are so broad, so important, yet so little-known, that they make for excellent conversation. I wish for a sequel. ★★★★★