When I first encountered The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker-prize winning novel about class, the caste system, corruption, violence, poverty and India’s emerging super-rich, I wasn’t that interested. Another novel about violence, I thought. Balram Halwai, the chauffeur and main character, was bound to be a bit like the tigerish bully in The Life of Pi. I didn’t want to read about bullies. I wanted the gentle and rare over the brutish and personality-disordered.
Well yes, Balram (the White Tiger of the title) is a bully, but he is also sensitive in his own way. His mother dies when he’s still young, his father works himself to death as a rickshaw-puller and Balram’s extended family live in grinding poverty in an oppressive feudal-like class system in the poor state of Bihar in North-Eastern India. Balram, like the once-in-a-generation White Tiger of the title, is different, however. He might be a man who is still afraid of lizards and who bows and scrapes before his bosses, but he is special. He is intelligent, cunning, ambitious and lucky and is able to rise above his very limited circumstances.
This year I picked it up again and I was pleasantly surprised at how readable (and also interesting and disturbing) it is. The starting point is a rather awkward framing-device. Balram writes a letter in seven parts over seven nights to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Halwai, who is in hiding in Bangalore after killing his boss and stealing a large amount of money, hears that the Chinese premier is coming to Bangalore to learn about Indian entrepreneurs, and decides to tell his story.
And it is an interesting story, which opened my eyes to some of the vast complexity of India’s class system. Balram is a poor, uneducated (but quite intelligent) young man when he gets his lucky break as a chauffeur to one of India’s emerging rich families. His immediate boss Ashok is the son of a powerful landlord from Balram’s childhood village.
Through cunning, bullying and luck, Balram gets to drive the American-educated son Ashok and his American-Indian wife ‘Pinky Madam’ to New Delhi where they live in an expensive apartment, Buckingham Towers B, while the servants live in a maze of poorer rooms below ground. Balram and Ashok start out good and relatively innocent and quite quickly become corrupted. Pinky Madam runs over a child in freak drunk driving accident, Balram takes the rap, and this spirals into a situation in which Balram murders his boss and steals a massive bribe which was intended for one of the country’s ministers. In making a new life for himself in Bangalore as the owner of a taxi business, he becomes a symbol of the new Indian entrepreneur.
As implausible as I found the ending, what I did find interesting was the master-servant relationship between Ashok and Balram. I was also interested to see how the novel had been received. Reviewers praised the searing intensity with which Adiga dissects India’s economic and social problems but also panned the crude simplicity of this portrayal. Characters here are rich or poor, black or white. There’s no middle class moderation and gentle upward advancement. (Adiga compares himself with Dickens and there are also comparisons with Zola). Some reviewers praised the novel’s gritty realism and then either commended or criticised Adiga’s attempt to capture the sense (if not the essence or the vocabulary) of a desperate North Indian working class man’s subjectivity. The task is a massive one and I’m not in a position to judge how well Adiga has fared there. One thing that does strike me is that this is a well educated man’s attempt to imagine himself into a working class character’s life. It’s not bad (jarring in some places perhaps) but also not entirely convincing.
Three other comments to make. Firstly, Adiga does a good job of describing the narcissism which pervades oppressive class arrangements. The exploitation, lack of empathy and general lack of sensitivity are shocking. It is not hard to imagine that corruption and ultimately murder are the logical outcomes of such an oppressive system.
Secondly, women get a very bad rap in The White Tiger and that is another major weakness for me. Of course, Balram is a narcissistic murderer and thief and so we shouldn’t expect him to be very rational and objective in his views on fellow Indians. But the stereotypes here are too extreme. All politicians appear to be corrupt. All women (admittedly viewed through Balram’s distorted view) are prostitutes, simple, narrow-minded wives, or cruel matriarchs.
Thirdly, I was interested (and also disappointed) to hear that The White Tiger beat Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to the 2008 Booker prize – apparently because Anne Enright had won the year before and it was not considered advisable to award the prize to an Irish novelist two years in a row. I’ve been wondering whether more violent novels (and I would include The Slap here) garner critical acclaim because of their shock value. Do they reflect society more accurately than the gentler novels?
But as a starting point in reflecting the new India with its globalised multinational companies, its vast disparities of rich and poor and some of the multitude of stories that lie underneath the glossy surface of the “world’s largest democracy”, The White Tiger is worth a read.