The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga [A Review]

The White Tiger is Aravind Adiga’s acclaimed debut novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize. An interesting take on the rags-to-riches story, its greatest achievements are its portrait of modern India from bottom to top and its powerful political statement; created without making the reader feel they are reading a political novel.

In The White Tiger, Balram Halwai – “servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer” – tells the story of his success. Born into poverty in rural India, his natural intelligence saw him dubbed a ‘white tiger’ at school; the rarest sight in the jungle. His family is dominated by his feared grandmother, Kusum, who determines how much schooling they get, where they work, who they marry and extracts payment from those who earn.

But Balram has ambitions and desires beyond his village or the town where Kusum sends him to work with his brother in a tea shop. He sees an opportunity to become a chauffeur and learns to drive, but struggles to find work until he is recognised by a family from his village. The family were once slumlords in his village but have now moved on to the coal industry. Knowing Balram’s family means they have certain leverage over him; if he breaks their trust he can be sure his family will be made to suffer for it.

Balram becomes the driver to Ashok, son of the family patriarch. Ashok is recently returned from the US and is a somewhat Westernised Indian. A divided character, Ashok is torn between his Indian roots and his admitted enjoyment for a Western lifestyle, between loyalty to his traditional elitist family and his enlightened sympathies for the common Indian.

When Ashok moves to Delhi, in order to stay close to the politicians the family must bribe to ensure the continued success of their business, Balram goes with him. The big city brings together the various divisions of Indian society; between servants and masters, between East and West, between wealth and poverty. Balram sleeps in a roach infested basement waiting for Ashok to ring for him from his apartment. He must wait outside with the other drivers while Ashok and his wife shop for luxury Western brands in air conditioned malls. He must remain oblivious to the corruption and depravity of the politicians his masters bribe.

But by no means does Balram accept this status as all he can hope for in his life. His ambition does not rest. Always learning, he refuses to ingratiate himself with other drivers and servants. He treads a dangerous path by building up his own savings instead of sending it back to his grandmother. And he observes the way his masters conduct their business, contemplating opportunities to find his own independence and conscious of the betrayal he may have to commit to secure it.

The style of The White Tiger is the first thing the reader will notice. The novel takes the form of a long letter, composed by Balram over the course of a week, to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Balram has been inspired to write his letter to Jiabao after learning the Chinese Premier is to visit Bangalore to learn about the success of India’s entrepreneurs. Balram is certain that Jiabao will not learn anything from a political tour, but if he is sincere about wanting to learn the truth about Bangalore and India’s entrepreneurs he should instead listen to Balram’s story.

The novel is therefore a second-person narration from Balram to Jiabao/the reader. It is casual and conversational and familiar. Balram is frank and jovial in his narration. He pulls no punches nor omits any unsavoury or unlikeable events. There is no reason to suspect that Balram is an unreliably narrator, and since we know from very early on that he commits a murder and who his victim is, this is not a novel about mystery but about motive.

It is that casual tone of a second-person narrator that makes The White Tiger a difficult novel to quote from. It’s not that it lacks great passages or witty observations or well-constructed manipulations, but that these are not made with the poetic language of an omniscient third-person author/narrator. It has to be this way; such eloquence would not be Balram. But the novel is not necessarily diminished because of it but it comes at the cost of some great literary opportunities. Nevertheless, some gems come through.

The Great Socialist himself is said to have embezzled one billion rupees from the Darkness, and transferred that money into a bank account in a small, beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money.

The great theme of The White Tiger is the inherent contradictions of modern India – a capitalist democracy that is also deeply, unshakeably conservative, traditionalist and tribalist. Its central question is how can one achieve upward social mobility in a country that simultaneously offers so many opportunities yet retains so many impediments in family, class, caste and religion that divides people into servants and masters. Balram’s answer to this question, his answer to Jiabao, is that it is not India’s democracy or capitalism that provides opportunity and creates entrepreneurs, but its vulnerability to exploitation and corruption. But the reader can also appreciate that Balram is a unique specimen; not everyone can take the leap he has. That is something reserved for white tigers.

My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.

Adiga said that in Balram he wanted to create a strong voice for India’s underclass in contrast to the common portrayal of them as shiftless, weak and humourless. A little like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Balram is convinced the path to greatness is paved with exploitation and even murder, but he has a much stronger constitution than Raskolnikov. Adiga also provides us with a parallel character in Ashok, who has more humanity than a character in his role usually has. Though Ashok is one of the masters Balram must liberate himself from, he is at heart a decent person who struggles to break from tradition and privilege to do the right thing. Despite its powerful political message, the politics do not feel overwhelming or forced, but just a natural part of Balram’s story, which should be considered one of Adiga’s best achievements in the novel. Balram’s story rings true and so the politics feel incidental.

I came to Dhanbad after my father’s death. He had been ill for some time, but there is no hospital in Laxmangarh, although there are three different foundation stones for a hospital, laid by three different politicians before three different elections.

The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Prize. It is the ninth Booker Prize winner I have read and it falls somewhere in the top half of the pack. Well below my favourites of the group like Midnight’s Children, which I consider a masterpiece, and The Blind Assassin. But comfortably above some others I found middling, mediocre or unimpressive like The God of Small Things, Disgrace or Amsterdam. I found it to be close to the enjoyment I felt for Life of Pi and some books that did not win but could have – The Moor’s Last Sigh, A Fine Balance and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I have four other novels that were also nominated in 2008 on my shelves and it will be interesting to see how I feel about The White Tiger after I have read those.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (shortlisted in 2007) is the book that I think it should be most compared to. They are both essentially confessional stories with second-person narratives and narrators whose morals we question. But I think The Reluctant Fundamentalist has a stronger story. It takes the form of a conversation between the narrator and an American in Pakistan in real time, in surroundings that are changing and escalating the anxiety of the American/reader, while he tells the American/reader about his outlook-changing journey. We are also in the dark as to what will happen when the two storylines collide – does the narrator’s experiences change him into someone we can trust and what will happen to the American/reader?

In other words, The Reluctant Fundamentalist contains considerable suspense, something The White Tiger could use a lot more of. In The White Tiger, there less mystery about Balram’s present and a lot of foreshadowing in his retelling of his past. Again, we are in no doubt as to what Balram does; it is a matter of why and his moral struggle.

When my wife first read The White Tiger she planned a trip to Delhi but, since they were about to host the Commonwealth Games, she deferred and made a trip to Mexico instead. Lucky for me, since I was to holiday in Mexico too and we would not have met if she went to Delhi instead! We have since been to Delhi, which we thoroughly enjoyed, though now that I have read the novel, I am not sure what in this novel prompted her to think of holidaying there and she does not remember. The lack of suspense aside, this is a fine and interesting novel. Its strength, though, is less the characters or the plot than the theme which lifts the veil on modern India from bottom to top.

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