Sunday, 19 October 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the eponymous "White Tiger", narrates this furious, blackly humourous, epistolary novel. Over seven nights, sitting beneath the chandelier in his Bangalore office, Balram dictates his life story in a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He wants to tell Wen Jiabao the "truth" about modern India, in advance of the premier's visit to the country. His journey from servant, living in the Darkness inhabited by India's majority underclass, to fully-paid up entrepreneur, part of the rich elite living in the Light, reveals the dark underbelly of the economic miracle of India today.

Born to a rickshaw puller in an impoverished rural village, where the water buffalo is the only member of the family to receive an adequate diet, Balram decides at a young age that he wants to escape his fate. He doesn't want to remain as poor as his father, scratching out a living in a village brutally controlled by the local landlords. His early childhood is marked by neglect - no one even bothers to name him until his first day at school, when the teacher bestows the name Balram - but he's an alert and bright child. He learns to read, a skill that instantly elevates him above most of his peers. When his schooling prematurely ends, because his family are too poor to afford his classes, he continues his education by observing and eavesdropping on the customers of the tea shop where he's put to work. Since he decided at a young age that good deeds are rewarded only with more suffering, he embarks on his career in the tea shop with "near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity" and therefore finds it "a profoundly enriching experience".

It's in the tea shop, after hearing a conversation between two customers, that he decides to become a driver. He wangles lessons from a local taxi driver and manages to secure a job as second driver in the city residence of a landlord from his local village (the risk of kidnap means most landlords prefer the security of the city over the dangers of their ancestral villages). Through yet more opportunism, he rises to first driver and is then taken to New Delhi, to drive for the American-educated son of the landlord. The master/servant relationship between Ashok, with his foreign ideas and foreign wife, and Balram is at the heart of the novel, reaching a bloody climax that provides the means of Balram's escape from his fate.

Adiga's novel is fiercely critical of a country where the only way to succeed is through the corruption that fuels the entire system. Families trade their sons for dowries, and expect every penny earned in the city to be sent back to the village. Businessmen flourish by providing constant bribes to politicians. Doctors are too busy treating rich patients to actually treat poor people, despite drawing salaries from the state to do so. Policemen "solve" crimes based on who pays the highest price. Politicians buy votes, making a mockery of the democracy India is so famous for. No part of society is free from the lash of Balram's tongue as he reveals the decay. Even his fellow servants are castigated for the way they keep each other down through petty rivalries and hierarchies. Having climbed out of the Darkness and into the Light, Balram tries to be fair to his workers, but he too is wired into the system. As a driver, he ferried his master to drop off bags of money to politicians. As a boss, he pays his way out of any trouble his drivers get into.

The relationship between the servant class and the rich masters is what makes this novel so interesting for me. Ashok is clearly uncomfortable with having to command a servant, and his wife is disgusted by it, wanting to return to New York as soon as possible. Yet it gradually becomes clear that he prefers India, prefers a society where the rich are pampered and spoiled by a whole raft of servants - drivers, masseurs, cleaners, cooks, gardeners - in a way impossible in America or England. Adiga brings this alive with small details, such as Balram scrabbling around the floor of the car for a one-rupee coin Ashok's brother claims to have lost, finally taking a coin from his own pocket to satisfy the master. Underlying Adiga's descriptions of the boom in outsourcing - Bangalore's gleaming call-centres - is the idea that India is making itself the servant of European and American companies. The call-centre workers meet their clients' every need in the same way Balram attempts to meet Ashok's every need.

I have some minor complaints about the epistolary structure - in spite of who the letters are addressed too, it reads too much like a standard first person narration and the epistolary structure feels artificial and unnecessary at times - but overall I liked this novel and I think it's a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2008. Adiga is definitely an author I'll be watching out for from here on in. If anyone would like to read a short story by him, check out this link to yesterday's Guardian Review.


Sarah said...

It's good to see someone who thinks The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker! I haven't read it yet, but have read many and very varied reviews of it.

verbivore said...

I'd really like to read this one, but I might wait for the paperback :-) (It isn't out in paper yet is it?) Thank you for the review, sounds like a book with a lot of discussion in it.

asimov said...

i have not yet read it. Yet i am ashemed to say India my country is how it was portrayed in The white Tiger. Yet we make some progress.It is heartning to note that English people read Indian authors as we read their books.

Max Cairnduff said...

Interesting review, and I agree with Sarah that it's refreshing to read one by someone who liked the book.

I'm waiting for it to hit paperback personally, but your review makes it sound at least worth the wait. I'm very interested in this one, I read Q & A recently and am currently reading Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay and I think there's some interesting literature coming out of India at the moment (though so far I vastly prefer Love and Longing to Q & A).

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Dosti SMS said...

Although the book is quite famous the plot isn't that great. It's just about a driver who murders his master and becomes a entrepreneur. There is nothing more than that.

Moreover the tone is mostly castigating Indian society and system and exaggerating every small flaw in Indian system out of proportion like it is happening all the time with every person