The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
I’m not a fan of state of the nation novels as a rule. The themes often swamp the characters. The message is usually more important than the prose. They tend not to be subtle (since making a point is the point).
State of the nation novels about contemporary India though? That’s a different matter. All those problems are probably still going to be there, but at least the subject is interesting.
Characters in The White Tiger exist for the sake of the story. It’s not that they’re unconvincing as such, but you wouldn’t read the book for psychological insight. The prose is effective, but it doesn’t strive for beauty. The White Tiger is not a subtle book.
Whatever flaws it may have though (and arguably nothing above is actually a flaw in the context of this book) The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker prize. I don’t follow the Booker closely but I do recall not everyone thought it should have won. Some thought it shouldn’t even have been longlisted.
I don’t actually have a particularly strong view on whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. I didn’t read many of its competitor novels and in all honesty I think the idea of there being a “very best book of the year” is silly. I do think though that The White Tiger succeeds on its own terms.
The White Tiger is a novel about the life of a man named Balram. Balram grew up in what he calls “the Darkness” – rural India. For him this is the India of poverty and of ignorance. Balram is of the sweet-makers’ caste, and in the Darkness caste determines destiny.
One day a school inspector visits Balram’s district:
The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’ I thought about it and said: ‘The white tiger.’ ‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’
Balram is the White Tiger. He is that rarest of beasts, a country Indian who leaves behind his village, his caste and even his family. Balram gets rich through his own efforts. Everyone else he encounters gets rich through being born that way, through connections or through corruption. The trouble is as Balram reveals very early on his own efforts included murder.
The obvious comparators for The White Tiger are Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Indra Sinha’s dazzling Animal’s People (which I read before I started this blog – it’s excellent, here‘s John Self’s review which I absolutely agree with).
All three novels share a common feature. They all have unconvincing framing devices. In Animal’s People the entire novel is supposedly narrated by the protagonist into a tape machine. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist the entire novel is supposedly a conversation between the protagonist and an unnamed American, and we only hear the protagonist’s side of the conversation. In The White Tiger the entire novel is supposedly a series of letters dictated by Balram and addressed to Wen Jiabao who is shortly to visit Bangalore where Balram now lives.
Here’s the thing. The framing device doesn’t really make sense. Balram can’t post these letters. He can’t even have them typed up. He confesses far too much criminality for them ever to be heard by anyone but him. So it goes. Like in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like in Animal’s People, you either have to accept the device or close the book. I chose to accept it.
Each night Balram dictates a letter, and each letter tells something of his past. He grows up in the village hearing tales of the Great Socialist who is going to transform the lives of the poor, but the transformation is always after the next election and the elections are all bought. The poor’s votes are cast for them and anyone who tries to cast his own is seen as a madman, and beaten mercilessly.
There were three black goats sitting on the steps to the large, faded white building; the stench of goat faeces wafted out from the open door. The glass in most of the windows was broken; a cat was staring out at us from one cracked window. A sign on the gate said: LOHIA UNIVERSAL FREE HOSPITAL PROUNDLY INAUGURATED BY THE GREAT SOCIALIST A HOLY PROOF THAT HE KEEPS HIS PROMISES Kishan and I carried our father in, stamping on the goat turds which had spread like a constellation of black stars on the ground. There was no doctor in the hospital. The ward boy, after we bribed him ten rupees, said that a doctor might come in the evening. The doors to the hospital’s rooms were wide open; the beds had metal springs sticking out of them, and the cat began snarling at us the moment we stepped into the room.
Real power lies with the rural landlords, but to make money you have to leave the village entirely. Balram does, and after working in a tea shop where he spends his time learning from listening to the customers rather than serving them, he tries to get a job better than anyone else in his family has dreamt of. He tries to become a driver:
We went into the house where the taxi drivers lived. An old man in a brown uniform, which was like an ancient army outfit, was smoking a hookah that was warmed up by a bowl of live coals. Kishan explained the situation to him. The old driver asked, ‘What caste are you?’ ‘Halwai.’ ‘Sweet-makers,’ the old driver said, shaking his head. ‘That’s what you people do. You make sweets. How can you learn to drive?’ He pointed his hookah at the live coals. ‘That’s like getting coals to make ice for you. Mastering a car’ – he moved the stick of an invisible gearbox – ‘it’s like taming a wild stallion – only a boy from the warrior castes can manage that. You need to have aggression in your blood. Muslims, Rajputs, Sikhs – they’re fighters, they can become drivers. You think sweet-makers can last long in fourth gear?’
From there it’s all upwards. Balram becomes second chauffeur to a rich family. His master is an indulgent example of a new breed of Indian. He’s foreign-educated and likes to think his staff are as much friends, family almost, as they are servants. His reward is to have his throat cut by Balram. There’s an ambivalence here. The book is filled with anger at the injustice it describes, but the only man in it who tries to act at all justly (he fails, but he tries) is killed for for doing so.
I began by talking about this as a state of the nation novel, and that’s where making Balram a driver pays dividends for Adiga. Making Balram a rurally born driver who later becomes a Bangalore entrepeneur allows Adiga to simultaneously present a view of the servant class, of village life (the darkness) and of the old and new moneyed classes.
Balram then is a vehicle as well as driver. He’s a means by which Adiga can explore a wide range of different strata of Indian society. It’s a mistake then to look to him for deep characterisation. Balram here serves the same role as the protagonist in a classic science fiction novel. He is a means to enter a world. He isn’t a world in himself.
The book has a dark undercurrent of humour in it which is often welcome, but in the main it’s relentlessly ugly. Intentionally so, but also unremittingly so. Balram’s metaphor for India is a rooster coop. For him it’s a country where everyone is kept in their place and where the poor opress themselves by crushing anyone different to them – anyone who seeks to escape what he was born into.
The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.
It’s not all that blunt. Some points are made more obliquely (“When he opened the door of the apartment, he pointed to the floor. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’”), but there’s no upside here. It’s a relentless portrait of a vicious and ugly country ruled by avarice and corruption.
Adiga is excellent on the small hypocrisies of the rich. I loved a scene where Balram cracks open the window of the limo he is driving to give a beggar a coin, and is then berated by those he is driving who go on to talk loudly about how much they give to charity. Balram is a sociopath and a killer, and even so he’s better than those around him.
If I had to make a comparison to another writer it wouldn’t ultimately be to Hamid or Sinha. Instead it would be to Dickens. I have mixed views on Dickens. He’s often maudlin. His characterisation is frequently weak and his novels mix the journalistic with the sensationalist (and occasionally with the improving message). For all that though Dickens was a tremendously effective social critic. He sought in his writing to show what was wrong with his society, and for me that’s what Adiga is seeking to do here.
Does Adiga succeed? Not entirely. This is sometimes a crude book. It’s targets are obvious ones and there’s little here to surprise a reader who already knows much about India. I could make all those criticisms and more though of Hard Times (swapping England for India). Does Hard Times succeed? Not entirely, but in the end yes, it does. In the end The White Tiger succeeds too.
Like I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. Having now read it though I will say that I can entirely understand why it was nominated, and why at least some of the judges championed it.
I’ll end with one final quote:
My humble prediction: in twenty years’ time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the whole world. And God save everyone else.
One of the many messages of The White Tiger is that the desperate fight harder than the comfortable. This is a state of the nation novel, but it’s also a state of things to come novel. Balram is a future. Adiga here portrays that future in the hope of holding a mirror to it, in the hope that it might recognise itself and learn to be better than it looks right now.
John Self’ wrote a highly critical review of The White Tiger over at The Asylum, here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes wrote a much more positive one here. Both, as ever, are worth reading. There’s also an interesting interview with Adiga at the Guardian here where he talks a little more about the ideas underlying the novel.