The jacket of Aravind Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger carries a blurb by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, and reading the book it struck me that the narrative framework is similar to that of Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. That novella took the form of a (possibly imaginary) monologue directed by the narrator, a Pakistani who has returned home from the US, to an American tourist in Lahore. In The White Tiger, the narrator is a man named Balram Halwai, who introduces himself as a Bangalore-based entrepreneur; his epistolary narrative is addressed to no less than the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India to learn about how business is conducted in this large, “shining” democracy. But Balram has other, darker revelations to make about his country, the sort that a visiting dignitary would be shielded from.
A deeper connection between The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The White Tiger is that both books are about men who become restless and discontented as they learn about the huge gap that separates the world they come from and the world they aspire to (in the first book the gap is cultural, in the second it’s one of class), and how they are perceived by the privileged members of that other world. But while Hamid’s protagonist Changez becomes defensive and parochial about his identity, fiercely rejecting the other side, Balram decides to bridge the divide between himself, a lower-class man, and the rich “masters” in front of whom he has so far been grovelling. He is determined “to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant”.
With admirable wit and insight, The White Tiger details Balram’s back-story, his journey from a small village on the banks of the Ganga (a dark land suffocated by “the black river”, as he calls it) to the metropolis of Delhi – more particularly Delhi’s glitzy suburb Gurgaon – and his gradual understanding of the difference between India’s haves and have-nots. Working as a driver (and generic domestic help) for “Mr Ashok”, a rich landlord’s son, he marvels at the pace of life in the big city; he hangs about with other drivers and becomes acquainted with their favourite pulp magazine, Murder Weekly; he watches as the rich make deals with corrupt ministers; and he reflects that millions of people in India are no different from birds in a rooster coop, aware of their fate and resigned to it: “A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent to exist in perpetual servitude, a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.”
Balram decides that he will be the one to break out of the coop – he is no mere rooster, after all, but a white tiger, a name once given him by a school inspector to suggest the rarest of animals, a creature of initiative and daring, which comes along only once in a generation. We will discover near the end of the book exactly what his life-altering act of “social entrepreneurship” is.
Recent months have seen the publication of many non-fiction studies of modern India – books like Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods and Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, which, in one way or the other, deal with the many contradictions in this complex country: the contrast between the smooth narratives about economic growth and prosperity that are being sold to the world, and the stark realities of the lives of most Indians. One of the achievements of Adiga’s novel is that it successfully employs fiction – and engrossing, fast-paced, drolly funny fiction at that – to a similar purpose. At its best, The White Tiger is just as insightful as any of the big “India books”. It also provides a worm’s-eye perspective – the perspective of the frustrated little person – that there hasn’t been enough of in Indian writing in English.
This is a very dark novel, something that isn’t immediately obvious because the tone is so chatty and conversational. Almost as if in determined opposition to all the India-rising narratives, it unflinchingly chronicles many of the harsher truths about the country: the perpetually wary relationship between the deprived and the privileged, with the resentment and hunger of one set against the paranoia, guilt and insecurity of the other; the dealings between “masters” and “servants” and the ways in which even relatively liberal people (represented here by the US-returned Ashok, different in many ways from his feudal-thinking father and brother) can be patronizing in their attitudes towards the lower-class. It makes the uncomfortable point that morality is very easily compromised when you want to make your way forward in this jungle. “Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi,” observes Balram at one point, “but it isn’t glory that I’m after. All I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder is enough.”
Adiga has an authentic, unforced talent for irreverence, as when Balram mocks the continuing eagerness of people to “kiss some God’s arse”, never mind that the country’s 36 million Gods “seem to do awfully little work – much like our politicians – and yet keep winning reelection to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year”. Or when he reflects that in post-Independence India there are only two castes, men with big bellies and men with small bellies. I also liked some of the imagery – the description of a bullock cart carrying chandeliers, for example – and the many imaginative touches such as the villagers’ imputing of animal and bird qualities (and names) to the local landlords: one becomes the Stork (because “he took a cut of every catch of fish from every fisherman in the river”), another the Wild Boar. There is a similarly chilling zoopomorphic effect when Balram sees waiters cleaning tables at a small tea shop as human spiders, “crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven, in their thirties or forties or fifties but still ‘boys’.” (Incidentally, some of Balram’s musings about certain groups – white people and Muslims, among others – are far from tasteful: a reader who makes the mistake of confusing the narrator's voice with that of the author will find much to be offended about here.)
The device of Balram addressing the Chinese Premier didn’t always work for me – it sometimes felt like a forced attempt to make The White Tiger as topical as possible (given economic competition, and the popular thesis that the future belongs to India and China). Also, the writing is slightly precious in places (e.g. the repeated use of the capitalised “Darkness” to refer to the village setting where Balram grew up). But these are minor flaws and they have little effect on the book's flow. (Similarly, the tampering with Delhi’s geography can be forgiven as novelistic licence, though I balked at the passage that makes driving from Gurgaon to Jangpura sound like a 5-minute jaunt! As it happens, it's possible to include this in the very short list of "Delhi novels", though that would hardly be the primary classification.)
The White Tiger is a book that can cut uncomfortably close to the bone for anyone who’s ever reflected that the bill they just paid for a restaurant meal amounted to half of their driver’s monthly salary (and I’m not talking five-star hotel restaurants). Or for anyone who’s seen their domestic staff chatting with friends in the nearby park while casting occasional glances at the house, and wondered about the nature of the gossip being exchanged. Adiga makes us think about these things as well as about the many Indias and the different types of aspirations and frustrations they represent, but he does it within the framework of an absorbing novel. This is a very impressive debut.
P.S. Here's a long interview I did with Mohsin Hamid last year. His view (expressed in the conversation) of the hyper-nationalist rah-rahing done by the-powers-that-be in contemporary India could be one reason why he thought highly of The White Tiger.