The best word to describe White Tiger is discomfiting. Discomfiting for the way it unflinchingly details the brutal lives of many millions of India’s poorest, for the way it exposes the contradictions at the heart of Indian society, and for the way it lays out the lengths people will go to in order to stay out of poverty or get out of it.
The white tiger of the title is a man who comes from such poverty that he doesn’t even have a name of his own. As a child growing up in ‘the Darkness’, the rural India home to its poorest, he goes by munna (an affectionate term for ‘boy’) until he is given the name Balram by a school teacher (his surname, Halwai, is the name of an Indian sweet and Balram comes from a cast of sweet-makers).
Later, as he weasels and schemes his way through various jobs in servitude to something resembling middle class respectability as the owner of taxi service for the growing mass of Bangalore’s IT workers, he adopts the name Ashok, after his former boss – the one, we find out very early on, he both thought of as a father, and murdered. It’s an act that is a mix of respectful tribute and sick joke, capturing the heart of the story and the nature of our ambitious anti-hero, who is both thoroughly despicable and yet funny, smart and, in many ways, admirably just making the most of a bad situation.
The narrative takes the form of a series of letters, written daily over the course of a week and addressed to the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. It’s a premise that allows Adiga to make some neat, and admittedly very funny, observations about the similarities and differences between ‘the brown man and the yellow man’, the East and the West, but, for me, it feels contrived and in many ways undermines some of Adiga’s good work and satire. What’s essentially a straightforward first-person account, which takes in detailed personal reflection and verbatim recollections of conversations held long ago, doesn’t sit well with what is supposed to be a written letter. Having the narrative suddenly shift as Balram directly addresses Jiabao (‘Sir’) is jarring, pulling you out of the story, and his purpose in writing the letters in the first place is never explained.
Where the book is excellent is in its depictions of a modern India that is struggling to reconcile a ballooning middle class (made rich by the West outsourcing much of their IT infrastructure) with a population of millions still living in abject poverty, in a modern democracy where everyone still has their price and corruption is rife. For those that have never visited India, I can vouch for the book's savage intensity and uncompromising description of life there.
Balram’s philosophy is that ‘people should be treated like people and animals should be treated like animals’, but there are countless ways in which we see that this is plainly not something that guides his actions, or those of anyone around him. In the Darkness, the bison eats before anyone else in the family; Balram’s father is reduced to being a beast of burden as he hauls around the marginally wealthier in his rickshaw; the rich, conniving landlords who preside over the farms and coal mines are given nicknames like the Mongoose, Buffalo and Stork, two poodles are fed and bathed more regularly than most men. Balram’s other philosophy, ‘eat or be eaten’ rings more true.
In critiquing some of the ills that plague modern India, Adiga sacrifices characterisation. Aside from Balram, most of the characters are little more than loosely drawn caricatures, particularly the evil landlords, who are made very much in the mould of traditional Bollywood bad guys. They often feel as though their sole role is for Adiga to score points, rather than add any particular depth to the story.
As the winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, I had perhaps expected a little more, despite the book being peppered with some wonderful, lyrical observations. In many respects,White Tiger is a traditional rags-to-riches story, but the decidedly unconventional anti-hero and the spice afforded by the Indian setting makes it a much more captivating read than it may actually deserve to be based on Balram's adventure alone.
My thanks got to my friend and colleague, Hana, who bought he book for my birthday last year!