The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga's extraordinary and brilliant first novel takes the form
of a series of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, from Balram Halwai,
the Bangalore businessman who is the self-styled White Tiger of the title.
Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of the subcontinent, and on the eve of a
state visit by Jiabao, our entrepreneur Halwai wishes to impart something
of the new India to the Chinese premier - out of respect for the love of
liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future
of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile
master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile
phone usage and drug abuse.
Halwai's lesson about the new India is drawn from the rags-to-riches
story of his own life. For Halwai, the son of a rural rickshaw-puller, is
from the Darkness: Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is
two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness. The ocean
brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean
is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India - the black river.
The black river is the Ganges, beloved of the sari-and-spices tourist
image of India. (No! - Mr Jiabao, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless
you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies,
buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.)
At first, this novel seems like a straightforward pulled-up-by-your-bootstraps
tale, albeit given a dazzling twist by the narrator's sharp and satirical
eye for the realities of life for India's poor. (In the old days there
were 1,000 castes...in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men
with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.) But as the narrative draws
the reader further in, and darkens, it becomes clear that Adiga is playing
a bigger game. For The White Tiger stands at the opposite end of the spectrum
of representations of poverty from those images of doe-eyed children that
dominate our electronic media - that sentimentalise poverty and even suggest
that there may be something ennobling in it. Halwai's lesson in The White
Tiger is that poverty creates monsters, and he himself is just such a monster.
Talk of lessons should not be taken to suggest that The White Tiger
is a didactic exercise in issues, like a newspaper column. For Adiga is
a real writer - that is to say, someone who forges an original voice and
vision. There is the voice of Halwai - witty, pithy, ultimately psychopathic.
And there is imagery, with which the author brings the themes into focus.
How about this for high definition, as Halwai at last arrives in the city
and lands a job as a driver: With their tinted windows up, the cars of
the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then,
an egg will crack open - a woman's hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches
out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road
- and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.
The life of the poor, however, is very different: Go to Old Delhi ...and
look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale
hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They
see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next.
Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very
same thing is done with human beings in this country.
I will not spoil the effect of this remarkable novel by giving away exactly
how the White Tiger breaks out of the coop - what form his act of blood-stained
entrepreneurship takes. Suffice to say that I was reminded of abook that
is totally different in tone and style, Richard Wright's Native Son, a tale
of the murderous career of a black kid from the Chicago ghetto that awakened
1940s America to the reality of the racial divide.
Whether The White Tiger will do the equivalent for today's India - we
The fourth debut novelist to win the coveted prize
14 October 2008
Aravind Adiga is tonight (Tuesday 14 October) named the winner
of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2008 for his novel
Tiger, published by Atlantic.
The thirty-three year old novelist was presented the prize at an awards
ceremony at Guildhall, London. Adiga becomes the fourth debut novelist,
and the second Indian debut novelist, to win the award in the forty year
history of the prize. The three other debut novelists to have won the prize
are Keri Hulme for her novel The Bone People in 1985, DBC Pierre
in 2003 for his novel Vernon God Little and Arundhati Roy in 1997
for The God of Small Things.
Aravind Adiga's winning novel The White Tiger is decribed as
a compelling, angry and darkly humorous' novel about a man's journey
from Indian village life to entrepreneurial success. It was described by
one reviewer as an unadorned portrait' of India seen from
the bottom of the heap'.
Adiga, who has wanted to be a novelist since he was a boy, was born in
Madras and now lives in Mumbai. He becomes the fifth Indian author to win
the prize, joining VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai
who won the prize in 1971, 1981, 1997 and 2006 respectively. In addition,
The White Tiger is the ninth winning novel to take its inspiration
from India or Indian identity.
The win is a first for publisher Atlantic; although they had books shortlisted
for the prize in 2003 with The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, and
in 2004 with Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor.
The White Tiger was one of six shortlisted titles for the prize.
Also shortlisted for this year's prize were Sebastian Barry for The
Secret Scripture (Faber), Amitav Ghosh for Sea of Poppies (John
Murray), Linda Grant for The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago), Philip
Hensher for The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate) and Steve Toltz
for his debut novel A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton).
Each of the six shortlisted authors, including the winner, receives £2,500
and a designer-bound edition of their book.
Michael Portillo, Chair of the 2008 judges, made the announcement, which
was broadcast live on the BBC Ten O' Clock News. Peter Clarke, Chief Executive
of Man Group plc, presented Aravind Adiga with a cheque for £50,000.
The judging panel for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction comprised:
Michael Portillo, former MP and Cabinet Minister; Alex Clark, editor of
Granta; Louise Doughty, novelist; James Heneage, founder of Ottakar's
bookshops; and Hardeep Singh Kohli, TV and radio broadcaster.
Michael Portillo commented:
"The judges found the decision difficult because the shortlist contained
such strong candidates. In the end, The White Tiger prevailed because the
judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal measure.
"The novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining
and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain. The book
gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments
with astonishing humour."
Portillo went on to explain that the novel had won overall because of
'its originality'. He said that The White Tiger presented
'a different aspect of India' and was a novel with 'enormous
Aravind Adiga studied at Columbia and Oxford Universities and is a former
correspondent for Time magazine in India. Adiga's articles have
also appeared in publications such as the Financial Times, Independent
and Sunday Times.
An audio download of The White Tiger is available in our
or read a
interview with him given shortly after The White Tiger was longlisted.
Aravind Adiga was interviewed by BBC
Radio 4's Today programme earlier this week.
You will also be able view a
with Aravind Adiga on the Man Booker site from 15 October 2008.
Published 27 March 2008
The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga Atlantic Books, 336pp, £12.99
One is surely tired of being informed
that one had better resign oneself to the prospect of an Indian-run
and/or Chinese-dominated world. Dreary old "should we fear red(dish)
China" debates apart, there are quarters in which it is declared
preferable that the Indians should take over. India - liberal,
democratic, English-speaking, westward-looking, investor-friendly,
no longer non-aligned India - is where the action's at. It is
where the action of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
is at, and Adiga's is what might be called a cautionary tale.
"Mr Premier," his narrator begins, addressing His Excellency
Wen Jiabao of China in a letter that lasts the entire length
of the novel, "neither you nor I speak English, but there are
some things that can be said only in English." The novel's framing
as a seven-part letter to the Chinese prime minister turns out
to be an unexpectedly flexible instrument in Adiga's hands,
accommodating everything from the helpful explanatory aside
to digressions into political polemic. It is also just the thing
he needs to tell the story of his narrator, Balram Halwi - from
his origins in a part of India he calls "the Darkness" to his
current position as a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore's
"Electronic City". But Balram is emphatically no working-class
hero, and he quickly shows himself to be worldly, cynical and
Hired as chauffeur for the son of the village landlord, Balram
is told (and the metaphorical resonance is made amply obvious)
that the road "is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar
to get ahead on it." When he gets to Delhi, we are treated to
some of the most acute social criticism yet made of the new
Indian middle class. As he writes: "The rich of America or England,"
who have no servants, "cannot even begin to understand what
a good life is." An example:
Now, while they walked around the apartment block, the
fatsos made their thin servants . . . stand at various spots
on that circle with bottles of mineral water and fresh towels
in their hands. Each time they completed a circuit around the
building, they stopped next to their man, grabbed the bottle
- gulp - grabbed the towel - wipe, wipe - then it was off on
One might note the distinctive narrative voice, rich with
the disconcerting smell of coarse authenticity. It is simultaneously
able to convey the seemingly congenital servility of the language
of the rural poor as well as its potential for knowing subversion.
It sends up the neo-Thatcherite vocabulary of the new rich,
their absurd extravagance and gaudy taste, but manages to do
it tenderly and with understanding. In a turn of phrase that
recalls the early V S Naipaul, it understands fully this world
of "half-baked cities, built for half-baked men".
Adiga's style calls to mind the work of Munshi Premchand,
that great Hindi prose stylist and chronicler of the nationalist
movement, especially in passages like this: "A rich man's body
is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank",
but the "story of a poor man's life is written on his body,
in a sharp pen". We would probably be right to describe the
impulse of Adiga's fiction as a kind of social realism, contemporary
India offering just the sorts of conspicuous contrasts on which
such writing thrives. He is too canny an observer to labour
under romantic illusions about the poor; the failures of India's
old left are good reason not to expect any immediate redemption
from that quarter. The author's optimism tends in a different
Adiga might overstate the point, but he is surely right when
he writes that "the difference between... this India and that
India [is] the choice". Cut through all the rhetoric, and it
is probably true that where India offers more cause for hope
than China is in the possibility that with economic freedom
might come a measure of the political and social liberalism
which was the foundation of progressive change in the west.
He observes thoughtfully that, in cities all over the country,
people "sit under lamp posts at night and read. Men huddle together
and discuss and point fingers to the heavens." Which is not
to say that the Indian Revolution is nigh, but it certainly
says something. When the dust from all the new construction
has settled, Bangalore (and the many places like it) "may turn
out to be a decent city", more decent than the brutal world
its immigrants have left behind.
Adiga's narrator quotes with approval the Urdu poet Iqbal,
who said: "They remain slaves because they can't see what is
beautiful in this world." Perhaps that line, and the novel,
serve as a manifesto for the sort of writing that the new India
needs but isn't getting enough of.
The cost of food is crushing India's poor Inflation in India has
hit a 13-year high, but you wouldn't know that as you walk around the Infiniti
Mall in Andheri, a Mumbai suburb. The young men and women many of whom
are aspiring models and film stars (the Bollywood studios are not far from
here) are crowding in with their cell phones and laptops, and the place
looks as busy as ever.
Visiting a stall that serves bhelpuri a mix of puffed rice,
dough, tomato and coriander that is the quintessential Mumbai snack I
find that the price has gone up from 37 rupees a plate to 42 (about $1),
in line with the current inflation rate of 12%. I ask the manager of the
stall if sales have slowed down at the higher price. He thinks this is funny,
and he shares my question with his workers; they think it's funny too. One
of them explains: "If you were happy to pay 37 rupees for a plate of
bhelpuri, do you think you'd even notice an increase?" The cost of
the dish here is four times what you'd pay out on the street. For these
workers, who cannot afford to buy a thing in this mall, not even a bottle
of water, everything seems surreally expensive; the surreal getting inflated
by 12% isn't an event at all.
When I get to my apartment, I find Suman, the maid who does the cleaning
in my building, waiting outside the door. The price of lentils, a key component
of most Indian meals, has surged in the past few months. She hasn't been
able to increase her rates yet, so she has had to take an additional cleaning
job to make sure there is enough food at home. She will have to leave my
apartment sooner every day; she hopes I will not dismiss her for this.
Over the past decade, economists have been divided about the great Indian
boom. For one party, the Indian economy's amazing growth rates indicate
that the country is a nascent superpower an America in the making. As
evidence, they can point to the growing clout of Indian firms like Bennett,
Coleman & Co., a privately-owned Mumbai media conglomerate that recently
bought Britain's Virgin Radio. For the other group of economists, the boom
has been an illusion: the majority of Indians have been excluded from the
growth, poverty rates have stayed stagnant, and India is still just a Sudan
with a little icing on top. So who is right? As the current bout of inflation
shows, they are both right.
The Indian economy is slowing this year, but even if it grows at only
7% or 8%, it will be doing far better than the U.S. and most of Europe.
The Indian multinationals that have grown out of the 10-year boom look as
strong as ever, with outsourcing giants like Infosys and Tata Consulting
Services growing very robustly. Their success has created a huge middle
class for which 12% inflation is more of a nuisance than a worry. The long-term
future of the Indian middle class is secure. The factors that have driven
its success a sure grasp of English, a facility with technology, a talent
for innovation will continue to be important in the global economy.
But the 300 million or so Indians living in acute poverty are being crushed
by inflation. If they ever thought that washing the floors, driving the
cars and cleaning the windows of the middle class would open the doors to
a better life, they know now that they were wrong. With prices rising, their
savings are being eaten away. Higher food and fuel prices are being driven
by big changes in the global economy that look set to continue. Even the
most cheerful optimist in the past decade has seen the huge divide between
the haves and have-nots, but the hope has persisted that it would somehow
go away. Inflation has set like cement into that divide, solidifying the
gap between the two Indias.
The future for the country is two futures: rosy and grim. Indian companies
will buy more foreign businesses, and more Indian children will starve.
In economic terms, India has become neither the U.S. nor Sudan, but something
in between a Latin American republic with an entrenched class chasm. Higher
levels of crime and social unrest are almost certain to follow. For years
or decades to come, we will not be able to talk of one destiny for all the
people of the country.
Aravind Adiga, author of the novel The White Tiger, lives
The White Tiger is presented
as an epistolary novel, a series of letters written over the period of seven
nights. It's just an excuse, of course, for the narrator, Balram Halwai,
to tell his story -- a supposedly creative approach that, at least initially
certainly gets the reader's attention. The person Balram is writing to is
the premier of China, Wen Jiabao, due to visit the city Balram is living
in -- Bangalore, India -- in a week's time. What, one wonders, could possess
an Indian entrepreneur living in Bangalore to write at such length to the
premier of China ?
Balram does have a story to tell, but unfortunately
the connexion to his ostensible audience (the Chinese premier) is barely
made. Sure, Balram explains that he can tell the premier all about Indian
entrepreneurship -- something he hears China is missing -- and he makes
the occasional comparisons between India and China, but it ultimately proves
to be a feeble excuse for him to unburden himself, and because the premise
is so poorly utilised undermines much of the novel.
Balram does have something to get off his chest,
of course, and his letters to the Chinese premier are a confession of sorts.
Balram tells his life-story, recounting how he got to where he now is --
a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. And from early on we learn that
he is a wanted man, as he writes about a poster describing him and alluding
to his misdeeds. And soon he reveals what crime he has on his hands, too.
But the story he tells circles around the crime
and only gets to it in good time, as Balram recounts the whole story of
how he wound up in the position he now is more or less chronologically.
Born in northern India, in a tiny hell-hole called Laxmangarh, his parents
couldn't even be bothered to give him a name, just calling him 'munna' --
'boy'. The near-feudal conditions there meant that everything was controlled
by a very few powerful families, and that opportunities were limited.
Balram calls himself; "half-baked", like many
others in the country -- not allowed to finish school, with only a smattering
of all sorts of knowledge. In fact, he was a smart lad, and that was even
recognised by a school inspector, who praised him as a 'white tiger', "the
rarest of animals -- the creature that only comes along once in a generation".
The school inspector promises to arrange a scholarship and proper schooling
for the young boy, but, of course, instead his family takes him out of school
and puts him to work at a teashop (to pay for marrying off one of the daughters
in the family).
Family ties mean a great deal here, and it
is the family that decides what happens to the various members (including
when and who to marry) -- and that lays claim to most of everyone's earnings.
Balram slowly manages to distance himself from his family, but it takes
a while. They do stump up the money for him to taking driving lessons, which
he sees as a great opportunity -- and which turns out to be one, as he lucks
into a job with the relative of someone from his hometown. Being a driver
for Mr.Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, also eventually gets him to Delhi,
comfortably far from his demanding family.
Balram explains why Indian servants are so
honest: because of what he calls the Rooster Coop. No matter what the opportunity,
a servant will not take advantage of his master -- not when it comes to
what really matters. A bag containing a million dollars can be entrusted
to any servant, he claims, as doing anything improper would have terrible
consequences. The servant might get away with it, but:
only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed
-- hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the Masters -- can break out
of the Coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert
'White Tiger' Balram, of course, fits the bill
This is a psychologically pretty interesting
situation, but here as elsewhere Adiga doesn't do much with his premises.
For one, he doesn't convey adequately why so many Indians are supposedly
stuck in this Coop -- with families like Balram's, it's a wonder far more
don't go on rampages and wipe them out themselves. And Balram's own pangs
of conscience (or indifference) aren't nearly considered enough.
Along the long way Adiga does a decent job
of describing the divide between the haves and have-nots, and the way the
servant-class is treated. He's particularly good on Indian corruption, from
the vote-rigging of the local elections, where the 'Great Socialist' candidate
is unopposable, to the conditions at school, where the teacher steals the
money for the school-food-programme and sells the uniforms meant for the
students -- but no one holds it against him, because he hasn't been paid
in six months and that's simply the way the system works. Anyone in power
abuses it for his or her own benefit. By the end, when he's a boss, Balram
has certainly learned to work the system too -- which is largely about greasing
the proper wheels (and palms).
Balram's adventures in the big city and as
an employee of a man who keeps having to pay bribes to politicians (and
whose marriage falls apart) allows for some amusing observations and commentary
on contemporary Indian conditions, and a nice contrast of poverty and wealth,
but much of it feels a bit forced. Most of the narrative drive comes from
the build up to the crime Balram commits, but that also distracts from Adiga's
other purposes, making for a muddled mix where nothing -- the crime, Balram's
learning curve and then his business ventures, the state of modern India
-- is adequately presented.
Yes, The White Tiger 'says a lot' about
contemporary India, but it tries to do so far too hard. Adiga has some talent,
but leaves it at loose ends here. What suspense he builds up early on surrounding
Balram's crime dissipates far too fast, while he tries too hard with his
Indian panorama. And Balram isn't a fully realised or convincing character,
either, even though he's talking (or telling his story) all the time, as
Adiga's attempt to make him both a peasant-everyman (representative of so
many Indians) and a white tiger confuses things.
"I'm tomorrow", Adiga has Balram claim
early on, but it's unclear what kind of tomorrow he represents: his success
is found in imitating the dime-a-dozen corrupt wealthy class (which is nothing
new) -- and in abandoning his family. The latter seems a much rarer step
-- is Adiga suggesting that is the wave of the future ? and that when it
comes -- watch out ?!
Should these 'letters' ever have reached Chinese
premier Wen Jiabao he would, no doubt, have been completely baffled by them
-- as well as why they were addressed to him. Unfortunately, readers of
the novel likely will be similarly baffled. There are some good ideas here,
and the writing (bit by bit, at least) isn't bad, but the whole is disappointing.
(Also: while Adiga is hardly the first writer
with a privileged background to write a book like this, it's hard not feel
that it's a bit rich coming from a well- and foreign-educated (Columbia
and Oxford !) author to take as his protagonist (and mouthpiece)
someone so down-and-out that his parents didn't even bother giving him a
name and then have the character find success in this particular