The white tiger
Shelf life: Looking at secular books
THE WHITE TIGER
By Aravind Adiga
Atlantic Books. 322 pages. £12.99
So another Indian writer has won the Man Booker Prize. Like the Booker judges, I’ve a keen appetite for Indian literature, though whether for the exotic ‘samosas and saris’ or the fresh writing I’m not quite sure.
The White Tiger begins with whimsy; the main character, Balram Halwai, is writing to the Chinese Premier to tell about Indian entrepreneurs, or, rather, to tell the story about how he became a successful entrepreneur. At this opening, I feared, with another book with an unreliable narrator, pitching us into an oh-so-clever conceit. I didn’t think I had energy for that kind of book. But, as the plot moved on, I found myself enjoying the satire more and more.
Our narrator is an amoral man who, as a boy, observes the trap of poverty and caste at work in his near-feudal village. Without education (he was withdrawn from school to work so that his cousin’s wedding and dowry could be paid for), but with intelligence, he determines to break out of the ‘chicken coop’ the only way possible, by trampling on others. First, he has the chance to learn to drive, then, against all odds, he lands a job as second driver for a landlord’s son. But this position, which gives him a bed on the floor and regular meals, still means subservience and dependence, so he plots his rise by unfair means to independence.
Some have attacked this book as shallow and full of stereotypes, but I think this misses the point. It operates as a kind of fable, an angry moral tale which doesn’t aim to provide detailed characterisation or nuance. I can understand why some Indians would feel betrayed by such writing, for the India it presents is simple, full of poverty and corruption and, strikingly, not one of the characters is kind or generous. Nevertheless, there are acutely described images: the air-conditioned cars of the rich, the waiting chauffeurs on their haunches burning plastic rubbish to keep warm, the smell and feel of Halwai’s master’s feet as he massages them. Through such observations the narrator’s tone engages the reader and creates sympathy.
So, should you buy the book? Well, in one sense, no, we all know the corruption of every heart, and we have heard of the dreadful poverty endemic in so many parts of India. This book won’t deepen your understanding, but it may provoke your interest and concern. And for that reason it may be worth buying. Certainly it is a good book to read with a non-Christian friend to prompt discussions about the nature of corruption and conscience.