And so to the Booker shortlist – eventually and a long way behind Booker stalwarts Asylum and Dovegreyreader, whose opinions are at opposite ends of the spectrum. In which case, Adiga’s book is a good one for the shortlist. Books that generate debate belong there and usually I’d love to pitch in but find myself, unusually, lost for words. So rather that a review, this post will read more like a balance sheet. Hopefully by the end of what is likely to be a stream of consciousness, I will have worked out what I want to say.
Booker shortlisted – not always a plus. However, in a year when the chairman says “The panel ended up with a list they described as “page-turning” and “readable”. We have brought you fun.”, that is a very definite plus. I’m not of the mindset that literary fiction should not be fun, particularly if unfun = unread. So a plus for being on a fun list, a double plus if it proves to be true. It does. (2 credits.)
The blurb on the dust jacket promises: “The White Tiger is a tale of two Indias. Balram’s journey from the darkness of village life to the light of entrepreneurial success is utterly amoral, brilliantly irreverent, deeply endearing and altogether unforgettable.” And indeed our man, Balram Halwai, from a lowly caste does climb the corporate ladder through totally disreputable means. He has no respect for either his lowly family or his wealthy employers. He is the white tiger, “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”, a thing of beauty or a genetic misfit depending on your point of view. You have to cheer on a man who refuses to accept the shackles of his inheritance (1 credit) even while not condoning the method of his rising out of “the rooster coop”. (1 debit). The murder of his employer, who is, at face value, one of the more humane rich men and thus deserving of our sympathies. However, he is prepared to bribe the politicians to get his family ahead. He is a man who sits idly by as his driver is setup to take the fall for a fatal road incident. He also allows his servants to live in squalor in the basement of his luxurious home. I’m getting the impression of characterisation in successful shades of grey here – Aravind using a subtler palette than the polarity of black and white. Both employer and employee have their sympathetic and their disreputable sides.(1 credit)
What of the distinction between the darkness of rural India and the lightness of entrepreneurial success? Here the brushstrokes are much more distinct, the differentiation sometimes crass. However, the narrator, Balram, is the man who has fled from village life to the city in order to make his fortune. By the end of the novel he has a number of lives on his conscience so, of course, he would talk in extreme terms – self-justification makes that a necessity. Balram is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve read for a long time. (1 credit)
He’s an entertaining narrator, sardonic and, despite his mock humility, completely self-delusional, writing his story in a series of letters to the Chinese premier, who is about to embark on a state visit to India. The son of a rickshaw-puller, he betrays his lack of education with ill-informed statements about the visiting politician’s country: “Now, since I doubt that you have rickshaw-pullers in China – or in any other civilised nation on earth – you will have to see one for yourself.” Quite what Balram wishes to prove in his lengthy epistles is anyone’s guess – perhaps how great a place the new India is now that it is inhabited by entrepreneurs. The subtext tells a completely different tale. In an incident mirroring the road accident that occured when Balram was a chauffeur, the new Indian man reveals himself to possess a greater moral repugnance than his original employer. It’s too obvious a mirrored incident to be great literature, but it is here that Adiga’s authorial voice is to be found. (1 credit)
Misled by the front cover blurb, I found the plot surprising. I was expecting corporate cut and thrust and skullduggery, a Delhi-Dallas, if you will. Balram’s rise centres on a single incident, one that is flagmarked but takes so long in coming that, looking back, there’s a “is that all”? effect. (Deduct two points for dashed expectations.)
However that wasn’t enough to affect my overall reaction or enjoyment of The White Tiger. While Indian readers have condemned the simplistic nature of the class differences depicted, being Caucasian, with what is probably a stereotypical view of Indian society, I am probably Adiga’s ideal audience. And the final scoresheet of 6 credits, 3 debits evidences what I knew as I turned the final page. I enjoyed this novel. Only now I might be able to review it!