The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
For a long time I have thought that the award of a literary prize, lucrative as it may be for the writer, is a signal that the book is to be avoided at all costs. Too often the committees forget that the ordinary reader reads for pleasure rather than to admire wordsmithery or the handling of symbol and image. Of course, you want to read something that is well written, entertaining and gripping but you also want something that is a joy to read rather than an endurance test.
Sometimes, though, a book wins an award and you wonder how the hell that happened. Take Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker prize in 2008. It is an engaging enough tale about Balram Halwai, a self-made man who has made his fortune in the capital of out-sourcing services, Bangalore. It is well-paced and there were enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me engaged. But there were a number of structural issues to the book that for me made it nothing out of the ordinary.
Firstly, it is epistolary in style. There is nothing wrong in that but why would Balram write unsolicited about his life to a visiting Chinese premier? The question isn’t answered and all the reader can conclude is that with the growing rapprochement between China and India, the protagonist thinks that he should dish the dirt on the real India – a bit of a flimsy premise for a book, I feel.
Dishing the dirt, Adiga does in spades. Having been to India on a few occasions and been astonished by the sights, scenes, collective mania of the big cities like Dehli and having been jostled by a seething crowd trying to get served in a liquor store in Kerala, many of Adiga’s scenes resonate with me. But it is unrelenting, a blunt instrument or perhaps a broken bottle of English whisky to beat the reader around the head with. OK, the country is cruel and the lot of the majority is hard to bear but I think we get that point early on. The relentless tirade gets a tad tiresome.
The characterisation is weak. Balram’s bosses are little more than caricatures of the upper classes. We don’t really get to engage with them or to despise them. Even Balram, who started out on life without even a name and who seemed to be destined to live a life as the lowest of the low, is rather cartoonish.
And then there is the contrast between the darkness of the Indian hinterland, medieval in its hardship and where brutal landlords hold sway and the lightness of the cities. The use of this symbolism is relentless and rather loses its impact. Balram’s rise is due to a rather heartless and brutal murder and corruption – the loot he gets away with is used to grease the palms of the police to enable him to set up his taxi service ferrying night workers to the call centres. Corruption is another theme running through the book – his masters’ coal business has to make frequent unofficial payments to politicians and their lackeys to thrive. Progress through merit is not in Adiga’s line of vision.
The book is funny in parts and goes at a furious lick. It is entertaining but if you are looking for subtlety in this damning critique of the state of modern India, you will be sorely disappointed. Jonathan Swift, he ain’t.