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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
10:05 AM 27th October 2021
arts

Review: The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, is a work of fiction expertly penned by writer and journalist Aravind Adiga – and it is a story that pulls no punches.

Best described as a rags-to-riches story, our protagonist is an Indian entrepreneur who has clambered his way to the top of the greasy pole, one smeared with corruption and bureaucracy. The narrator relates the story of Balram Halwai (his identity prior to becoming a businessman), and its lineaments are laid out in a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whose visit to India is imminent. As a child, a school inspector told Balram - “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots”, and this is how he became the ‘White Tiger’ – the “rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation.”

Balram’s account is frank and unforgiving, bringing us a detailed insight into a society that few of us are likely to be closely acquainted with. From his village in India’s “darkness”, to his role as a driver for his rich master in the city, in the “light,” we learn Balram’s backstory. This is a man who appears to have seen it all and relates to us his narrative, not always wholly objectively, but with the strength of character to lay out exactly what he has seen and done, and how his experience has made him who he has become.

Balram bears witness to the corruption that accompanied India’s rapid expansion into capitalism, and we fear that perhaps the country is hurtling towards an intangible goal: money, power, success. Balram gets a crash course in the way of the “new” India and how the boundaries are muddied by the clash between modernity and tradition.

In some senses the story transcends natural borderlines, but I’d suggest that the variation between an Indian tale, and, say, an American one, is simply who you screw over, and how. It’s still the same pursuit: money, and is achievable perhaps only by a character who is driven, by desperation or desire, or both – irrespective of the consequence inflicted on those around.

I couldn’t decide whether I liked our narrator, but I do not think we are supposed to particularly warm to him. The man who introduces himself is bold and assertive, unrecognisable from his former self whose story he relates. We respect his candour, and as we learn of his past, we might acknowledge his loyalty to the master he served with devotion.

We come to see, however, that he is not immune – neither to the prejudice and abuse that is inflicted upon him, but also to the deeper corruption that rips apart the moral foundation on which he began his journey. He does not conceal that his devotion ultimately comes down to the fact that his master paid his wage – his was a loyalty that was bought. But, as we soon learn, there is a limit to loyalty gained under duress, and perhaps if you can’t beat them, join them: it’s a system that is open to manipulation, and in this case, the winners are those who are not afraid. The persecuted become the perpetrators; it’s that, or just sink without trace.

Sown into the fabric of this compelling account is an insight into the truly remarkable aspects of modern Indian society. This city society, in the light, does not seem to be one that will adhere to stereotypical norms. What we see is an India that is a crowded smörgåsbord of culture and tradition clashing with modernity. There is human conflict, between the castes and the classes, and the hierarchies within them. Even amongst the servant class, there is a code, like a rule of engagement, and each knows their place. Perhaps they all share a common enemy, their masters, but that does not prevent them carving out territories and power of their own.

Before the city, we are given a faithful account of Balram’s life in his village, living amongst his family, all of them from the Halwai caste, or sweet makers. And whilst we see clearly that village life is impoverished, conditions hard and intolerable, when he moves to the city, we see that the filth extends even to the light: traffic jams, heavy pollution and lines of sewage that will divide a street.

It has been asked whether Adiga, a middle-class former student of Columbia and Oxford universities, and writer for Time magazine amongst many others, can genuinely grasp and portray life as it really is for the lower echelons of modern Indian society. I make no comment, other than to relate what he told The Guardian in an interview after winning the Man Booker Prize: “I don’t think a novelist should just write about his own experiences… the challenge of a novel is to write about people who aren’t anything like me.”

Razor-sharp and acerbic, the novel is a thoroughly compelling read. Intrigued by the story our protagonist sets out to tell, we want to find out what comes next, and along the way we learn more of a world that remains very much out of our sight, in the dark. Some of the streets of the India we discover might be paved with gold, for those who are willing to tread the path, but alongside the gold there is dirt, disease and corruption that is concealed in plain sight. Infused with satire and irony, and at times sardonic humour, this is an excoriating account that you won’t quickly forget.


The White Tiger is published by Atlantic Books