Occasionally when reading past Booker winners my feeling is that there was a stronger contender in the shortlist. In the case of the 2008 Booker Prize, I loved Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, but I couldn’t have placed it above The White Tiger, except that it was a great tall tale. Nevertheless, my immediate impulse after rereading The White Tiger was to check out some reviews. I wasn’t surprised to find that the book is both praised and reviled. Indian reviewers, particularly, have criticised it for its portrayal of India’s government and its elections as corrupt. Aravind Adiga’s writing has consequently received some criticism as lifeless, or his character, Balram Halwai, is described as flat and one dimensional. Adiga, himself, has received personal criticism, calling into question his portrayal of poverty in India, given his own privileged upbringing – he is the son of a doctor and has received an education in Australia and America – and his comfortable life as a journalist before publishing this, his first novel. He formerly wrote for TIME magazine. In addressing this criticism he stated in an interview with the Guardian that, “I don't think a novelist should just write about his own experiences. Yes, I am the son of a doctor, yes, I had a rigorous formal education, but for me the challenge of a novelist is to write about people who aren't anything like me.” Adiga emphasised the need to give some voice to the plight of India’s poor, and the problems with its political and social institutions.
But even if you accept this argument, your opinion of The White Tiger is going to be shaped by your own personal, political and even religious beliefs. For some, the book will speak truth about an India still living in the shadow of a colonial past, while others will see it as offensive. The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai who comes from a small village, Laxmangarh, which, our protagonist tells us, is only a few miles from Bodh Gaya where Buddha found enlightenment. He first calls himself ‘the white tiger’ when a school inspector praises him for his honesty and intelligence which exceeds his peers. In other words, he is a rare animal. He seeks employment as a driver and is employed by Mr Ashok, a business man who has married in America and has returned to India with his wife, Pinky. Balram serves him faithfully, even though, early on, he shows himself to be ruthless when needed. He supplants Ashok’s number one driver with the discovery to Ashok that he is a Muslim. When Balram travels to New Delhi with Ashok, Balram becomes increasingly disillusioned. He sees Ashok become steeped in corruption and watches the dissolution of his and Pinky’s marriage. He calls into question his own loyalty when he is asked to take the blame for a crime he did not commit. Balram’s experiences cause him to question the fundamental tenets upon which Indian society is predicated: the means by which the poor are kept subservient in the service of the rich.
Of course, The White Tiger describes India at a period of phenomenal growth: a period of construction and Westernisation, marked by the shift from village-based family-oriented values to a pursuit of opportunities offered by the city and technology. Balram embraces these changes as liberating forces. The pretext for his story is a visit by Wen Jiabao, then Premier of China. Balram has heard that Jiabao wishes to meet with Indian entrepreneurs. He wants to know the truth of Bangalore’s growth and economic success. Balram, through a series of unsent letters he writes the Chinese Premier in the small hours of the night, offers his own success as an example. He is now an entrepreneur, himself, with his own fleet of cars servicing technology firms who need workers ferried to and from work safely.
What is extraordinary about Balram’s story isn’t the bare facts of his social rise – that he ‘made it’ through murder and theft – but in the ways he frames that success. Balram’s transformation from an honest village boy to a corrupt business owner is an act of enlightenment, his story implies, which displaces traditional paradigms. To break free of poverty, he realises, it is not enough to work hard and be honest. That will get him nowhere. The best he can hope for by following that path will be “a small home in some slum” after a lifetime of work. To break the cycle of poverty Balram realises he must leave his family behind, for a start. The first step is to leave his village, but later it is to reject the expectations expressed so many times to him that he should send money back to the village and to take a wife. But Balram has made a more sinister calculation than this. He has seen that the vast majority of the Indian poor are kept subservient – he describes it as being kept in a Rooster Coop – through associations with family: “the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.” When Balram first goes to work for Mr Ashok, Ashok looks into Balram’s family. Balram is aware of the reality of the situation: “They had to know where my family was, at all times,” he says. Servants who fail or betray their masters risk their family’s safety, we are told. In the case of a domestic servant whose boss’s son was kidnapped, not only was the domestic servant tortured and killed, but so was his family, and the family home burned. To reject family and knowingly put them at risk as Balram is willing to do is shocking in Indian society, but it is what he feels he must do to achieve a new incarnation of his identity as the white tiger: a man with no social, moral, religious or political affiliations that will burden him.
What is also shocking about this is that Adiga’s satire characterises the social changes in modern India through Balram’s story. India is the birthplace of Buddhism, but Balram’s rise flouts the key tenets of Buddhism. He murders to get ahead, he steals from his employer, he engages in sex with prostitutes, he lies and drinks. Yet as a story of modern India, Adiga’s narrative characterises Balram as a new Buddha with a new kind of enlightenment. First, he comes from an area close to where Buddha is thought to have lived. But Balram is characterising two India’s in his story: the modern India of the city, of technology and business as “the Light”, while traditional India, still focussed on village life and the family is the “Darkness”. Balram offers a new kind of enlightenment for the modern world. It is in the city, a place of ‘Light’ that Balram receives enlightenment. Through the novel he has had a series of insights that now culminate in a final insight which parodies Buddha’s story:
The next day I took an autorickshaw up to Electronics City. I found a banyan tree by the side of the road, and I sat down under it. I sat and watched the buildings until it was evening and I saw all the SUVs racing in; and then I watched until two in the morning, when the SUVs began racing out of the buildings.
And I thought, That’s it. That’s how I fit in.
He also parodies the Buddha’s response to the question of his divinity when he speaks of his own enlightenment. Balram remarks, “I have woken up, and the rest of you are still sleeping . . .” By telling Buddha’s version of the story he equates his own insights with the religious precepts of Buddha. But Balram’s enlightenment is a rejection of traditional Indian values and the religious beliefs that underpin the social structure. The modern world requires a new kind of enlightenment.
This is an insight that is offered in various ways throughout the novel. Adiga’s use of animal imagery, for instance, is telling. The local landlords who control the economic life of the villages are characterised through animals: the Buffalo, the Stork (Ashok’s father), the Wild Boar and the Raven. But on the local level the old landlords are under pressure from the Naxals, a group of Communist fighters who have targeted them. The animal labels by which the landlords are known signify an old power under threat, even though they once denoted power within the traditional milieu. Now, there is always the possibility of insurrection or civil war threatening their power.
Likewise, the Delhi poor are described like animals crossing the road. A pair of asses carrying building rubble represent in Balram’s mind the exploitation of the poor. When Balram looks upon prostitutes he sees not human beings but parrots in a cage, like the rooster in the coop. Over and over, Balram sees the world divided into humans and animals, the city and the village, rich and poor. The imagery necessarily overlaps, so that it shouldn’t surprise us when he tries to explain the old caste system in India in terms of these dichotomies. Of the old caste system, he says,
See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy.
Balram’s characterisation of the traditional caste system as a zoo provides a neat contrast to India after Independence:
And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947 – the day the British left – the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law.
It’s a fairly unflattering portrait of India for a start. But Balram, ironically, is sympathetic with a colonial past, and his enlightenment goes some way to embracing a new kind colonialism: of a technological India that still serves the cultural colonial interests of the West. India, after all, is full of technology companies and phone support that serves America and other Western countries. His calculation is that this serves his interest rather than traditional values or family. Sadly, by an economic measure, he is right. But added to this, is how Balram embeds a justification for his own actions, which are illegal and immoral, in his imagery. If India was a zoo, the zoo keepers have left and the country has devolved into a jungle. This is Social Darwinism, and we realise that it underpins Balram’s imagery throughout the book: Light and Darkness; the Rooster Coop; animals and humans. In the jungle, the rules no longer apply. It’s kill or be killed. You do what you have to do to survive. Who can afford the burdens of a family or a moral code under such a system? Balram’s enlightenment is supreme pragmatism.
Balram Halwai is not the name Balram is given by his parents. By the time he goes to school he is known only as ‘Munna’, which is not a real name: in India it just means ‘boy’. Balram is named by his teacher who refuses to call him boy, and ‘Halwai’ is a caste name, not a surname. He is even given a date of birth by a government official. By the end of the novel, Balram chooses another name for himself. He is essentially a self-made man in the true sense of the Western ideal. This is neither to praise nor criticise his character. I simply don’t see Balram as flat and one dimensional. His slow drift towards criminality and his ways of thinking make sense within the context of his situation, his upbringing and experiences. One might question whether Adiga’s satire is accurate or fair, but I think that the extreme position he has taken with this character is what makes the novel worthwhile and believable. Satire often works best at the extremes.
Prime Minister's Office (GODL-India)
Now, a thinking man like you, Mr Premier, must ask two questions.
Why does the Rooster Coop work? How does it trap so many millions of men and women so effectively?
Secondly, can a man break out of the coop? What if one day, for instance, a driver took his employer’s money and ran? What would his life be like?
I will answer both for you ,sir.
The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian Family, is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.
The answer to the second question is that 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 of nature.
It would, in fact, take a White Tiger. You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur, sir.