White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga was born in India but grew up in Australia and America; Rohinton Mistry was born in India but emigrated to Canada. Both have written novels that take a hard look at modern India. Mistry was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991 for Such a Long Journey, in 1996 for A Fine Balance, and in 2002 for Family Matters. Aravind Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, White Tiger.
The difference between the two authors and their works is that Mistry’s non-winners are the best novels written about modern India. Indeed, his brilliantly wrought, densely detailed, utterly convincing and devastatingly powerful A Fine Balance is a masterpiece that stands comparison with the greatest works of the 20th century. White Tiger, on the other hand, reads like the work of an ambitious student in an American creative writing class. Though its heart or at least its politics are in the right place – the same outraged place as Mistry’s or VS Naipaul’s when he wrote India – A Wounded Civilization – the fact that White Tiger won this year makes a mockery of the Man Booker Prize and monkeys of the panel of judges.
White Tiger‘s conceit is that it is a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao from an Indian chauffeur-turned-murderer-turned-entrepreneur. It begins in a poor village in Bihar state, where the state school has no books because the government-appointed teacher has sold them. The narrator, Balram, is the son of a rickshaw puller. Employed as a driver by the US-educated son of the village’s powerful landlords, he is taken to live in a Delhi suburb where he develops a murderous hatred of his master.
Balram and all the book’s characters refer to impoverished, ignorant and violent village India, where most of the sub-continent’s people still live, as “the Darkness”. What makes this novel unusual among the many that have recently poured from the sub-continent, is the way it holds little truck with the relentlessly shiny picture of contemporary India peddled by its political and literary boosters and, sadly, by many of the foreign correspondents living the good life in New Delhi. Adiga has noticed that the India that gets most of the attention abroad – and indeed at home – is that of a tiny English-speaking upper- and middle-class minority, and that the great majority of Indians live in a very different world or worlds. This fact is apparently such a revelation to some reviewers of White Tiger that they have mistaken it for a powerful and original work by a brilliant new voice.
It is certainly to Adiga’s credit that, unlike so many observers, he actually focuses on the millions of poor, thin, dark men squatting in the shadow of sparkling new suburbs. It’s also to his credit that unlike India’s elite leftists he knows that the worst misery is not the product of economic growth, but exists in places as yet untouched by free-market deregulation. He sees past all the propaganda about “the world’s greatest democracy” to the long-term failure of the Indian state to provide the masses with the most basic services. He also senses the anger that explains phenomena such as India’s growing Maoist insurgency and the paranoia about murders by servants.
But Adiga’s narrator never quite convinces as a semi-literate villager in the big city. Too often the details of “the Darkness” ring false. Unlike in the work of Arundhati Roy, Mistry or Naipaul, the smells, sounds and colours of “the Darkness” lack the necessary texture. White Tiger often reads as if its author has little first-hand knowledge of village life or the servant’s world.
White Tiger is reasonably entertaining, but it is a mystery how such a book could win the Man Booker. Perhaps the jurors, consciously or unconsciously, made their selection based on criteria other than literary quality: one suspects that had Adiga been white and middle-aged – easy to imagine in this case – he would not have won.