Aravind Adiga is one of five debut novelists on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, and one of four from the Indian subcontinent. (What was that about ‘geographical balance’ again?) If you think I’m laying a not-too-subtle hint here by lumping him in as one of many others, with nothing distinguishing of his own, then you may have a point.
To describe it in relation to last year’s Booker Prize titles, The White Tiger has superficial similarities to both Animal’s People (a ‘quirky’ first person narrative) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (a one-sided exchange between two people). Here, our narrator is Balram Halwai, an Indian “social entrepreneur” and the White Tiger of the title. He grew up in a family too poor even to give him a proper name, so his schoolteacher calls him Balram (“he was the sidekick of the god Krishna”), and a school inspector, impressed by Balram’s ability, gives him the identity which will fuel his story.
The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest animal – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’
I thought about it and said:
‘The white tiger.’
‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’
And so Balram sees himself: as an animal struggling for success in a pit which must be climbed out of, the village of Laxmangarh in Bangalore. (“I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh – as some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it – as fast as he could – and got to the other side – and never looked back!”) Balram is telling all this in a series of letters to the Chinese President, Weng Jiabao, from his position as a successful entrepreneur.
Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.
Balram tells Premier Jiabao how he got where he is today, from the bottom of the heap. It is these scenes which are the most diverting part of the book, detailing the miseries and horrors of the class and caste system in modern India. The son of a rickshaw-puller (“my father’s spine was a knotted rope”), Balram gets a job as a driver for businessman Mr Ashok. It is here, still quite early in the book, where Adiga’s tale begins to droop.
The primary issue is one of characterisation, or lack of it. It’s a given that a book need not have ‘fully rounded’ characters (I’m not even sure what the term means) for me to enjoy it. There have been discussions on this site recently about the tradition of larger-than-life, non-realistic characters particularly in Indian and middle-eastern literature. But Adiga is telling a thoroughly Westernised story, in A-to-B novel form, and the problem is that his characters aren’t even large-print caricatures. They’re too small to see. In terms of behaviour and – especially – dialogue, most of the players are indistinguishable from one another. Take the names away and Ashok and Pinky Madam and the Mongoose and the Stork having nothing to identify them. This matters because the whole of the book will turn on Balram’s resentment of his employer, who so far as I could see, never did anything to warrant such dramatic consequences. It also weakens the central ideas, some of which are interesting, such as the ‘Rooster Coop’ of servility, and the political background with the Great Socialist. These are not explored in great depth, nor is the irony of Balram’s eventual transformation into that which he most hates. The worst crime is that for most of the book’s length, this potentially fascinating tale is drop-dead boring.
The denouement of the book is revealed at the start, so there is no attempt to keep the reader in suspense other than through the explanation for Balram’s revenge on his master, which remains unconvincing. For a study of the balance of power in a master-servant relationship which is so far ahead of The White Tiger that it makes my cheeks burn in embarrassment to mention them in the same sentence, read Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. For what the Sunday Times on the back cover calls a “bald, angry, unadorned portrait of [India] as seen from the bottom of the heap,” read Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. Because, to return to the comparisons I made at the start of this post, the title from last year’s Booker which The White Tiger most resembles is in fact Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted: a book which charms to begin with but lost my interest, and a forgettable debut for which the most striking question is not, How on earth did it get onto the Booker longlist, but How did it get published in the first place?