Free Press, $24.00 (hardcover)
Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger has won the Man-Booker prize. It is the fourth winner by an Indian writer, including Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, and Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. As an historian of India, who frequently teaches fiction, I picked it up to read on my flight to New Delhi last week. Quickly I found that The White Tiger displays such a mean-spirited voice and a brutal distortion of the lives of poor rural Indians that it makes its celebration puzzling.
The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, the son of a village rickshawwalla, who through wiles and determination becomes the driver to the hated village landlord. The book takes the form of a series of letters from the narrator, now a self-described entrepreneur in the bustling hi-tech city of Bangalore, to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, describing “the real India” he will not see during his upcoming official visit. We learn early on that Balram has committed murder and robbery. But all of this is told with comical fun poked not only at the excesses of the rich, but also at the circumstances of poor people.
Described by the Man-Booker committee as a humorous take on “a different aspect of India,” the novel sets itself up as a corrective to one prevailing image of India’s economic success. Clearly this politics was a Man-Booker consideration. As the committee says, “The book gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour.” In fact, 80% of the world’s software comes from India and so too do many of the world’s richest entrepreneurs. (I’m reminded here of Thomas Friedman’s portrayals in The World is Flat.) And yet there remain problems of economic and social inequality.
The White Tiger chooses Bihar, the poor state in eastern India—always maligned by reporters who rarely visit there to report on it—as emblematic of poverty and savagery. The fact that none of the characters are fully realized or sympathetic may be the sign of satire, but if so, it also suggests (and many reviewers seem to agree) that they stand for the real depravity of Biharis. Adiga’s labeling this place as “Darkness” in contrast to Civilization (Bangalore) can’t possibly escape a comparison to Joseph Conrad. And sure enough Adiga’s description of village life follows from so many stereotypes found in colonial literature.
Having lived in Bihar, I both recognize the landscapes he describes and resent the cheap caricature he makes of it. One needn’t idealize poverty to recognize the humanity in people from different regions, cultures, backgrounds, and classes. The fact that Adiga was born in Chennai, or lives in Mumbai, does not excuse the blank stereotyping of Biharis. (By the way, there was a recent political agitation in Mumbai to kick out Bihari migrant workers.) In the novel, we’re supposed to laugh at the cruelty of the main character’s grandmother or his own uncaring ambition. Even the critique of the wealthy landlords and corrupt politicians is convoluted—elections determined by a single man stamping ballots. As a student of India’s democracy, I especially balked at this dismissal of the seriousness with which Biharis in large number exercise their right to vote.
Both in India and abroad The White Tiger has received mixed reviews. Akash Kapur in the New York Times writes about “an absence of human complexity” in the novel. And Manjula Padmanabhan in Outlook India, points to its “schoolboyish sneering.” But others at The Independent and The New Yorker are cheerfully “seduced.”
The White Tiger has none of the beautiful prose of The God of Small Things or the brilliant social criticism of Midnight’s Children. And it does not portray poor people in the complex and nuanced terms that Rohinton Mistry does in A Fine Balance. Rather, the Man-Booker committee chose to reward a weak novel that does little more than depict corruption among the powerful and depravity among the poor in the guise of a “post post-colonial” novel.