The White Tiger
In one way this could have been a short story – it hangs on a single satirical concept: an ostensibly model new-breed Indian entrepreneur writing to the visiting Chinese Premier, apparently interested in what’s driven some of India’s impressive economic development. The voice of our initially innocent seeming business man – who speaks throughout the entire book in second person in letters to the Premier – starts in a comic vein, with maybe some ‘Citizen of the World’ insights thrown in with the humour. I imagine Adiga has seen business testimonies eulogising the happily advancing state of not only the economy, but the development of society beyond caste, corruption and poverty through the grand financial development.
But, cleverly, Adiga lets more and more darkness (I suspect he’d say reality) slip into the narrative. He vividly conveys the two worlds of India – the standard worlds of so many cultures, both historical and contemporary – those of wealth and poverty. Looking through the eyes of a rural peasant who makes the massive step up into becoming a driver, the blithe dehumanising contempt he accepts as his due is potent and perceptive. The moral (and there *is* a moral, or an anti-moral) to the story is that corruption is the eternal ground of politics, business and class, and accepting this truth (as opposed to any dreams of justice or democracy) is the beginning of wisdom. The hope for equity – especially through political means such as socialist revolution, but also through capitalism (which must, as its most fundamental level, bribe the police and any other relevant authorities to establish and maintain its existence and, as part of this, avoid appropriate legal and social responsibilities). There is (spoilers) some improvement in the way Balram, in his new life, treats his drivers compared to how he was treated, carefully moving them from servants to employees, but the irony of his story as a model for how China should embrace the future is pretty brutal.
The central character, Balram, is textured, and we also learn a lot about him through his often cynical and dismissive descriptions of other characters. I dare say the book would be even more penetrating for the many readers who live in one of the many countries where servants are commonplace – although it’s most likely that they would be from the rich side. Which might sting: (spoiler) it is telling that the only guilt Balram feels is that he didn’t kill another one of his employers: there is real venom in the underlying attitude of servant towards master – and convincing reason for that hatred. I’ve only had the tiniest taste of this visiting in-laws in Indonesia, where initially I was shocked by the notion of a house full of people who are largely treated like whitegoods, but could see how easily this could become normal, assumed.
This book sits perfectly in my ‘well-written books I didn’t personally enjoy’ category. Probably a great book to talk about, and perhaps more enjoyable if you’d been exposed to the literature I suspect it’s pillorying. But I just find it hard going when there is simply no-one to like. Clearly Balram himself, while understandable, is hugely selfish, and utterly ruthless to his family. His employers are at best unconsciously, at worst deliberately vile. His fellow drivers are painted as seedy and superficial. His family are generally grasping and lack any warmth. There is nothing resembling friendship in the book, and relations between men and women are merely sexual or financial or both. It’s not quite as blind as Cormier’s cynicism, but it’s in that family, and I’m not sure whether it’s because: Adiga doesn’t realise that there is actually genuine goodness and intimacy out there; he was deliberately painting a character who couldn’t see it; or he just wanted to push this pessimistic outlook for this story.