“Things are complicated in India.”
That about sums up the picture created by Aravind Adiga in his Man Booker Prize winning novel White Tiger, which I finally read recently.
This cleverly written novel is not the India of Bollywood films, nor does it offer the ultimate optimism of Slumdog Millionaire.
Instead, it puts the reader in the hands of Balram, a “social entrepreneur”, who tells us from the start he’s killed his master and set himself free from the “Rooster Coop” of the caste system.
Balram is amoral and selfish, but his circumstance in life – and his ability to respond to it with ingenuity, wit and self belief – ultimately makes us able to sympathise with him on some level.
Balram is the son of a poor rickshaw puller. Deprived of a formal education, he begs his way to becoming a chauffeur, and it’s while driving the corrupt rich men of the city that he begins to see where his opportunities for a better life may lie.
White Tiger depicts an India where the caste system continues to exploit and abuse its rural poor, and the rich – in the mad dash for capitalism and power – have become increasingly corrupt.
Balram talks about the India of Light (the shining new “economic miracle” of the call centres) and the India of Darkness (the poverty-stricken rural heart, where life is dominated by oppressive servitude).
The gap between the have and have-nots is never more obvious than in their attitude towards animals: in the city, the rich have servants wash their pampered pets; in the villages, the family buffalo has far greater value than a child.
Balram tells his story through a series of chatty letters to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, who is soon to visit India. Balram very helpfully attempts to explain that India will succeed over China as a capitalist society in the long term because of the emergence of entrepreneurs – and goes on to use his own life as an example.
Ultimately, Adiga uses the corruption of Balram’s master to mirror the corruption of India itself and Balram does the only thing he thinks an entrepreneur should do in such a situation: take advantage of it.
Balram has no issue with corruption and exploitative behaviour in the India of Darkness:
“You can’t expect a man living in a dung heap to smell sweet”. He’s less forgiving of the rich in the India of Light: watching his good natured master allow himself to become corrupted leaves Balram with no remorse when the time comes to kill him.
And there is no companionship or honour among the suffering poor: just as their masters are cruel to them, they are cruel to each other.
As well as the plaudits, Adiga has attracted criticism for being a wealthy Indian man writing about the servant-class. But does that really matter? His story is engaging, eye-opening and – at times – uncomfortable for a reader sitting in First World comfort.
No single novel can completely capture a nation in all its essence. Adiga says his aim in writing White Tiger was to prick the conscience of his country and prompt some element of self examination - which is hardly an exploitative motivation.
I'm keen to hear how other readers responded to this novel.