The White Tiger

Posted on November 29, 2008


When Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger nabbed the Booker earlier this year, I knew I had to read it right away. The book was compared to Invisible Man and Native Son, two towering works of racial/cultural tension that I enjoyed (more the Ellison). Plus, it was getting rave reviews.

But it was also stirring up controversy back in India, where the author is from. Numerous articles went on and on about how the book portrays India in a harshly negative light. The general tone I got from coverage of the book: Americans and Brits applauded the author’s honesty, while critics and readers in India were rather furious and claimed Adiga had made India out to be worse than it is. Adiga, for his part, argued that he was actually peeling back the curtain of what he believes is the false image of India much of the West has developed. People in India retort that Adiga exaggerates the bad conditions of Delhi and the Indian culture in order to serve his message about the caste system and the problems of servitude. I haven’t been to India (and after reading this it’s not high on my list of vacation spots), so I can’t say how accurate or embellished Adiga makes his setting.

But having finished the book, I can say that indeed, the message is the dominant feature of this novel, and in a way, that ruins The White Tiger as a fictional experience. It can often feel like we’re being given notes and lessons for a future exam. Before I continue, let me make a caveat: I do not, essentially, mean to give the book a “bad” review (or perhaps I do if you’re looking for a “novel” in the traditional, fun, entertaining sense). The book itself, as an exercise in storytelling, is quite good. It’s engaging because Adiga is a good writer, and it’s an exciting read. It’s also very funny.

But in terms of a novel—and I mean novel in the sense of a fictional experience that takes you to another world, gets you involved with its characters, transports you—it’s not great. Rather, The White Tiger is like a polemic against the injustice of India’s traditional system of servitude-by-caste. The book is more like A Modest Proposal than the classic bildungsromans to which it has been compared (like Ellison’s masterpiece). The characters are flat and serve more as symbols of certain types than as deep, realistic representations of real people. Balram Halwai is the stock servant—a poor victim of the rough system. His master, Ashok, is the typical rich bastard giving bribes to government officials. His family is just what you’d expect—hurt that their son has gone off to Delhi for work and forgotten about them—and comes complete with a typical guilt-trip inducing grandmother.

The Guardian review mentions:

Talk of “lessons” should not be taken to suggest that The White Tiger is a didactic exercise in “issues.”

I don’t agree. I think that the book does feel like a didactic exercise. And I didn’t feel this way through the first hundred or so pages. I was enjoying the story and the narrator Balram’s unique, intimate voice. I was also loving the occasional hilarious one-liners, plus the subtler humor we get from Balram’s resentment of both his masters and his fellow servants. Here’s a good laugh that comes after Balram has just reported the servant one rank above him, Ram Persad, for being a Muslim (he is promptly fired):

I thought, What a miserable life he’s had, having to hide his religion, his name, just to get a job as a driver—and he is a good driver, no question of it, a far better one than I will ever be. Part of me wanted to get up and apologize to him right there and say, You go and be a driver in Delhi. You never did anything to hurt me. Forgive me, brother. I turned to the other side, farted, and went back to sleep.

Moments like these are clever, but infrequent. More often, Balram will do something or see something that provides a good example of the hazards and outrages that befall servants in India, and then Balram will verbalize the injustice and reflect on how unfair it was, thereby pointing it out to us yet again, bashing the message over our heads. This repetition crystallized for me about halfway, from a scene in which Balram finds his master Ashok washing his own feet. Balram leaps into action, robotically insisting that Ashok never wash his own feet, demanding to know why he didn’t ask Balram to do it, attempting to stop him as if the situation were dire. Ashok gets furious and says he just wants to be left alone, and the message for us is clear: that Balram’s instinct toward subservience is so strong it is nearly innate, and holds a scary power over him. We get it. But still, Adiga makes us hear about it further, just in case the point was too subtle (it wasn’t): “The way I had rushed to press Mr. Ashok’s feet, the moment I saw them, even though he hadn’t asked me to! Why did I feel that I had to go close to his feet, touch them and press them and make them feel good—why? Because the desire to be a servant had been bred into me: hammered into my skull, nail after nail.” Yes. The notion of “the Darkness” and India’s problems is another that has been similarly hammered into the reader again and again.

Twenty pages later, we get another example of the tiresome repetition that makes one wonder if Adiga so doubts the intellectual capacity of his readers as to think they need constant reminders in order to pick up on a thematic trope. Our hero has just had to pour whiskey shots for his masters, who are sitting in the back seat, and then reach back and hand them the glasses, all while driving. In case we missed the absurdity, Balram explains: “Have you ever seen this trick? A man steering the car with one hand, and picking up a whiskey bottle with the other hand, hauling it over his shoulder, then pouring it into a glass, even as the car is moving, without spilling a drop! The skills required of an Indian driver! Not only does he have to have perfect reflexes, night vision, and infinite patience, he also has to be the consummate barman!”

The Times review by Akash Kapur gets closer to the truth than any others have. Kapur praises the book’s excitement and powerful tone, but also notes, quite honestly:

Adiga… is less successful as a novelist. His detailed descriptions of various vile aspects of Indian life are relentless — and ultimately a little monotonous… Every scene, every phrase, is a blunt instrument, wielded to remind Adiga’s readers of his country’s cruelty.

The characters can also seem superficial. Balram’s landlord boss and his wife are caricatures of the insensitive upper classes, cruel to and remote from their employees. Although Balram himself is somewhat more interesting, his credulousness and naïveté often ring false… The novel feels simplistic: an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.

Bingo. This is a fine book—it attempts to convey a strong, controversial message, and it succeeds in relaying that message. It sets up a character that represents the author’s opinion quite strongly, and the character delivers a compelling narrative, full of action and humor. Yet it fails as a novel, because it does not pull you into a fictional world. You are constantly aware that this is a story constructed by a narrator who has a political agenda, and that establishing this agenda is his number one priority.

It’s still worth reading.

Posted in: DBR Blog