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The Tiger's Tale: 2008 Man Booker Prizewinner

November 2008
The Tiger's Tale: 2008 Man Booker Prizewinner

Reviewed by Sudheer Apte


by Aravind Adiga. Free Press, 2008

Paperback, 304 pages

When Aravind Adiga, who spent his childhood in Australia and now lives in Mumbai, wrote his first novel, The White Tiger, he created a sharp critique of modern India. But his point of view is not middle-class. Instead, he gives us the perspective of the poor have-nots of India: the flocks of drivers hanging out by their vehicles outside air-conditioned buildings, waiting for their masters to summon them; the beggars at traffic stops, who get money mostly from the poor; the petty manipulations among the servants of the house.

The White Tiger recently won this year’s Man Booker prize, a prestigious London award for English-language novels from British Commonwealth authors. This year's contenders included books from Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and others. The chairman of the panel of judges said that The White Tiger “shocked and entertained in equal measure.”

The protagonist, Balram Halwai, a self-described entrepreneur in Bangalore, tells the reader how he came to be successful. He grew up in a small coal mining village in Bihar (which he calls “The Darkness”), born to a poor rickshaw-puller, and named only “Munna” until his teacher named him “Balram” and gave him a birth date so that he could vote for the landlord.

We learn that Balram's father died of tuberculosis in a government hospital that was dysfunctional because of endemic corruption. He has had very little schooling. Nothing unusual so far. But through Balram's clever voice comes his worldview:

Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

This ‘Rooster Coop’ analogy is just one of the many devices that make The White Tiger a lively read, despite being about such a depressing subject. The terrible caste subjugation, regular rigging of elections, and poor people's votes being cast for them by their masters, are heavy topics, but when we read that the villagers excitedly talk about local elections “like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra,” we get it right away.

Balram teaches himself to drive, and eventually lands a job as a driver for a local landlord and his two sons. Soon he moves with them to Delhi where the younger, U.S.-returned son Ashok needs to stay so that he can more easily bribe government ministers. After a few months of driving his master around and overhearing conversations, Balram is determined “to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.” By making some immoral decisions, Balram makes a break for freedom and becomes “successful.”

In the 1940's, African-American author Richard Wright's Native Son told a similar tale about a poor black man named Bigger Thomas, but in comparison, The White Tiger falls short in terms of character development. Balram's character never actually changes: he already has a self-described model of how the world works and of his place in it:

In the old days there were 1,000 castes...in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.

Balram is determined to do whatever it takes to become a big-bellied man, and this he resorts to doing in the only way he knows how: by becoming a criminal, bribing the police, and bending the rules.

The India that we see in The White Tiger is a brutal, dog-eat-dog world, totally corrupt and unjust, where people behave like animals and everything is for sale: not exactly a “Shining India.” Months ago, the author said in an interview: “My background as a business journalist made me realize that most of what's written about in business magazines is bullshit, and I don't take business or corporate literature seriously at all.”

Nor does Balram, who makes fun of such books at one point—partly, of course, because he is unable to read English, but also because he knows how the world works.

The novel is written as a series of passages in a letter from Balram to the Chinese premier, who is going to visit Bangalore soon. This device seems meaningless, except for this point that Balram makes to the Chinese leader:

? out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse.

This humble, if crudely put, prediction is one in which the unlettered Balram is joined by many modern pundits, except that he has arrived at it via his peculiar brand of simplistic shortcuts. This narrator may be uneducated, but it doesn't stop him from taking in the big picture.

When accepting the prize, Adiga said his book was an “attempt to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India—the voice of the colossal underclass.” This is undoubtedly the novel's key accomplishment. Balram has a sarcastic, cynical and crude voice, whose wit keeps the pages turning. And with his keen observations and sharp writing, Adiga takes us into Balram Halwai's mind, to give us an India we might not have seen before.

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