The White Tiger

English-language Asian writers have adopted all manner of styles in the last three decades — Raj nostalgia, magic realism, Zola-like fatalism ?– in their attempts to encapsulate India. What makes this much trumpeted debut novel by Aravind Adiga such a triumph is the strikingly contemporary voice with which it skewers its subject: a beguiling mix of pitch-black humor and devastating cynicism that feels both refreshingly modern and bracingly direct. As India rushes with careless abandon towards its longed-for status as an economic superpower, and as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the country has found in Adiga an acerbic commentator more than capable of chronicling its often grotesque inequalities.

Adiga’s novel is, in essence, a confession, a series of seven letters written over seven nights by a “self-taught entrepreneur” called Balram Halwai, the white tiger of the title. The confession Balram wishes to make is both personal and general. Addressing himself with comic bumptiousness to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who he has learned is coming on a fact-finding mission to Bangalore, this once cowed and unworldly servant wants to show the august foreign dignitary the true entrepreneurial spirit of the country. To do so, he offers, with barely a flicker of self-doubt or self-knowledge, his own life as shining example. “When you have heard the story of how I got to Bangalore and became one of its most successful (though probably least known) businessmen,” Balram crows, “you will know everything there is to know about how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed in this, the glorious twenty-first century of man.”

But what starts as comic bravado rapidly and dramatically darkens, as Balram reveals both the cloacal depths from which he has clambered and the sometimes shocking lengths to which he has gone (including the grisly murder of his master, Mr. Ashok) in his struggle to reach the slippery summit of the dung heap.

Irony, paradox, and anger run like a poison through every page of Balram’s commentary. Taking us back to his birthplace, Balram gleefully reveals it not as the “village paradise” of Indian lore but as a squalid, impoverished habitation where families of pigs feast on feces in the street, and families of humans sleep like animals in the houses, their legs “falling one over the other, like one creature, a millipede.” He introduces us to his supposedly idyllic family (dead, like his mother; soon to die, like his poor, rickshaw-pulling father; or graspingly greedy, like his succubus of a grandmother), takes us to his shambles of a school — “a paradise within a paradise,” he hisses sarcastically — and to the local hospital, where nothing but goats roam the corridors. He acquaints us, too, with the local landlords, rapacious creatures with names like the Raven, the Wild Boar, and the Buffalo, who live behind high-walled mansions and have “fed on the village, and everything that grew in it, until there was nothing left for anyone else to feed on.”

Rather than encouraging freedom and “enterprise,” everything in this system — landlords, family, education, politics — seems designed specifically to suppress them (the ironic parallels with China are intentional). But Balram, by sheer dint of wily persistence, escapes the suffocating clutch of “the Darkness” and finds himself, eventually, in “the light” in Delhi, acting as chauffeur to Mr. Ashok, the Western-educated son of one of the landlords, and to Ashok’s Christian wife, the arrogant Pinky Madam. As Balram experiences firsthand the humiliating below-stairs life of the invisible servant class, he has his eyes opened to the true nature of India; indeed, the injustices and inequalities he experiences in the Ashoks? employ lead him eventually to commit his gruesome crime.

Hardly anything in this book escapes scathing comment. Democracy is a corrupt sham, big business hand-in-glove with arrogant, overweight politicians. Prostitution is endemic, as is poverty, which insinuates itself into the cracks of the New Delhi streets and suppurates just out of sight in the old city. In one memorable scene, Balram, beginning to unravel emotionally, stumbles upon a slum and finds himself confronted by a line of men defecating, almost as if they are adding to a wall of waste that divides them from the modern world beyond.

All this may sound overly didactic, but it is not. While Adiga is at pains to criticize and accuse, The White Tiger rests on some satisfyingly robust literary foundations. Admirably structured (we may know the nature of Balram’s crime early on, but we still need to discover the why and how), the book also boasts some pin-sharp insights. Nervously entertaining a prostitute, Balram is brought up short by the woman’s big, unsettling smile: “I knew it well,” he explains. “It was the smile a servant gives a master.” Searching for a prosperous “housing colony” in Delhi, he recognizes it from the garbage outside the walls; “…you knew that rich people lived here,” he comments dryly, from the sheer quantity of refuse littering the street.

Adiga can, too, be keen in his psychological insights, as well as strikingly poetic in his depictions — the cars of the rich, with their tinted windows, seem to Balram like lustrous dark eggs wandering the streets. “Every now and then an egg will crack open — a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road — and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.”

But perhaps the greatest triumphs of this novel are Adiga’s individual portraits of his characters, and in particular his complicated, impressively modulated depiction of the relationship between Balram — sly and na?ve, deferential and angry, ignorant and intelligent — and Ashok, who doesn’t know whether to sneer at Balram or sympathize with him, and who has come back from New York burdened by a liberal sensibility he is too weak to act on. It is a beautifully nuanced performance in a book of both remarkable subtlety and extraordinary power. India has rarely looked as raw as it does in this memorable debut, and has rarely been upbraided with such impressive, righteous anger.