Aravind Adiga’s début novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and has been likened to Dickens’s writing about Victorian England, or Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of 1980s New York. They each draw a picture of a particular society, in its different ways divided between darkness and light, wealth and poverty, justice and injustice — and their characters must somehow find their way through to flourish, or even just to survive.
Adiga’s eponymous hero is Balram Halwai, a young man born in the never-ending darkness of India’s rural poverty. It is the story of his escape to the city, itself divided between urban poverty and the wealth being created by the internet technology boom. He goes first to Delhi, where, by devious means, he gets a job as a relatively well-paid, but poorly treated, chauffeur. Then, after a particularly gruesome act, he flees to Bangalore, where he becomes an affluent entrepreneur.
Balram is an endearing protagonist, writing as if he is sending nightly emails to the President of China, who is about to make a make a state visit to India. He makes his way by a mixture of ambition, charm, self-belief, and self-mockery. But, as his night vigils continue, a much more complex character emerges, and a cunning determination not to be put down and not to be found out.
The context is India, a nation teeming with a billion people, the majority enslaved by poverty. “The poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor.”
Corruption is rife, public money for schools and hospitals rarely reaches the people for whom it is intended, and the police are more interested in taking bribes than administering the law. Democracy is a sham, as votes are sold and election promises are broken. Politicians are not just corrupt, but part of a theatrical pretence. Independence from Britain achieved little: it simply replaced the law of the zoo with that of the jungle.
The main theme of this novel is freedom. The recurring image is that of the chicken coop: the birds in their cage on the market stall awaiting sale and slaughter. What is it that keeps them in this “perpetual servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse”? Karl Marx had some answers about how “the coop is guarded from the inside”; but Balram dares to ask the putative recipient of these messages whether China is any better than India.
Does Balram achieve freedom? Although he escapes from the village and its demands to send back money and accept an arranged marriage, it is at a terrible cost. “Only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed — hunted, beaten and burnt alive by the masters — can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.”
He, of course, is that man, the white tiger. But it is an open question whether what he has done and its consequences back home lie on his conscience — or whether it was just necessary, or even fate. Far less certain is whether what he has achieved represents any possibility for others, or any hope that the system can change. White tigers do not come along every day.
Another central theme is the servant, a common one in literature, from the sublime (King Lear’s Fool) to the ridiculous (Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii!). The rural landlords determine Balram’s life as a child-labourer, and as a chauffeur he is subject to the whims of his rich employers, even as far as taking the rap for their car accident.
He shows little kindness to lower servants, although he has a passing sympathy for Ashok, his employer, in that he is also constrained. Yet, like many of those other servants in literature, Balram is also in charge, fiddling the books, and looking for the opportunity to turn the tables. “All that I wanted was the chance to be a man,” he says, and it would be “all worth it to know, for however short a time, what it is not to be a servant”.
Balram has little positive to say about the West — either Ashok’s American “pinky madam” wife, or more generally, “our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man [who] has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse”.
He sees India, however, rather than the West, as responsible for its own problems and poverty. That includes its religions, where he is especially critical of Hinduism for creating the caste system and reinforcing subservience. God is just another master, and even the saintly Gandhi is now used to prop up the endemic corruption.
The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn, and a former General Secretary of USPG: Anglicans in World Mission.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic Books at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84354-722-8).
The White Tiger — SOME QUESTIONS
Is Balram an escapee, an entrepreneur, or in fact still a victim of the system that he thinks he has thwarted? Has he escaped the darkness, or just brought the darkness with him?
The Christian faith has a very positive understanding of servanthood. Is there anything in this novel, positively or negatively, which can contribute to that idea?
Is Balram right that democracy in India is a sham, and just a public veneer for massive corruption? Are we in Britain also ultimately subject to people and systems over whom we have little control?
How effective is the way in which the book is structured in epistolary form?
Aravind Adiga said in an interview after his nomination for the Man Booker Prize: “This isn’t an epistolary novel: there are no real letters involved. The narrator is lying in his small room in Bangalore in the middle of the night, talking out aloud about the story of his life.” Has the author deceived us?
Balram is ambitious, charming, and manipulative. How does he use these qualities to get himself where he wants? Does anything in his story justify his behaviour?
Balram is accepted into Ashok’s home and life, but a divide always remains between master and servant. How would you describe their relationship?
Balram has been described variously as servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, and murderer. Which description is most apt? How would you describe him?
Aravind Adiga has said: “At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That’s what I’m trying to do — it’s not an attack on the country: it’s about the greater process of self-examination.” Do you think this book achieves its aim?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 March, we will print extra information about the next book. This is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is published by Penguin Modern Classics at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-141-18474-6).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk in Russia in 1918. His father, an artillery officer, died six months before his son was born; Solzhenitsyn was brought up by his mother, a shorthand typist. Although he had wished to be a writer since childhood, he read mathematics at Rostov University. On leaving, he served as a gunner and artillery officer, but was arrested in 1945 and charged with making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He spent eight years in labour camps, and was released in 1953 after Stalin’s death, although he remained in exile for three years.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962. Other stories followed, and he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. After the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, he was again exiled, and lived in the West until he returned to Russia in 1994. He died in 2008.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on the author’s experiences of Soviet labour camps. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, although innocent, is accused of spying, and is committed to the camp for ten years. The book describes a day on which he wakes up ill, but is made to work. The story is based on his actions, thoughts, and feelings from the beginning of that particular day to the end. The brutality and horrors of the camp are starkly portrayed but, in spite of this, he ends the day content.
Books for the next two months:
April: The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
May: Shaping the Heart: Reflections on spiritual formation and fruitfulness by Pamela Evans