White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

25 June 2009
The first two nights
The White Tiger is the plausible, possibly monstrous narrator. Like N Parthasarathi’s The Reluctant Assassin (a recent Indian novel that seems to have disappeared almost without trace), this tale of a young man’s rise – if that’s what it is – is addressed to a particular person: the Prime Minister of China is visiting India, so why not write to him over a succession of nights? If there’s one thing every reader knows about India and China, it’s that they are the world’s great rising economies. So Munna, or Balram – he’s told us he’s known by five names before the end – kindly offers advice on how the Chinese can become entrepreneurs like him. Ok, so what little we know of his entrepreneurship so far suggests he’s no more than a crook. But in the India he describes, corruption and prejudice have rendered such distinctions irrelevant. To lay bare for us the great Indian economy Adiga, a financial journalist, has gone for satire.

One of his main targets is to do with what has happened to language. Names are a big thing: the dehumanisation of the rich is confirmed by the animal names their victims give them: Buffalo, Stork, Warthog or whatever. Or we get irony: the corrupt, self-absorbed political leader is The Great Socialist. Closer to home, Munna – the name the narrator goes by until he starts school – means, simply, Boy. The White Tiger is an ambiguous symbol, based on the legend of the great creature that only appears once in a generation. The school inspector who suggests it is merely being kind, but Balram uses it as a sign of his uniqueness. And as for its whiteness: we know he’s very dark-skinned, that he knows all about the skin-whitening that the rich go in for; slippery things, names. For Balram, whatever is said is no more than words in air: he says whatever his listeners want to hear. Can he cook? Of course, he worked for years in a tea-shop. (So what if he didn’t actually do any cooking?) Is he religious? Oh yes, very – look how he is happy to kiss the arses of 36 million Hindu gods. (Plus the five gods from other religions he can think of.)

That’s all fine, but very little else has come as a surprise. Politicians are bought and sold. Hospitals – when any building goes beyond the laying of a foundation stone, which is rarely – fall into ruin because the money to run them goes straight into people’s pockets. Local economies remain feudal as the animal-named landowners ‘dip their beaks’ into the arses of whoever they like and fleece their tenants of all but the barest minimum to survive on.

Families are no better. Our narrator doesn’t appear to like women, particularly the female relatives who have lived longer than his mother – cue picturesque description of her burning corpse on its rented funeral pyre – and in the bit I’ve just finished he’s made his final visit to his home village in the ‘Darkness’. He’s decided his aunts and grandmother (if that’s who they are) aren’t going to marry him off for the profit they can gain from a dowry, or work him to death as they did his father. These people are the abject poor, and they are as venal in their way as the rich. The only difference, he’s keen to tell us, is that the rich have bigger bellies.

If it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, well, it isn’t. I’ve already hinted at one of the problems I have with it: it’s all too familiar. The corruption and ludicrous political spin – and some of the religious buffoonery – are straight out of Rushdie. The poverty is straight out of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Even in Slumdog Millionaire, the acknowledged feelgood movie of the decade, the everyday cynicism of absolutely everybody is simply a given. The world of this novel is as full of strict conventions as a whodunit. Does it matter? If it’s entertaining, if the satire is punchy enough, that’s ok, surely? Yeh. If.

So what’s happened? Munna/Balram is born into crushing poverty, but his father (one of, I think, only two decent people we’ve met) wants him to have an education. You know, like the boys’ mother in Slumdog – another mother, now I come to think of it, torched out of the story early on. His braininess is recognised – which is when he gets the White Tiger nickname – but he is forced to leave school and have a series of piss-poor jobs. You know, like… like too many novels to mention, and not only Indian ones. Through grit and some unlikely good luck he ends up as a driver for one of the rich landowners, now living in a city. Being a servant is crap, obviously, but he likes the uniform and earns a lot. Like a good boy he says he will send money home. But he forgets….

And he’s told us, before he tells us any details of his job as a chauffeur, that he will later kill his boss. He likes to revel in his own notoriety: in his last visit to the Black Fort, the local symbol of colonialism, he compares his own refusal to give into oppression to that of the Devil defying God in one or other of the religions he pays lip service to. And the description he gives of himself to the Chinese PM is largely taken from the Wanted poster that has made him famous. If he really is a monster, it’s as though we have to take his word for it.

[Pause]

9 April 2010
The fourth morning and the fourth night
I put the book away for a while and re-read Midnight’s Children, among other things, then re-started this one at the beginning. I haven’t changed my mind about what I wrote nine or more months ago. In the earlier novel Rushdie doesn’t aim for subtlety in his satire, but it’s hugely wide-ranging and always interesting. By contrast, Adiga’s satire is crude and seems to be entirely on one theme: in a society in which corruption is the norm, everyone is corrupted from the top of society to the bottom. The end.

What happens in these next two chunks? Mainly, the narrative moves to Delhi with Balram and his bosses, the liberal-leaning son and materialistic daughter-in-law of one of the animal-named ruling mafia in the Darkness. Now we get to see what things are like in the city compared to the country – and guess what: they’re exactly the same. Sure, we get local urban colour, like the perils of driving in the city, but it’s disappointing: if we think we know about Indian roads and driving, well, Adiga confirms the cliché by presenting it to us unmodified by any new slant.

The descriptions of Delhi have made me realise that Adiga doesn’t do the kind of writing you get in travel books. In fact, when it comes to what life on the streets is like, he doesn’t do any writing at all: Delhi is a blank space with idiots driving around it, and occasionally a beggar magically appearing from nowhere to have an encounter with the main characters. (The descriptions of the Darkness are like this in the earlier chapters. What’s the landscape like? What’s the layout of the towns and villages? Don’t ask me, because Adiga isn’t interested in any of that. The fort he has Balram visit is only as vivid as a picture postcard view – and its monkey-strewn walls are straight out of the early chapters of Midnight’s Children anyway. Adiga’s one-note narrative doesn’t include topography.)

By making his narrator a chauffeur, Adiga can turn driving into a metaphor, if a rather clunky one, for the whole of Indian society. There are the haves and have-nots, with the haves secluding themselves in air-conditioned luxury. There are traffic lights and the rules of the road, only there to be flouted in a self-obsessed free-for-all. And, at the end of the Fourth Night, Adiga uses his car-driving theme to slot into place the first sign of any plot in 150 pages. Early on in the novel we heard about Balram’s claim that he murdered his boss and now, half-way through, we’ve been given a possible motive. His boss’s appalling wife – Adiga has given her the comedy name of Pinky Madam – has insisted on driving while drunk. She kills a child – bet you didn’t see that one coming – and a day or two later the whole family is schmoozing Balram. What they want him to do is sign a confession. He tells us the jails are full of drivers who have taken the rap in this way and, like all the injustices in this novel it’s plausible without being particularly interesting. We don’t know what he’s going to do yet. How bothered are we?

Balram’s attitude to religion continues to be entirely cynical. Is it in these chapters or in an earlier one that he accidentally discovers his bosses like to see him paying his respects to any religious symbols, real or imaginary, that they encounter? And the way he gets the Delhi job by outing his rival, the Number 1 driver until this point, as a closet Muslim? Certainly in these chapters the power-games the rich play are echoed by those of the servant classes: the drivers Balram meets bully and taunt him so relentlessly he chooses to sleep in a room full of cockroaches rather than the drivers’ dormitory. How we laugh, as Adiga forces it down our throats that the only thing to trickle down into the lower echelons are cruelty, corruption and one-upmanship.

Balram has the habit of quoting Pinky Madam’s favourite English catch-phrase: What a fucking joke. Meanwhile, I’m left wishing there were some real jokes instead of humour so dark it isn’t really humour. In fact, is there anything at all in this novel to like?

18 April
Fifth Night, Sixth Morning, Sixth Night
This novel just becomes bleaker and bleaker. Ok, comes the voice of an Indian worker, streetwise and downtrodden at the same time (it’s Balram’s voice): What did you expect, white man? This isn’t one of your tourist trips, this is the real India, so get used to it. Except it isn’t Balram’s voice. It belongs to an upper middle-class 30-something debut novelist with something to say. He’s a graduate of Columbia and Oxford, but he lives in Mumbai now, so I suppose he feels he has the right to speak on behalf of the voiceless he sees all around – the ones the Europeans find an embarrassment on the carefully prepared tourist packages they’re offered.

So that’s supposed to make everything all right, is it? This book might have righteous anger written all over it, but it’s got debut novel written all over it as well: nothing that’s happened since I last wrote comes as a surprise, because Adiga seems to have said all he has to say in the first chapter or two. Ok, in these three chapters he has to move things on – but everything simply confirms what we already know or might have expected.

Since I last wrote, the uber-selfish (i.e. Westernised) Pinky Madam has said, Bugger this, I’m off. Which leaves Ashok at all kinds of loose ends, His cynical brother sees Ashok as completely ruined by the wrong ideas he got hold of in America, and in these chapters he has to undergo a kind of re-education. Their father arrives, the Mongoose, and Ashok is shown just how crude the system is. He has to take a bribe along to the local politician’s house, and the lackey who accepts the bagful of money also shows him what’s expected next: the visit to the high-class brothel. (Later, Balram obsesses about the blonde actress-lookalike Ashok gets. It’s a taste of things to come.)

But Balram, a narrator who constantly reminds us how dishonest and venal he is, has a job on his hands. He not only has to show us how the false morality of a liberal like Ashok is only skin-deep – that bit’s quite easy – he wants to convince us that all morality in India is a sham. By the time we get to the long-awaited murder, he wants us to appreciate that he is taking nothing from Ashok that isn’t just as rightfully his own. He can’t convince us, because the killing is so brutal – I’ll spare you the details that Adiga doesn’t spare his readers – and afterwards his choice as to whether or not to protect his young cousin is as arbitrary as that of anyone in a position of power. He’s become the monster we suspected he might be from the start: so he’ll save the cousin – but the rest of his family will have to suffer the revenge rapes and murders you always get in Adiga’s India. So it goes, in Balram’s.

Or… is there something more interesting going on in these chapters? While absolutely nothing happens to surprise us – the election goes ahead, a sham as always in this country where the words ‘parliamentary democracy’ are routinely used as a synonym for corruption – Balram himself is constructing an argument in favour of total moral relativism. In a society based on slavery the masters have absolutely no moral rights. In another animal metaphor, we get ‘the rooster-coop’: The slaves know the system will kill them, but the injustice of their lives has been so ground into them they do nothing about it, would throw the key back if given it. It takes another kind of animal – guess who – to break out.

Why might this be interesting? I was wondering – and I might be clutching at straws here – if it’s to do with the framing device of globalisation. Balram is posing as the White Tiger, the spokesman of Indian entrepreneurship, and he’s emailing the leader of the other world economic power on the move. The man Balram kills is Americanised – superficially liberal-minded but willing, as Balram reminds us, to stand by as his more voraciously Westernised wife prepares to frame Balram for the death on the road. Is Balram’s amorality inevitable in a global system that has whole countries enslaved?

Nah. Chapter after chapter of specifically Indian corruption leave us Western readers untouched by any shame. If anything, we simply look on with the ex-colonialist’s usual cynicism as Adiga presents a system in which nothing has worked since Independence. The image of Gandhi leading the people to freedom is just another of this novel’s hollow jokes. I’m not surprised that Indians have criticised Adiga as much as they have. He doesn’t speak for those without a voice: all he appears to do is deride everything about India, and present us with a cast of Indian characters who are all vile.

But I haven’t finished reading yet. There’s the final chapter yet to come, and maybe things will seem less grim. As if.

19 April
Seventh Night
Hmm. Everything this narrator told us on the first night is – wait for it – absolutely true. How disappointing is that? He really is an entrepreneur, he really does own an ‘outsourcing’ business. And what we get in this final session is a confirmation of his amoral world-view – although somehow the word ‘amoral’ doesn’t do justice to Balram. In some ways this turns out to be the most entertaining chapter in the book as he gives us a flavour of the ethical gymnastics that allow him to pass judgment on the sad state of moral education whilst blithely bribing the local police in exactly the way his bosses did in Delhi. And he is pleased to relate how he has learnt to be reconciled to the revenge killings of his family: he did have one nightmare, but – praise whichever god you feel like, possibly Buddha – that was all.

Maybe Adiga got so much praise for this novel because people remember this final chapter. What has been so heavy-handed since the beginning is treated with a surer touch here. His description of the way he deals with the accidental killing of a cyclist by one of his drivers is a million miles from the crudities of the earlier chapters – to the extent that this becomes part of his point. He’s a new kind of businessman: his old boss had to go because, frankly, he was rubbish. How well Balram deals with the death caused by his employee: there’s no need to frame anybody or squeeze out confessions, because – as he explains so eloquently he almost persuades us – accidents like this are bound to happen when the business margins are so tight. All you need is a smarter way of oiling the wheels, and there’s almost a kind of virtuoso quality about the way he does it.

Almost. According to his own code of business ethics his case is watertight – he even manages to be a bit sheepish about his unnecessarily generous gift of money to the dead cyclist’s family – but all he does from beginning to end of this chapter is prove that from a moral standpoint he’s a dead man. He’s even rather proud that it only took one murder (if we conveniently forget his massacred family, as he does himself) to kick-start his entrepreneurial career.

To hammer home the point, Adiga has Balram assume the last of his five names, that of his old boss. He’s Ashok now, and it’s like the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm: just like the men and pigs in that novel, we look from the old masters to the new and back again, and see that there’s no difference between them at all.

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