Aravind Adiga’s 2008 debut novel, The White Tiger, has garnered outrageously ecstatic reviews as well as harsh dismissals, which is not surprising considering its situation as a Booker-winning entry which covers the son of a rickshaw-puller, the father dying in an untended hospital, the son eventually “besting” the upper class at their own game: violence, corruption, hypocrisy, and smug self-regard. My own appraisal leans more toward the grousing reviewers, even while granting the first-person Balram his due as an interesting narrator.
Let’s start with those props. The underdog isn’t your typical fictional victim who gathers easy sympathy as he suffers through circumstantial and psychic pain. Balram, sly and duplicitious almost from the outset, manages to work himself up from unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) penury to a situation as chauffeur to the dominant family in his region, while eavesdropping on, and getting clues from, his politically-connected and knee-capping bosses (the father, the often-absent hard-line son, and Balram’s direct boss, the weak-willed other son, Mr. Ashok). A delightful base from which to investigate many social angles: the caste system as its presently experienced; the flux of India’s modernism, with attendant confusion vis-a-vis the West and Indian tradition; and, as Adiga’s mixed, titular metaphor plays out, the nature of the downtrodden, which is to default to the “rooster coop of Indian society”, since any servant who tries to buck the vertical alignment invariably has violence and death meted out to his or her extended family.
Balram is a curious mix of obsequiousness and cunning, and the novel is a great ride, till the half-way point, with tense relationships and uncertainty (even though Adiga tips off the climax, in a postmodern declaration, early on). Unfortunately, those same relationships solidify into a cartoonish force of (to use Adiga’s relentless, stated opposition) Light and Darkness. Balram’s specific masters become caricatures, and their political friends – though described in biting physical detail reminiscent of some of Saul Bellow’s damning character portraits – are likewise too broad, too outlined with doctrinaire faults, to become invested in seriously.
There are other problems. The novel is structured as a vocal musing to a soon-to-be-visiting Chinese premier, which, though it allows for some humorous ruminations on the ideology of developing nations overturning their also-ran status (while noting the very different political histories of, and cultural responses to, modernity in each country), also highlights a not-infrequent (and major) fault of novels which use a first-person narrator. Like Jonathan Franzen’s ponderous and overrated Freedom, I don’t believe the speaker’s lexical and grammatical proficiency. (In Franzen’s novel, the co-protagonist, Patty Berglund, is a sagacious and meticulous self-examiner of vice and folly who can spin serpentine sentences, though she’s depicted in the greater narrative as a jock with limited education and educational desire.) Balram tells premier Jiabao that his English is poor, and the novel certainly corroborates this, as the protagonist learns the language through lurid headlines and newspaper shockers. When his masters really want to speak privately in front of him, they speak in direct English (which Balram then relates faithfully), but more importantly, and with more skill than Patty Berglund, Balram creates some finely-turned poetic descriptions of Delhi street life, cockroach movement, and character idiosyncrasies.
Adiga gets to have and eat his cake. The bosses are overthrown, but the new boss just becomes a slightly more just oppressor, or, even worse, though I could be misreading Adiga, a hopeful precursor to a cutthroat entrepreneurial future that has as its political calling a consumerist corruption rather than caste-entrenched corruption. As an upper-middle-class Indian himself, Adiga is to be applauded for dumping on his own in this fashion, but as the novel plays out, it’s hard not to see the entire enterprise as an assuagement of class guilt. At the novel’s close, in the reversal of fortune, Balram’s new chauffeurs may be treated with more compassion, but the reader still doesn’t hear them in their own words. And of course, we don’t know what happens to Balram’s invisible family after his crime.
The story is a semi-diverting peg on which to clip (and display to the masses) the oft-rewashed bloomers of sympathy for the oppressed. The ideology becomes overbearing and simplistic. Though the ambition is noted, I prefer messages or ideas to have slightly sexier undergarments.