White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga is the 2008 Booker Prize Winner novel. The book has received mixed reviews in its home country of India, undoubtedly due to it being a controversial critique of the Indian socio-cultural system. Through the protagonist’s bloodstained journey from crushing poverty to becoming a successful businessman, it attacks the subjects of poverty, servant/master relationships, the caste system and social disparity.
The book is a tale of two Indias: the India of Darkness, an India of utter poverty, associated with the fictitious village of Laxmangarh in the Gaya district. The River Ganga, the ‘black river’, as the book puts it, dominates the landscape of this India where water buffaloes are treated better than humans, schools don’t have any chairs and open air sewage flows through the middle of the streets. The second India is the India of Light, the emerging India with its call centres and booming technology companies, associated with Bangalore.
Much of the irony and criticism in the book is dependant on and at the expense of the narrator and the book’s narrative style. Told in first person by Balram Halwai, as we come to know him for most of the story, the book takes the form of seven letters telling the narrator’s life story, addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is to make a visit to India from his ‘Freedom Loving Nation of China’ in order to understand the phenomenon of entrepreneurship. Adiga wields acid, sarcastic humour like a weapon in order to make his point on the nature of Indian society.
Being its focalizing agent, the character of Balram is intrinsically important to the novel. He is a traumatised character having lost both father and mother to poverty and to Mother Ganga’s black mud. Balram is most definitely an unreliable narrator as his account of his life is told in retrospective and, therefore, tinted by hindsight. He is a character of dichotomies: he is a free thinker but at the same time superstitious; intelligent but uneducated; rich but with poor taste; an endearing character but ultimately a psychopath. Like the white tiger, with which he is associated, he is a creature of black and white, light and darkness.
The language in the book is mostly conversational and simple, making it easier for the reader to engage with the narrative and connect with its narrator. The symbolism and social criticism are laid on thick; the symbols are often explained, as if to ensure that the reader grasps their meaning, but also to make the reader connects with Balram, for it is his interpretation of the symbol that is given. This concern with making the reader relate to Balram is due to another of the books main themes which concerns the formation of identity – if you had had his same experiences you might have done the same as him.
We learn that Balram did not have a name until he was named by his school teacher. He was simply called Munna, which means boy. His teacher, Krishna, then names him Balram, a god known as being the sidekick of the god Krishna, effectively making him a servant. He later gains another name, white tiger, from which the title of the book stems from, and which is given to him by a government official visiting his school, who deems him to be the smartest child in the village. This name effectively alienates him from the other poor people and also alludes to the predatory beast he eventually becomes. His final name, the name he goes under after becoming an entrepreneur, is that of his late master, who he murdered himself, Ashok. Thus in The White Tiger a person’s very identity is dependent of his position in society.
However none of the classes, rich or poor, represented in the book are shown under a sympathetic light; even Balram himself is no exception, for all the reader is induced to connect with him, he is ultimately a murderer – you are led to understand why he did it, not to condone it. Moreover he is a conformist, after having changed sides in the social ladder all he does is to enforce it and treat it as something inevitable. Being a novel about India it is inevitable that the issue of colonialism would be present in The White Tiger, yet it is there as a background to the critique of current Indian society, as Balram would say it: that is yesterday, he is tomorrow. Ha!
- Adiga, A. (2008) The White Tiger. London: Atlantic Books.