The White Tiger is the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and was easily the most enjoyable Booker that I have read to date. It is also the third Booker set in India or about Indians which I have read; the other two being In A Free State which has a story about an Indian manservant in the US, and The Siege of Krishnapur which is set during the Indian Mutiny.
This book is set in modern India, starting out in Laxmangarh, moving briefly to Dhanbad then through to Delhi and finally resolving in Bangalore. It follows the life of Balram Halwai, also known as the white tiger. Balram is the son of a rickshaw puller, whose father wants him to be the first in the family to get an education. Sadly for Balram he does not get to remain in school, and considers himself to be half-baked because of it.
The story is told in the form of a conversational letter written by Balram to the soon to be visiting Premier of China, Wen Jiabao. Balram recounts his life from Laxmangarh to Bangalore and how he is a great example of an Indian entrepreneur. The humour is all pervasive. All the way through the book the descriptions and language are full of it. But it isn’t straightforward humour, it is the sort that is full of very large porcupine quills. From a distance it looks sleek, but get too close and it will poke you firmly in your soft bits.
It is crammed full of social observations, and shows the dichotomy of country and city, rich and poor, and traditional ways versus technology driven modernisation. It was highly entertaining while being quite enlightening about the life of the crushingly poor of India. Social commentary in humorous form.
So, here are a few examples of Adiga’s writing, the first is about the way elections are bought from the illiterate and the poor by coercion:
“It’s the way it always is.” my father told me that night. “I’ve seen twelve elections – five general, five state, two local – and someone else has voted for me twelve times. I’ve heard that people in the other India get to vote for themselves – isn’t that something?”
The “other India” is a reference to those who do not dwell in the Darkness – the poor, rural communities where the landlords are rulers of all and decide just about everything.
Then, a tongue in cheek commentary on the life of a city driver, which Balram becomes.
You can develop the chauffeur’s habit – it’s a kind of yoga, really – of putting a finger in your nose and letting your mind go blank for hours (they should call it the ‘bored driver’s asana‘).
And some irony to finish.
The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor – they never overlap, do they?
See, 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.
Part of me feels badly about enjoying this so much. There is so much injustice, mistreatment and general dishonesty and nastiness described in this story that you really feel that you shouldn’t be enjoying it at all. You should be feeling some sort of ire, anger or horror. But you don’t. Maybe it’s the irrepressible way that Balram looks at life that allows you to read his story without wallowing in the misery of the lifestyle he describes.
I really loved reading this. If you want to read a Booker this year, then choose this one. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.