Top of the swaying piles of books that pedestrian street-hawkers navigate through Mumbai’s traffic jams is Adiga’s controversial first novel. Apart from winning the prestigious Man Booker prize in Britain, The White Tiger has also taken India by storm. But in his native land, Adiga’s efforts have elicited admiration and anger in equal measure. For some, The White Tiger is a bold, honest work that unflinchingly ‘tells the truth’ about contemporary India; others have dismissed it as ‘inauthentic’ and peopled with ‘grotesque caricatures’.
The first-person narrative is dominated by the book’s hero, Balram Halwai, who is writing a letter to the Chinese Premier. The latter is about to visit India to find out about ‘entrepreneurship’ – something ‘India Rising’ has in abundance and China lacks. But what do Indian politicians and élites know about it, asks Balram? Listen to me, he says, and he starts to tell his own dark, intriguing journey to success, from low-caste village boy in ‘The Darkness’ (the northern state of Bihar) to wealthy business owner in the IT hub of Bangalore. It’s a tale of servitude, abuse, betrayal, murder, corruption, theft and ruthless cunning. The message is stark: if you start life at the bottom, this is how you escape poverty and humiliation in India’s ‘democracy’.
The wit is mordant; the politics trenchant; the vision as unforgiving as neon light. Compassion is entirely lacking in Balram’s dog-eat-dog world. There is just one perspective – the protagonist’s – and his distinctive voice, as he tells his story brilliantly, incisively and – of course – controversially.Vanessa Baird
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