Why I Didn't Like "The White Tiger"

After reading Jabberwock's positive review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger some time ago, I was all set to pick it up. Jabberwock, after all, is the quintessential cosmopolitan Delhi-ite, so how can you go wrong?

Adiga also beat out both Salman Rushdie and the amazing Michelle de Kretser to make it to the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Again, that should bode well, irrespective of whether Adiga actually wins the prize. (I have heard that he is currently considered one of the favorites.)

But I haven't been able to shake the sense that The White Tiger, despite its topicality and its readability, is somehow fundamentally fake. I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it's quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India's poor primarily for a non-poor, non-Indian readers. It's a ubiquitous complaint -- almost a critical cliché -- but still true. Let me give you a passage that I think illustrates my problem with Adiga's novel quite directly. It's from near the beginning of the novel, as Adiga is introducing his narrator and protagonist to us:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

It seems like a pretty clever way to set up a rather unconventional protagonist -- and indeed, Adiga's protagonist, "Balram Halwai," is often quite funny in his various "half-baked" soliloquies on various politically incorrect topics.

But there's just one problem: it doesn't make any sense. No one who was "half-formed" in the way described in the passage above would be capable of actually realizing it and articulating it in this way. Such a person couldn't be at once defined by his ad hoc grasp of the world and self-conscious about it. This should be a third-person narrator's comment, not a first-person confession.

I made this objection at a recent meeting of my monthly-ish book club (yes, even my book club has a blog; I should note that the primary author is my friend Kate, not myself). In response people pointed out that I may be missing the point, since for the most part Adiga isn't really interested in posing his protagonist as a psychologically realistic person. If anything, he is a caricature constructed to make a socio-political point about India's "dark side" -- the masses of poor and uneducated who are effectively colonized by the English-speaking elites, traveling around India's big cities behind dark-tinted windows, invulnerable in their air-conditioned "eggs." India's elites, Adiga wants to show, can misbehave with impunity (some of the plot events reminded me of Salman Khan's vehicular manslaughter case, and the Jessica Lall murder case a couple of years ago). In short, though Adiga's protagonist is a servant, this is really a novel about the misbehavior and fragile authority of the ruling class, not about "subalterns" (i.e., poor/working people).

This might be a reasonable way to read Adiga's novel, except that as the novel progresses, Adiga grows more and more committed to the character, and Balram becomes less of a darkly comic caricature and more of a realistic anti-hero. The White Tiger seems rather non-ironic by the end, and the various cynical one-liners about the hollowness of Indian democracy don't have the bite they should.