Novel about ambition and inequality set in India
Content warning: graphic death
This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.
“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.
This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.
However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.
Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.
A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.