Darkly humorous, this Booker Prize-winner plays with our desire to believe its hero is actually a decent man despite his early admissions of guilt. When, late in the tale, his crime becomes clear (the ‘unreliable narrator’ turns out to have been entirely reliable), we are challenged to decide whether we condemn or forgive him, given the greater evil of the world in which he is required to survive, and in which we all play a part, regardless of how remotely.
Set among the impoverished majority of early 2000s India, The WhiteTiger can be read as a primer for those unfamiliar with that society, but they are also clearly an abstract for the hundreds of millions in similar straits in other nations around the world (“the colossal underclass,” as Adiga is quoted describing them on one website). Insufficient resources, insufficient opportunity, insufficient education, insufficient justice; all these contribute to Balram Halwai’s ruthless take on survival. That ruthlessness though, armors a soft heart – his anger takes forever to rise, his violence is not enjoyed, but endured for what it will achieve. Even when he grudgingly admits to condemning his family back in the village of Laxmangharh, his reasoning is more amoral rather than immoral – he takes no pleasure in their fate, but rates it only incrementally worse than that to which they had already been condemned by birth: a few more decades of poor, ignorant backwater toil before the death which eventually comes for us all. The same ‘cage’, as he describes it, from which he has so narrowly escaped.
That metaphor of the white tiger (a creature, we are told, of which there is only one born in an entire generation) works on multiple levels. Not only are the poor caged as truly as animals in a zoo, so too is there little value in being a unique individual -beautiful, talented or valued in any way – if one must still live one’s life in a cage with nothing to do but eat sleep and procreate. And when Balram kills and steals from his employer Ashok in order to escape, one is challenged to judge those acts any less natural (and neutral) than a tiger who, finding its cage door left open (the novel’s ‘red bag’ on the car seat…), might well kill and consume its keeper on its way out of the zoo. Not out of perversity or evil, but simply as an act of survival – kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
In a brief author interview appended to the e-book edition, Adiga vouches for the reality of his settings and the corruption he describes. This is fiction but not speculative fiction; poverty and oppression such as this really exist, and those with certain strengths or intellect may well be driven to extremes such as Balram’s in order to feel they have escaped it – even if, to these middle-class American eyes, his upward step seems a very small one. All those heavily-accented voices on unsolicited phone calls, those poorly-worded spam e-mails and destructive malware episodes we hear about on the evening news – this novel educates us as to why anyone would spend their hours in what we are so quick to dismiss as criminal activities. They are, perhaps, just surviving in the best way they can find.
Amid such bleakness, it is very fortunate that both author and character bear an abundance of wry humor. Naming Ashok’s American-born wife ‘Pinky Madam’, is one inspired example, the comic self-aggrandizement of Balram delivering his entire memoir in a series of late-night monologues directed to the soon-to-visit Premier of China is another. An abundance of such touches ensure that that this bleak message is not bleak in the telling.
A unique and eye-opening prize-winner well worthy of its award, and a useful reminder of how undeservedly-fortunate we of ‘the first world’ really are.