I have arrived late to the White Tiger phenomenon. Back in 2008 when the book was first published, practically every reader I knew was reading and raving about the novel – and even more so when it won that year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.
This placed the book’s then 33-year-old debut author Aravind Adiga in the same ranks as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, also Indian writers who have been awarded the coveted literary prize.
I wonder what my reaction to The White Tiger would have been had I read it nine years ago.
Certainly, I would have been taken by the compelling main character and narrator – Balram Halwai, son of a rickshaw puller, former driver, self-described entrepreneur, and murderer.
Adiga’s portrait of this unreliable narrator is the book’s strongest aspect, lifting the story far beyond its rather predictable plot and keeping us engaged right till the end.
The book is framed as a letter written by Balram over seven consecutive nights, addressed to the then Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. Born into India’s servant class and raised in poverty, Balram begins the letter by calling himself a successful businessman and goes on to explain how he seized control of a life that seemed hopeless. Smart, lively, often philosophical, and laced with dark humour, he keeps us riveted as he exposes the gritty underside of India’s economic boom in the early 2000s.
Balram’s story lays bare how endemic corruption and an entrenched culture of servitude have left whole parts of the country languishing in poverty, even while urban centres like New Delhi and Bangalore welcome multinational corporations and rapid development.
Entwined with this is his own story: of how his resilience and cunning – and, ultimately, his willingness to commit murder – gives him access to a strata of society from which he would otherwise be barred. And against the almost irredeemable backdrop of corruption and selfishness that Adiga paints of upper-class India, Balram’s heinous act seems practically understandable.
Coming at a time when India’s economic potential was just rearing its head, The White Tiger shocked and even angered many readers – in India, some criticised Adiga for tarnishing the image the country had been building. Just as many readers, however, praised his boldness and realism.
But reading this book in 2017, the thing that made me uncomfortable was the issue of authenticity. That Adiga – a Chennai-born, upper-middle-class, Oxford-educated journalist who emigrated to Australia as a teenager – writes from the point of view of a man whose life he clearly does not have experience of, would rankle many today for what could be viewed as appropriation.
For me, however, this is problematic not because Adiga does not have the right to do so. Instead, with The White Tiger, it is a case of him not completely succeeding at it. Balram, for all his appeal as a character, isn’t ever fully believable. Instead, he seems to fully be a character the author enjoyed conceptualising.
Meanwhile, the strict dichotomies Adiga draws in his vision of Indian society often feel cliched, with more than a touch of middle-class guilt: the upper classes are uniformly self-involved, corrupt, cruel and unaware, and the lower classes perpetually victimised and miserable.
When it comes to the argument of authenticity, and what makes a writer’s fiction authentic, my personal opinion is rather simple: the craft with which they do it. The authenticity (or lack thereof) of a piece of fiction comes from some strange alchemy that a writer manages to create, a mix of many things.
Rushdie does it with a keen eye for detail, an uncanny insight into the human psyche, a deep love for and familiarity with the places he writes about, and perhaps above all, a mastery of language that brings all of these together and jolts them to life.
Roy, in The God Of Small Things, meanwhile, seems to write from personal experience, teasing out a tale from the people, places and stories she herself knows.
Desai uses her flair for form and style to create intimacy with the reader, drawing us slowly into a world of characters that she manages to make both utterly unique and instantly familiar.
And it is at this level that Adiga falters in The White Tiger, in being able to apply his craft to create that authenticity. Ultimately, for all its pleasures – and it is indeed an enjoyable read – it seems to be less about the country and its people and more about the author’s idea of them.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.