Winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, The White Tiger was Aravind Adiga's debut novel. I meant to read it months ago, after hearing the very eloquent author talk on a BBC radio show however somehow it ended up in the toppling TBR pile for several months instead...
The blurb (from amazon): "Meet Balram Halwai, the 'White Tiger': servant, philosopher, entrepreneur and murderer. Balram, the White Tiger, was born in a backwater village on the River Ganges, the son of a rickshaw-puller. He works in a teashop, crushing coal and wiping tables, but nurses a dream of escape. When he learns that a rich village landlord needs a chauffeur, he takes his opportunity, and is soon on his way to Delhi behind the wheel of a Honda. Amid the cockroaches and call-centres, the 36,000,004 gods, the slums, the shopping malls, and the crippling traffic jams, Balram learns of a new morality at the heart of a new India. Driven by desire to better himself, he comes to see how the Tiger might escape his cage..."
The novel takes the form of a series of letters written late at night by Balram to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is about to visit Bangalore to learn more about the city's embracement of the entrepreneurial spirit and experience as a centre for outsourcing industry. Balram explains in these letters how he's managed to crawl his way up from crushing village poverty to becoming a successful entrepreneur and, in doing so, share some of his insights into the challenges that he's experienced getting there that he feels the Chinese could learn from.
"Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us (Indians) in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation (India), though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs."
Balram is a very interesting central character. He's amoral, selfish, greedy, opportunistic, lacking in family loyalty (although to be fair I don't entirely blame him!) and acts without compunction if he can see the chance to better himself. In many of the stories he is telling Wen Jiaboa, he's bitter about his place in life, he demonstrates that he bears grudges and he's angry at the world for not being able to recognise his intellect and allow him to succeed as he should. This book gives, to my eyes, an unflattering view of modern India and clearly demonstrates the deep divides in Indian society drawn along lines of wealth and caste as well as giving an insight into human nature at its worst.
"To sum up-in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with big bellies, and men with small bellies. And only two destinies: eat or get eaten up."
I should mention that I was not entirely convinced by the device of using letters to Wen Jiabao to tell Balram's story - it felt as if slightly too convenient confessions were being made that would probably be very unwise to commit to paper if you were someone who had an interest in staying off the radar. I do concede though that the format does allow the reader in to experience Balram's reactions to events in his life that may not have been possible in other ways.
This book is well paced, easy to read (the very large font in my edition helped with that!) and Balram makes several very well written observations about those with money's attitudes to the poor and disenfranchised. In itself it's an interesting read that serves as a good introduction to "seedier" Indian literature if you've not really read much before.
Overall though, this was not quite as "good" as I was expecting. If it hadn't won the Booker last year I would, no doubt, be far less critical as I'd be viewing it on its own merits as a debut novel and perhaps that's what I should do rather than inspect it closely for some kind of stamp of literary quality! If I'd just picked it up and read it then I would probably say that it makes some interesting, and pretty damning, observations about India in the 21st century and that the central character is a repulsive but ultimately fascinating one whose circumstances certainly made me think about how I'd react to being in his situation.