Great Indian Novels #4: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Arvind Adiga was a respected journalist for many years before turning his hand to novel-writing and this is his masterwork, a book that won the 2008 Booker Prize and propelled him, in one bold leap, to the forefront of modern Indian fiction. 

The White Tiger is framed as a narrative letter written by the novel’s first-person narrator Balram Halwai to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Halwai decides to write this letter following a public statement by Mr Jiabao asking for “the truth about Bangalore”, India’s tech capital. Halwai has made his way up from being a lowly driver to running his own IT firm. That journey – an entrepreneurial enterprise that involves various morally questionable acts ranging from minor to major criminality – forms the heart of the novel. 

The book is a wicked satire, Adiga’s vehicle for critiquing the ‘new’ India. Through Halwai, he takes careful aim at the social prejudices, economic inequalities, and sacred cows that combine to keep those not born to prosperity on the subcontinent in a position of subservience. 

I lived for a decade in India during my twenties when the country was making its journey from being a largely pre-industrial economy to the economic juggernaut it is today. Like Adiga I became acutely conscious of the entrenched imbalances that I saw around me. For instance, in Mumbai today you can find the world’s most expensive private residence. (It belongs to India’s richest man.) Yet within walking distance is a small slum where families live five or six to a single room dwelling. This is inequality on a scale we cannot imagine in the west. The irony of it is that the nation’s leaders continue to proclaim that poverty is being eradicated and that all Indians are born equal. This is as patently untrue on the subcontinent as it is in any other nation, but perhaps the exigencies of the problem are more sharply defined here. 

Adiga mines this rich societal seam to create his satirical portrait of the country, stripping away the self-congratulations that fill the Indian airwaves and piercing the bubble of middle-class righteousness. 

Balram Halwai’s journey is particularly poignant in that it is not often one finds oneself rooting for a criminal. Perhaps it is in his background that we discover our empathy. His family had once been respected sweetmakers (“halwais”) but following Partition and the corruption of successive Indian governments, they have been pushed into a spiral of poverty from which there is little chance of recovery. As a boy he recalls being told that any child in India can grow up to be the nation’s prime minister. It is only later in life that the hollowness of this statement becomes evident to him, influencing the decisions that he makes. 

He also recalls the visit of an inspector to his school. The inspector asks him to name the creature that is rarest in the jungle. Halwai answers: “the white tiger”. 

The book has been criticised in some quarters for presenting caricatures of a complex nation, one bogged down by millennia of accumulated mores and conventions that cannot be overturned without vast social upheaval. Nevertheless, this remains one of my favourite novels about India. It pulls no punches, is wildly iconoclastic, and yet is as revealing as any literary treatise on life in modern India. For those who have wondered how the caste system actually works to create division and a lack of opportunity in the country, here it is, laid out for you in a coruscating polemic.

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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