The Secret of His Success
SOURCE: The New York Times, November 7, 2008
Balram Halwai, the narrator of Aravind Adiga’s first novel, “The White Tiger,” is a modern Indian hero. In a country inebriated by its newfound economic prowess, he is a successful entrepreneur, a self-made man who has risen on the back of India’s much-vaunted technology industry. In a nation proudly shedding a history of poverty and underdevelopment, he represents, as he himself says, “tomorrow.”
Balram’s triumphal narrative, framed somewhat inexplicably as a letter to the visiting Chinese premier, unfurls over seven days and nights in Bangalore.It’s a rather more complicated story than Balram initially lets on. Before moving to Bangalore, he was a driver for the weak-willed son of a feudal landlord. One rainy day in Delhi, he crushed the skull of his employer and stole a bag containing a large amount of money, capital that financed his Bangalore taxi business. That business — ferrying technology workers to and from their jobs — depends, in turn, on keeping the police happy with the occasional bribe.
As a parable of the new India, then, Balram’s tale has a distinctly macabre twist. He is not (or not only) an entrepreneur but a roguish criminal with a remarkable capacity for self-justification. Likewise, the background against which he operates is not just a resurgent economy and nation but a landscape of corruption, inequality and poverty. In some of the book’s more convincing passages, Balram describes his family’s life in “the Darkness,” a region deep in the heartland marked by medieval hardship, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude and elections are routinely bought and sold.
This grim world is far removed from the glossy images of Bollywood stars and technology entrepreneurs that have been displacing earlier (and equally clichéd) Indian stereotypes featuring yoga and spirituality. It is not a world that rich urban Indians like to see. Indeed, when Adiga’s book recently won the Man Booker Prize, some in India lambasted it as a Western conspiracy to deny the country’s economic progress. Yet Adiga isn’t impressed by such nationalistic fervor. In bare, unsentimental prose, he strips away the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point. There is much talk in this novel of revolution and insurrection: Balram even justifies his employer’s murder as an act of class warfare.
“The White Tiger” is a penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India’s new prosperity. It correctly identifies — and deflates — middle-class India’s collective euphoria. But Adiga, a former correspondent for Time magazine who lives in Mumbai, is less successful as a novelist. His detailed descriptions of various vile aspects of Indian life are relentless — and ultimately a little monotonous. Every moment, it seems, is bleak, pervaded by “the Darkness.” Every scene, every phrase, is a blunt instrument, wielded to remind Adiga’s readers of his country’s cruelty.
The characters can also seem superficial. Balram’s landlord boss and his wife are caricatures of the insensitive upper classes, cruel to and remote from their employees. Although Balram himself is somewhat more interesting, his credulousness and naïveté often ring false. When he goes to buy alcohol for his employer, he finds himself “dazzled by the sight of so much English liquor.” When he visits a shopping mall, he is “conscious of a perfume in the air, of golden light, of cool, air-conditioned air, of people in T-shirts and jeans. . . . I saw an elevator going up and down that seemed made of pure golden glass.”
The problem with such scenes isn’t simply that they’re overdone. In their surfeit of emblematic detail, they reduce the characters to symbols. There is an absence of human complexity in “The White Tiger,” not just in its characters but, more problematically, in its depiction of a nation that is in reality caught somewhere between Adiga’s vision and the shinier version he so clearly — and fittingly — derides. Lacking this more balanced perspective, the novel feels simplistic: an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.