Aravind Adiga (2008) – The White Tiger

The first thing I thought of when I started reading The White Tiger, was Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, published in France in 1725 (in a sort of samizdat edition under the imprint of a non-existent German publisher).   When I read excerpts in my survey of French literature course at Harvard in 1960, Lettres persanes—which consists of purported correspondence to and from two Persian visitors to Paris between 1711 and 1721—was described solely as a satirical critique contemporary society.  Revisiting the work now after just shy fifty years, I was surprised to discover that along with the satire there is actually a plot (of sorts) with distinctive characters and a story arc.  So the Lettres persanes are a lot more closely related to The White Tiger than I had originally thought.  (Actually, it’s the other way around, isn’t it?)  A satirical epistolary novel.  A multi-level story told in letters.


The genre has some basic requirements, the relative importance of which the author must somehow balance.


  • An authorial agenda—what the author wants to say—in this case, “Wake up, India!  There are problems to solve’.
  • A story that provides sufficient contextual opportunities for satirical forays and, perhaps, the occasional Jeremiad in support of the agenda.
  • A (faux-)naïve writer who appears, at least initially, not to know things the author knows, and whose self-reported journey of discovery manifests and reveals the author’s agenda.
  • An addressee who is intelligent enough to understand what he or she is reading, but who is ignorant or at most only marginally conversant with the facts and situations to be satirized, and thus may be addressed in a familiar and didactic tone.


Adiga does a wonderful job of it.  From the first page, the author’s decision to have his protagonist writing a letter-memorandum to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is an unexpected delight.  Who’d a’ thunk it?  It introduces Balram Halwai a/k/a/ Munna as a character to be reckoned with—well, who thinks he is a character to be reckoned with, anyway, which is part of his charm.  Balram is a charming mish-mosh of practical intelligence, shrewd calculation and ingenuous self satisfaction.  A man at times morally scrupulous and at others murderously callous.  In short, Adiga says, an Indian. 


What is remarkable is that we rapidly come to care for this man, we care what happens to him, we care what he does, and we care what he becomes.  So, socio-political agenda aside, Adiga succeeds in meeting the (dare I say universal) requirements of all literature: creating characters we care about and a story that holds our interest. 


The device of addressing Wen Jiabao works in a roundabout way by flattering the reader.  After all, who among us would not want to be addressed with the respect due the Premier of China?  It is also amusing, particularly because Balram has only the faintest idea of what would be of interest to the Premier of China, let alone how properly to address him.


The plot, which could easily have been close to non-existent as it is in less-successful satirical works, is carefully constructed with anticipatory revelations that surprised me and then led me to believe that the crime was going to be committed sooner than it actually was, so I was surprised again.  Moreover, the novelist has imbued his work with a rather kindly sense of humor. (By contrast, Upton Sinclair’s tone in The Jungle (1906), his blistering story of exploitation of workers and unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry, is relentlessly harsh and overwhelmingly depressing.)  Adiga may be angry with the faults of Indian society, but he does not attempt to bludgeon the reader to his point of view.  Rather, he relies on a highly developed sense of irony that he wields deftly to skewer the contradictions he sees between declared ideals and actual practice.


I couldn’t keep Mr. Ashok’s menagerie family (Stork, Mongoose, and Buffalo) straight, or Balram’s family.  They are all, I dare say, Indian archetypes.  But Mr. Ashok, Pinky Madam, pink lips, and even Ms. Uma all come across as real characters with distinctive personalities on top of their archetypes.  We end up caring for them as well as for Balram and we come to share the author’s projected anger, disappointment, and sadness that his characters and his country is prey to the vicissitudes he sees so clearly.


Comments about this book on are generally laudatory (85% gave it four or five stars out of five), many contributors noting that the vast run of Indian novels are formulaic and correspondingly undistinguished.  The 3% of the reviews that gave the book only one star are generally written by Indians who object that it indulges in “India bashing” and “plays to the western gallery,” and portraying the country in an unfair and unflattering light.  The Hindustan Times noted (Oct. 16, 2008) that the novel, “is creating ripples in India for its defiantly unglamorous portrait of country’s economic miracle.” 


Elucidating the obvious, Adiga declared (ibid.) “At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society….  [I]t’s not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination….  In India, there has never been strong central political control, which is probably why the family is still so important. If you’re rude to your mother in India, it’s a crime as bad as stealing would be here [in London]….  But the family ties get broken or at least stretched when anonymous cities like Bangalore draw people from the villages…. These really are the new tensions of India, but Indians don’t think about them. The middle classes think of themselves still as victims of colonial rule. But there is no point any more in someone like me thinking of myself as a victim of colonial oppressor….  India and China are too powerful to be controlled by the west any more. We’ve got to get beyond that as Indians and take responsibility for what is holding us back.”


For what it’s worth, let me just take a few seconds, Mr. Jiabao, to tot up the things Adiga sees as problems facing India today:


            Political corruption

            Bureaucratic corruption

            Judicial corruption

            Police corruption

            Electoral fraud

            Poor sanitation

            Abysmal health care

            Anti-Muslim prejudice

            Caste prejudice

            Exploitation of servants


Quite a comprehensive array, I would say.


Pacing seemed to be about right; I don’t remember thinking that things were happening too fast or not fast enough.  Various plot twists stand out. 

  • The incident in which Pinky Madam, driving drunk, apparently kills a child and Balram is railroaded into taking the fall for her. 
  • Balram’s fury when the blond hair of the prostitute he hires turns out to have dark roots. 
  • The second vehicular manslaughter incident, which Balram handles in a different, more responsible(?), but still characteristically Indian way.     


A bit of textual analysis: The author has some fun with Pinky Madam’s expletive phrase of choice when she is totally exasperated.  Balram tells us coyly on page 1 in the very first paragraph of the novel that “there are some things that can be said only in English.”  (It’s nice to know English is good for something.)  Toying with the reader, Adiga has Balram remind the reader on page 3 that he still owes us the punch line:


My ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok’s ex-wife, Pinky Madam, taught me one of these things, and at 11:32 p.m. today, which was about ten minutes ago, when the lady on All India Radio announced, “Premier Jiabao is coming to Bangalore next week,” I said that thing at once.


Pinky Madam!?  What a wonderful choice.  Like Buffy or Muffy or (I kid you not, I met in college a girl who went by the name of) Beastie.  Don’t you just love the absurd sound of it?  It seems un-selfconsciously self-ridiculing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Adiga chose it for that reason.


It is not until page 5 that our curiosity, which has been seething with possibilities in the meantime, is satisfied, and we learn the phrase itself—but not the circumstances in which Pinky Madam was wont to utter it:


What a fucking joke.


Much much later, about a quarter of the way through the book (page 69) we hear Pinky Madam use the phrase bitterly to express her feelings when she realizes that Ashok has no intention of returning to America.  Then Balram gets to use it again (page 85) to characterize the irony of the fact that the police cannot locate him, a wanted man, in spite of the fact that there is an official government record of the fact that on every election day, when a (fraudulent) vote is cast in his name, he is known (officially, at least) to be present at the polling place in his home village.


Even Mr. Ashok gets into the act and uses the phrase (page 115) after noting the irony of driving past a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi after having delivered a bribe to a minister.


I won’t say that the phrase is central to the events surrounding the accident in which the inebriated Pinky Madam apparently strikes and kills a child, but it does appear three last times to good effect in the few pages devoted to the incident.  Pinky Madam says it (page 135) in frustration when, drunk as a skunk, she wants to drive the car.  “Everyone in India drinks and drives.   But you won’t let me do it?” Balram says it (page 145) as he marvels at the idea that it is taken for granted that servants will be forced to confess to the crimes of their masters and not only that, their families (who incidentally will be well cared for in recompense) “would actually go about bragging.  Their boy Balram had taken the fall, gone to Tihar Jail for his employer.  He was the perfect servant.”  And (page 153) Pinky Madam utters it one last time, with utter contempt for the Stork, the Mongoose and Ashok her husband, all of whom are carefree and relaxed, having learned that no one has come forward as a witness to the accident and the affair need go no further.


“Have you told the driver?”

The Stork said nothing.  Mr. Ashok and the Mongoose kept playing the game.  “Has no one told him?  What a fucking joke!  He’s the one who was going to go to jail!”

Mr. Ashok said, “I suppose we should tell him.”


The Mongoose said, “Fine.”


Pinky Madam watched; her face changed.  She ran into her room and slammed the door.  (Who would have thought, Mr. Jiabao, that of this whole family, the lady with the short skirt would be the one with a conscience?)


Note the aside, which distances the reader somewhat from the events described, while preserving the moral outrage appropriate to the whole sordid episode.


You know what?  I liked this book.

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