In his Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has achieved a striking success addressing themes on which other illustrious writers have fallen short in recent years. Kiran Desai, Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie have all achieved considerable success around themes rooted in the ramshackle, disorganised, free-for-all, cost-cutter basement of globalisation. Characters in their novels might live in New York or London, but their thoughts continue to live in rural south Asia. They might, through their labour, service the desires of the First World rich, but their personal priorities might remain rooted in the concerns of Third World poor.
Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown is an overtly political book, whereas Monica Ali’s is largely domestic and Kiran Desai’s is familiar, but they do all share an overt interest in characters who have left their humble, Third World origins for a First World status that is less than desirable, though their motives might be diverse.
In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga tries a different tack, and achieves much. The scenario is unlikely, deliberately comic. The book presents a narrative – apparently constructed in just seven evenings at a personal computer – by one Belram, a man with origins in a poor area of an Indian countryside he calls Darkness. Essentially, there are seven blogs or emails addressed to Wen Jiabao via the Premier’s Office, Beijing, China in which the first person narrator tells his story. Belram, presumably, believes that the Chinese people, via their leader, need advice on how to succeed in the globalised 21st century. Since Belram has indeed succeeded, he wants to share his experience as potential assistance to the most populous nation on earth.
Belram’s rise can be listed without jeopardising the potential reader’s interest or involvement with the book. He was of utterly poor rural origin, but luckily – and also perhaps rather deviously – secured a job as a driver for the middle-class, urban Mr Ashok. By the end of the tale Belram has his own business in Bangalore, a place as far from his own origins as any international destination. He now owns a taxi fleet that services the anti-social working hours of the growing city’s relocated call centres, whose First World cost-cutter owners provide the financial umbrella-shade in which budding entrepreneurs like Belram may shelter and prosper. Thus he eases himself a rung or two up the social and economic ladder. If only the elevation might have happened without treading on others…
The White Tiger is a delightful and engaging book. The narrator’s humour and world-outlook are both entertaining and stimulating. The book’s improbable structure presents no problem whatsoever once Belram’s engaging style is established. His story is simple, devious, credible and incredible in one, and perhaps as close to a truth as one might ever approach. Literature is full of schemers and opportunists. Anti-heroes, however, rarely convince. Belram, on the other hand, almost demands we share his success via emulation, and I encourage all readers to enter his world on his terms.