Why I Didn’t Like “The White Tiger”

After reading Jabberwock’s positive review of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger some time ago, I was all set to pick it up. Jabberwock, after all, is the quintessential cosmopolitan Delhi-ite, so how can you go wrong?

Adiga also beat out both Salman Rushdie and the amazing Michelle de Kretser to make it to the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Again, that should bode well, irrespective of whether Adiga actually wins the prize. (I have heard that he is currently considered one of the favorites.)

But I haven’t been able to shake the sense that The White Tiger, despite its topicality and its readability, is somehow fundamentally fake. I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it’s quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India’s poor primarily for non-poor, non-Indian readers. It’s a ubiquitous complaint — almost a critical cliché — which doesn’t make it any less true. Let me give you a passage that I think illustrates my problem with Adiga’s novel quite directly. It’s from near the beginning of the novel, as Adiga is introducing his narrator and protagonist to us:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep–all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

It seems like a pretty clever way to set up a rather unconventional protagonist — and indeed, Adiga’s protagonist, “Balram Halwai,” is often quite funny in his various “half-baked” soliloquies on various politically incorrect topics.

But there’s just one problem: it doesn’t make any sense. No one who was “half-formed” in the way described in the passage above would be capable of actually realizing it and articulating it in this way. Such a person couldn’t be at once defined by his ad hoc grasp of the world and self-conscious about it. This should be a third-person narrator’s comment, not a first-person confession.

I made this objection at a recent meeting of my monthly-ish book club (yes, even my book club has a blog; I should note that the primary author is my friend Kate, not myself). In response people pointed out that I may be missing the point, since for the most part Adiga isn’t really interested in posing his protagonist as a psychologically realistic person. If anything, he is a caricature constructed to make a socio-political point about India’s “dark side” — the masses of poor and uneducated who are effectively colonized by the English-speaking elites. India’s elites, Adiga wants to show, can misbehave with impunity, so perhaps the ambitious non-rich should too (some of the plot events reminded me of Salman Khan’s vehicular manslaughter case, and the Jessica Lall murder case a couple of years ago). In short, though Adiga’s protagonist is a servant, this is really a novel about the misbehavior and fragile authority of the ruling class, not about “subalterns” (poor/working people).

This might be a reasonable way to read Adiga’s novel, except that as the novel progresses, Adiga grows more and more committed to the character, and Balram becomes less of a darkly comic caricature and more of a realistic anti-hero. The White Tiger seems rather non-ironic by the end, and the various cynical one-liners about the hollowness of Indian democracy don’t have the bite they should.

What did people think? (I usually find myself rather at odds with most SM readers regarding taste in books, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case yet again.)

27 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Like “The White Tiger”

  1. I really enjoyed the book. I see your point about the “half-baked” narrator making such a profound point. But, you buy into that fiction on the first page when you read an entire book written by a “half-formed” narrator, that’s one more book than I, not supposedly half-baked has ever written!

    The story is a rare one told by a member of the non-rich about activities and behaviour of the rich, and in that sense, is interesting. I liked it best because it captures the servant-master dynamic in India like no other book I’ve read. I am willing to overlook some of its flaws, the ending for instance is a little too glib ties up too many loose ends too quickly. It is not high literature or anything like that, just a nice mainstream novel about life in India, shorn of the silly cliches and glamour.

  2. I agree with this, largely. I just don’t think he pulls it off. And when reading it I couldn’t help wondering how it suffers in comparison with Indra Sinha’s ‘Animals People’, a novel so full of verve, life, rage against injustice, humour and Rabelasian wit that simultaneously brings to the page the dynamics of the oppressiveness of Indian poverty and society in the aftermath of the Bhopal horror, but also makes literary art of it. I also can’t understand how this novel could be chosen over de Krester’s ‘The Lost Dog’, in terms of the final cut for the Booker prize. I suspect it’s because the judges feel a need to strive for topical importance, and this is a novel that telegraphs its own IMPORTANCE from every window and street.

    It just seemed so paint-by-numbers. An issue novel, chpater one deals with this issue, chapter two with that issue. Not surprisingly, Adiga is a journalist. I also think the framing device of the letters didn’t work. Look, great sentiments, to shine a light on the power dynamics of class and caste and corruption in modern ‘shining India’, so you feel, as you do sometimes when you read certain books, slightly compromised for not appreciating it, as though that means you somehow repudiate the message contained in the work. I don’t. India is brutal for the poor, and India is not all shining. But I just didn’t think it breathed truthfully as a work of literary art.

    Ah well, what do I know.

  3. Ah well, what do I know.

    Judging by your comment, Joolz, you know a lot!

    There are some very intelligent insights in what you’re saying, especially regarding the novel’s “paint by numbers” feel. And thanks for the link to Chandrahas’ review — it is indeed a much more developed version of what I was trying to say here. I think he is especially right on about dialogue issues; “The White Tiger” often feels like it’s written in American English.

  4. i have not read WT, but given what happened at the Italian factory in NOIDA, the topic is especially prescient.

  5. I thought the master-servant relationship was pitch perfect. Especially in light of the comments on SM that often crop up about people who go on and on about how servants are treated so well, and exactly like family. This book showed exactly what that interaction means.

    As for the rest, I didn’t really think it was very compelling – primarily because it was so obvious. And after reading it, I am quite surprised that it is on the Booker shortlist.

  6. “I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it’s quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India’s poor primarily for non-poor, non-Indian readers.” Didn’t Nargis Dutt (unfairly) accuse Satyajit Ray of the same re. Pather Panchali?

    Two recent high profile cases in Noida (outside Delhi) involving servants I guess makes this book especially topical, though I haven’t read it yet – The Arushi Talwar murder case & the 2006 serial murders.

  7. Though Amardeep’s comments are entirely on-point, and Adiga’s book does not in fact hold together as high lit, I would still think it would be a huge favourite of the readers of Sepia Mutiny, in many ways the all-time greatest Sepia Mutiny book on the Desh.

    Why? Because the book ultimately churns out of the great NRI melodrama, and poses heated personal answers to the great and perennial NRI questions: what would I do (or not do) if I were stuck here without the advantages I have rec’d, what would I do (or not do) to escape.

    I’m in India now, and loved reading the book (though definitely find it flawed as literature). It has turned out to be highly educative and insightful not just for other returned-NRI’s like me. but especially for India’s newly super-rich. Several members of this burgeoning class have had their sleep ruined due to this book, at my recommendation.

    Adiga should be very pleased indeed that it took an NRI like him for them to start seeing their drivers in a different light. Nice one, dude.

  8. One note about the Booker:

    Given a jury of peers, or people in the publishing biz, it’s likely that a huge sweeping masterfully-worked novel like Amitav Ghosh’s would simply sweep away with the award. After all, Sea of Poppies is Lit with the capital L, completely of a piece with Conrad, Melville, etc.

    But the Booker jury is an odd and cobbled-together group, led by the formerly disgraced (and incomprehensibly rehabilitated) neo-con-type Tory pol, Michael Portillo.

    Portillo is not the kind of person who will take kindly to Ghosh’s searing indictment of Empire, complete with carefully outlined thesis about the whole affair being built around original sins of Slavery, Indentured Labour, and Opium. And Portillo has already expressed admiration for Adiga’s book for (paraphrased) exposing the dark underbelly of the India Rising story.

    Do the math. No one will be surprised if Adiga’s distinctly flawed novel beats out Ghosh for the top spot (there are other contenders? don’t pay attention!) awarded by this panel. But also don’t be surprised when Ghosh’s book moves steadily into a Canon of its own, and continues to be read decades after Adiga’s admittedly entertaining romp disappears from the bookshelf (and the inevitable movie fades from view).

  9. Adiga should be very pleased indeed that it took an NRI like him for them to start seeing their drivers in a different light. Nice one, dude.

    He’s not an NRI. He is from, and he lives, in India.

  10. Very broad brushstrokes you paint with there, goenkar, and lots of presumptions made too. Your thesis would depend on every single one of the other jury members (one of whom is the journalist, writer and broadcaster, Hardeep Singh Kohli) also being raging neo-cons on a mission to marginalise Ghosh’s searing indictment of colonial exploitation. Going by that logic though, will it mean that if Adiga’s novel does not win, the jury are heartless brutes who don’t care about the poor and exploited of India, and wish to sweep them under the carpet? That’s the unfailing circuitry of hitching everything to the ‘issues’ dealt with by issue fiction.

    Personally, I hope Linda Grant’s novel “The Clothes On Their Backs’ wins. It’s about a family of Hungarian Jewish refugees in London, and the shadow cast on them by a Holocaust survivor who became a pimp, gangster and vicious slum landlord after the war, loosely modelled on the notorious figure of Peter Rachman. It is a very good book.

    (although maybe if it does not win the jury might be conspiratorally guilty of anti-semitism or anti-refugee-ism, it’s a complex thing)

  11. I hate to ask this question but- could (at least some of) the strong feeling of dislike for this book possibly be because it has hit a nerve? The nerve I am speaking of is- master/servant or general class guilt. Many of the people I know admit that they feel appalled at how their relatives back home treat the people that work for them. There is all kinds of weirdness when returning home in disassociation- how to feel close to one’s family member whom we see doing unkind things to their staff while at the same time coddling us as treasured guests. The person that we know and love is capable of all kinds of cruelty, and rationalizes it in all sorts of ways. Ardiga captures this rationalizing-of-the-masters very well in several sections, from the well worn idea of “that is what they expect”, to the abuse that they heap on Balram when he gives one rupee to a beggar. Animal’s People, by contrast, is less psychologically in the home of the middle and upper class reader, being that the character is a beggar on the street. Perhaps the writing in itself is not flowery or super literary, but I think that this book deserves a lot of the support that it has received; as in a Jane Austen novel it skewers the rich and others in power by showing how these rationalizations can pave the way to hell. Loin and Oliver Ridley touch on this briefly in their comments, which I mostly agree with.

  12. Amardeep, from your description about Adiga’s character I think perhaps Adiga is not talking about the subaltern/poor of India. He is probably using the character of Halwai (who maybe “poor”) to characterize a generation of people whose identity was being formed part before and part during the economic/media liberalization of 90′s. They were not really “socialist/inward looking” as their parents but neither totally “global” as the subsequent generation. Thats why you feel the character are sometimes half-baked, part rebellious, sometime cynical, modern yet traditional. Maybe Adiga himself belongs to that generation and that is reflected in his subaltern character.

  13. Family Joolz,

    1) In the popular Indian lexicon, even if he never leaves the desh again, Adiga is an NRI and will remain an NRI until the day he dies, at which point his obits will read “America-returned.” It’s more than a bit silly (and not at all tied to the specific legal framework), but that’s the way it is.

    2) I was being half-facetious about the Booker panel, and about the only competition being between Adiga and Ghosh. Thanks for the endorsement of that Grant novel, which sounds really interesting especially since I used to live in Notting Hill, where Rachman’s impact is still writ large in the presence of the huge West Indian population. A question occurs: is Rachman the man to thank for the brilliant Notting Hill Carnival?

    3) However, don’t be naive. Forget the rest of the panel, is the neocon Chairman of this year’s Man Booker Prize likely to endorse a book like Ghosh’s, which is nothing less than the opening of a whole new front in the economic history of the British Empire, and nothing less than the most incisive and clear-eyed indictment of the whole ballgame as being a vast immoral and criminal enterprise based on slavery, opium and indentured labour? Especially in this era of renewed Niall Ferguson-type public hankering for the good old days when the British heel rested on the neck of lesser peoples?

    I repeat: the odds are stacked against Ghosh – despite the evident high literary merits of his book – because his work is powerfully anti-Empire, and because Portillo (the aforementioned neocon) happens to be chairman and in a position to steer the prize. And for very similar reasons of politics that have nothing to do with literary merit, India-Ain’t-Shining Adiga stands an excellent chance to win.

  14. goenkar

    The best thing about it all is that you can call people naive for pointing out the presumptions in your arguments, when all the logic is so self-evident, and when you look at literature as a posture, a stance, a wail, a position, and little else than that.

    Forget the rest of the panel

    Why? Why should anyone forget the rest of the jury? There are four other judges. It’s an insult to them to say ‘forget them’. Your theory only has rage and certainty if you forget them, but nobody else should forget them simply because your point of view rests on them not existing.

    is the neocon Chairman of this year’s Man Booker Prize likely to endorse a book like Ghosh’s, which is nothing less than the opening of a whole new front in the economic history of the British Empire, and nothing less than the most incisive and clear-eyed indictment of the whole ballgame as being a vast immoral and criminal enterprise based on slavery, opium and indentured labour? Especially in this era of renewed Niall Ferguson-type public hankering for the good old days when the British heel rested on the neck of lesser peoples?

    It’s difficult to take any view seriously that inflates Ghosh’s novel with such hyperbole, and claims such singularity for it.

    but OK, so you’ve set up the strawman, keep stabbing it with your pitchfork. I guess I’m a colonialist, apologist for epire, slave trader too, for my boredom about half way through Ghosh’s work, and my estimation of it as, at best, a decent opening to a projected trilogy and a fairly vividly imagined swashbuckler, although inferior to Linda Grant’s novel.

  15. As a Brit I am a little confused at the image of Michael Portillo being portrayed by goenkar. Portillo is certainly a member of the Tory party but very much more toward the left of its current leadership. He is certainly no colonialist pining for the lost days of Empire, he has spoken out publicly on many occasion about the evils of imperialism and has recently written a number of items on the British invovlement in the slave trade – one look at any of the articles on his website http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk would confirm his atypical left wing leanings (for a Tory).

    Also and I don’t know whether this actually makes a difference to either side of the debate but he is openly gay and not of British Anglo Saxon extraction himself.

  16. As a student of literature and as someone who has read a lot of English-Language South Asian fiction, I was very impressed by the narrative voice that Adiga employed in “The White Tiger”. Balram Halwai is a great character and the framing device of letters to the Chinese Premier was quite clever. I don’t think the book is necessarily “great literature”, but it is certainly a fine work of fiction.

    I’ve read some Ghosh, such as “The Glass Palace” and “The Hungry Tide” (if I’m getting the name right). They were enjoyable books, particularly “The Glass Palace” which had an epic sweep and kind of reminded me of a soap-opera in a way (and I like books like that i.e. “A Suitable Boy), but Ghosh isn’t one of my favorite authors. I would love to read “Sea of Poppies” when it comes out in the US as it sounds really interesting.

  17. Tipu wrote: “I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it’s quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India’s poor primarily for non-poor, non-Indian readers.” Didn’t Nargis Dutt (unfairly) accuse Satyajit Ray of the same re. Pather Panchali?”

    Since the Apu Trilogy (of which Pather Panchali was part) was written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, the narrative was not really composed by Satyajit Ray (unless you mean the screen play).

  18. I wrote a review of the book for MostlyFiction, here.

    I liked exactly two things in the novel: (a) The unique and clever voice of the main character, and (b) The accurate description of servants, drivers, etc., in India.

    What I didn’t like (which I didn’t mention in the review) is that the characters don’t sound or act natural (which supports your point about self-awareness in such a shallow individual), so the far-fetched plot doesn’t feel realistic. The characters also aren’t developed well and don’t change at all throughout the novel. As a reader, I didn’t feel like I learned anything new or met new people. And the letter-writing device was lame and pointless, I thought.

  19. …and what you got to say now, Jooli?

    The neocon chairman of the jury specifically cites the subject matter of the book as the reason it stood out:

    “Portillo… praised the work’s attention to “important social issues: the division between rich and poor, and issues on a global scale.”

    Portillo said…”here was a book on the cutting edge, dealing with a different aspect of India, unfamiliar perhaps to many readers. What set it apart was its originality. The feeling was that this was new territory.”

    Adiga accepts the award on behalf of the downtrodden:

    “the 33-year-old former journalist said his book – the story of Balram Halwai, a village boy who becomes an entrepreneur through villainous means – aimed to highlight the needs of India’s poor.

    “It is a fact that for most of the poor people in India there are only two ways to go up – either through crime or through politics, which can be a variant of crime,� Adiga, the fifth Indian-origin writer to win the prize, told the BBC.”

    ““India and China have come into their own and the fiction that comes from these countries should reflect the fact.

    “What that means is writers from those countries need to be more critical in looking at those countries because they no longer need protection. As they step out into the world stage and potentially rule the world, it is even more important.�

    And the Guardian among others reports that the fight was between two books, and the debate so heated that “all the males” on the jury were “in tears.” Within days, you will surely find that the other book in the fight was Ghosh’s, and – as predicted here weeks ago – it came down to an emotive case made by Portillo, who should never have been chairman for a book prize if you ask me.

    To reprise my brief argument made quite a long time ago now, there was never any way that Portillo was going to be pleased by, or strongly back, Sea of Poppies, which appears to be just the opening arguments in a devastating and highly original indictment of the British colonial activities in the Indian Ocean area. The fact that Adiga’s book was in the running is just gravy – sure, what could be better than a book that self-consciously attacks and subverts the India Shining narrative.


    By the way, I’m convinced now that the wrong upstart desi got the award if it indeed had to be given to an upstart desi. Just finished A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, it’s considerably better literature than Adiga’s book (which, for the record, I really enjoyed and have been giving as default gift for months) besides being totally hilarious. It’s amazing that it was left off the list in the first place, and points to why these contests are crapshoots which vary their results wildly each year due to the prejudices of the judges.

  20. goenkar

    I don’t say anything. Only in the mildly paranoid and victimised imagination could Aravind Adiga be viewed as the hand maiden of a ‘neo-con’ conspiracy to slander modern India and deny the evils of colonial history. Your theory justifies itself as all simplistic strawmen paranoias justify themselves. At the end of the day, they just preferred his novel to every other one. They being a panel of judges who each had one vote.

    Now I’m going to sulk because the novel I believe should have won by the novelist Linda Grant obvisouly shows latent and hidden anti-semitism on behalf of the judges. Adiga’s book is good in its own way, but it’s not the best work published in English this year, not by a long shot.

  21. 22 · goenkar said

    specifically cites the subject matter of the book as the reason it stood out:

    A prize about a book awarded in part based on what the book is on? Surely, the sinister machinations of the Bilderberg conspiracy must be behind this!

  22. Joolz @10

    He’s not an NRI. He is from, and he lives, in India.

    Joolz, NRI–newly returned to India!

    I’ve read the reviews and the excerpts and now I’m going to hurry off and buy this book for my LIFO pile. I agree with Amardeep that perhaps a third person narrator would be more believable. Or a combination of first person rage and third person social commentary. Still, if the excerpts are any indication, I think I’m going to thoroughly enjoy the book.

  23. I agree with whoever said that the reason for the negative responses to Adiga’s book is that it hit a nerve. Goenkar’s posts make that especially evident – it is classic for the middle class upper caste resident Hindu Indian to feel much more comfortable vituperating against ‘colonialism’ than against the fact that India is a sordidly hierarchical country that is almost unique in its disregard for human dignity. In a year that has seen months and months of large scale religious cleansing in Orissa, driven entirely by the caste-Hindu rage at the thought that the downtrodden may escape – through religious conversion in this case, and find a voice to articulate their stories – in such a year, I am glad that Adiga’s book won. It is remarkably easy and comfortable for the Indian elite to rage against colonialism – with very rare exceptions, to a man, they cringe or get enraged when uniquely Indian forms of racism and brutality are brought to international attention.

    The same people – Gioenkar etc. who think Ghosh’s book was more “radical” than Adiga’s (what a laughable idea) – would get teary eyed about Gandhi being thrown off a train in South Africa, and get angry if you mentioned some of the extraordinarily racist things Gandhi said about Africans in South Africa. They are the same people who probably hopped up and down in fury when casteism was brought up at the Durban conference. Ghosh, like goenkar and the others is descended from mainstream Indian nationalism – which was dominated by Hindu upper caste men who wanted the sole privilege of speaking for the country. Colonialism challenged their power – so obviously they were against it – until they could garner the revenues from agricultural labour themselves and colonise their “own” country. Naturally, Ghosh and his ilk would rather write thousands of pages about 19th century colonialism than about the barbaric inhumanity with which Indians treated Indians then and now! It isn’t the “neocons” getting people burnt and thrown off their land in Orissa, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Singur – its our very own Indian babus.

    Thank you Aravind Adiga for touching this raw nerve in the psyche of the Indian elite.

  24. This from that other closed thread:

    I could easily see myself teaching The White Tiger in introductory courses on Indian literature to undergraduates. It is likely to appeal to my students, while also giving me good reasons to talk about the social issues and cultural phenomena Adiga invokes in his book.

    You wouldn’t (hopefully) use Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full to discuss American social issues. Why would you use White Tiger for Indian ones? Both are superficial and poorly written. You and many other critics raise good points re: authorial voice. I’m even willing to give a free pass there, but it’s just such a hammy, formulaic book, I lost all interest midway. Darkness and Light? Seriously? It’s not like there’s a dearth of books that touch on social issues and are fun to read (say Ravan and Eddie). I was really excited about White Tiger (nerd, I know) after reading his interview. Too bad his ideas didn’t translate so well in his book.

    “…There was no conscious attempt to write a counter-narrative to India Shining. I can’t imagine any good novel would come of such a polemical enterprise…” “…The fact about India that struck me most forcefully was this – that despite there being such an appalling (and growing) gulf between the rich and the poor, and the fact that the poor came into regular, close, and sometimes intimate contact with the rich, there was so little crime in India. Think of South Africa, or south America, or even the poorer parts of an American city – there is such a link between economic deprivation and social unrest. But why not in India?…”