The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

28/04/08, The Sunday Telegraph

In the current free-market love fest to which China and India have been so kindly invited – the latter boasting GDP growth of 9.6% last year – ‘inequality’ is a word that has been successfully airbrushed out of existence. Yet, in the case of India, what does it mean to have an ‘economic miracle’ unfold when even a casual acquaintanceship with the country shows that a very large majority lives in abject and shocking poverty, that the gap between the rich and the poor is a vast, unbridgeable chasm and growing by the minute, that social redistribution policies are either unenforceable or have failed? Who exactly is benefiting from this growth?

Not the have-not class from which Balram Halwai, the protagonist and first-person narrator of Aravind Adiga’s blazingly savage and brilliant first novel, The White Tiger, hails. Born in Laxmangarh, into the kind of utterly impoverished, hopeless squalor that India does so well, Balram watches his rickshaw-puller father cough up blood and die of tuberculosis in the joke that is the public hospital. He plans his escape from his family’s no-exit, cul-de-sac kind of existence into a better life with something approaching entrepreneurial nous. He becomes driver to Ashok Sharma, the younger son of one of the three landlords of Laxmangarh who exploit the village’s poor dry, and fetches up in Delhi. Written as a series of seven letters to Wen Jiaboao, the Chinese premier, on the eve of his visit to India, this is Balram’s corrective account to the sanitised, censored, prosperous India that Jiabao is inevitably going to be shown. Through the personal tale of how Balram came to murder his employer, steal seven hundred thousand rupees from him and set himself up as the owner of a flourishing taxi-service in Bangalore, he offers the story of the real India.

Gridlocked in corruption, greed, inhumanity and an absolute kind of inequality – of class, caste, wealth, religion – this India is unredemptive. Above all, what Adiga lifts the lid on is also inexorably true: not a single detail in this novel rings false or feels confected. The White Tiger is an excoriating piece of work, relentless in its stripping away of the veneer of ‘India Rising’ to expose its rotting heart. That it also manages to be suffused with mordant wit modulating to a clear-eyed pathos towards the end means Adiga is going to go places. We’d do well to follow him.