The White Tiger grew on me. I started out vociferously disliking it, for all the reasons I had pre-determined I would dislike it. Indeed, I dislike the premise of this book, and its success, more than the book itself. I don’t want this to just turn into another argument about why a Booker-prize winning book shouldn’t have been given that award because they tend to be tedious (though, seriously, if Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy couldn’t win it then The White Tiger shouldn’t have even been longlisted!). So I shall start by stating my (admittedly, largely extra-literary) problems with it, before discussing it’s good points because it is, ultimately, an enjoyable novel. Would I have given it the Booker? Absolutely not. Now that that is out of the way, I will move on.
When I did my PhD research in India in early 2010, when this book was still being talked about in the literary circles I was interacting with, a lot of people expressed that it was not a well-loved book in India. One author told me her son had vociferously rejected it, without having read it, saying “Why would I want to read about servants murdering their employers?! Why would I want to be afraid every time I get in the car!?” She believed this was a common sentiment, but didn’t approve of it herself, recognising that the huge gap between rich and poor in India is something that the middle classes should be facing up to. The White Tiger provides one way, if one should so happen be able to leave one’s house on a daily basis with one’s eyes metaphorically shut.
But I am not a middle class Indian, I am a middle class “westerner” (whatever that is). And I find it distasteful at best, and disgusting, at worst, that periodically our society (again, whatever that is) finds some “third world” emblem to hold up as the epitome of what is wrong with some other part of the world that is not us. Sometimes this is accompanied by some mild anguished chest beating about how we could do more to help them, and then it is quickly forgotten. (Anyone seen anything about Kony 2012 in the last couple of weeks?) Poverty, inequality and exploitation exist everywhere, all the time, and I find it nauseating that such an emblem is required to get people to remember that. Sometimes those emblems, and the attendant “recognition” that they bring to the first world consumers, act in place of any real action (which, fundamentally, would be a complete overhaul of our neo-liberal capitalist society, but that’s another article again…)
And I had presumed that The White Tiger was just another one. Which it is, a bit. But, like Slumdog Millionaire (another such emblem) it’s also quite enjoyable. The premise is already known. The “white tiger”, Balram, is an ignorant village lad from “the darkness” who lands a job as a driver in Delhi. He’s quite a nice young man, exploited by his boss but always willing to do his best, until things go too far. He pre-meditates the murder of his boss, escapes, and sets up a successful business in Bangalore. I haven’t just given anything away, as all this is known from the beginning, and it is the humour of Balram’s exegesis that is the real strength of The White Tiger. Including one of my favourite types of humour, that directed towards silly western tourists in India (oh yes, I have been one, but not this kind, I like to tell myself!):
“every day thousands of foreigners fly into my country for enlightenment. They go to the Himalayas, or to Benaras, or to Bodh Gaya. They get into weird poses of yoga, smoke hashish, shag a sadhu or two, and think they’re getting enlightened. Ha! If it is enlightenment you have come to India for, you people, forget the Ganga–forget the ashrams–go straight to the Natioanl Zoo in the heart of New Delhi.” (p. 275)
But the humour always gives way to something else, the darkness:
“Delhi is the capital of not one but two countries–two Indias. The Light and the Darkness both flow in to Delhi. Gurgaon, where Mr Ashok lived, is the bright, modern end of the city, and this place, Old Delhi, is the other end. Full of things that the modern world forgot all about–rickshaws, old stone buildings, and Muslims.” (p. 251)
So, after all this, do I recommend The White Tiger? Yes, I do, to Indians and non-Indians. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that by reading this book and gaining enlightenment, anything will change.