Scoundrel in our midst
This year's Man Booker Prize was lavished on Aravind Adiga for his first novel, The White Tiger, which beat out novels by two other distinguished Indian novelists: Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghose. The award created a kind of brouhaha in literary circles because of the novel's protagonist: a con man and a murderer, who relates the story of his rise from lowly driver (for a rich Indian couple) to successful entrepreneur in Bangalore¯narrated in a kind of tongue-in-cheek tone, though smirk may be more appropriate. Even the author himself has spoken of his novel, "It's not a book that's meant to ingratiate itself with anyone."
Western literature is replete with scoundrels of any number of ilks, though the antecedents in Adiga's own national literature are more difficult to locate. For myself, I couldn't help thinking of any number of protagonists in the novels of the late R. K. Narayan, though Narayan never presented such a maligned underbelly of his society. The protagonist of Kamala Markandaya's Bombay Tiger is a more likely twin to Adiga's main character, Balram Halwai, a servant, eventually transformed into business tycoon, like Markandaya's hero. All that said, The White Tiger is still going to give many readers pause, since evil is not destroyed but still very much alive at the conclusion of this mostly engaging novel.
I say "mostly" because to me the pacing is the major obstacle of the story, not the ethical issue. Intentionally avoiding the publisher's description, I had the pleasure¯at least initially¯of believing I was reading a comic novel, back in Narayan or even early V. S. Naipaul country. Consider, for example, this early passage, on the second page of the novel: "[O]ur nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs¯we entrepreneurs¯have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now."
Hence the setting in Bangalore.
Or this equally cutting remark: "Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile white master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore."
There are dozens of other rather dazzling remarks that Balram makes as he chronicles his adventures in mayhem and deception: "Indians take to technology like ducks to water." "In 1947 the British left, but only a moron would think that we became free then." Or this far revealing comment actually about himself: "The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy." That latter remark is, in fact, the springboard for the protagonist's shift from subservient driver for a rich Indian businessman to daring thief/murderer who concludes that his life has no possibility of upward mobility unless he does something drastic. And vile.
Adiga tries to convince his readers that the transformation that Balram makes in his life is a kid of existential liberation from his fate. He calls this the "Great Indian Rooster Coop," the conditioning that keeps people, especially the lower classes, subservient, never rebellious. "A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent¯as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way¯to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key to his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse." And he adds, "Every day millions wake up at dawn¯stand in dirty, crowded buses¯get off at their masters' posh houses¯and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet¯all for a pittance."
Well, there you have it, at least the implications of what Balram decides he must do in order to change his life¯forever¯assuming, of course, that he never gets caught, which might be the subject of Adiga's next novel.