The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Tales from the shadowy side of booming India

Soumya Bhattacharya
Saturday 17 September 2011 12:56

Over the past couple of years, an extraordinary thing has happened in India. Driven by vertiginous economic growth, the burgeoning of an aggressively consumerist, astonishingly wealthy urban elite and the rise and rise of the bellwether stock-market index, a phrase has gained unrivalled currency: New India. This isn't India Shining – the tagline previously used to describe a country whose economy had just begun to catch fire. This is an India so dazzled by the glow of its own success that it has turned an adjective into a proper noun. We have learnt to embrace New India as a different entity – like the New Testament, perhaps, or New Labour.

Elsewhere, everyday India (the old India) limps, coughs, splutters and throws up a good deal of blood. One of every six Indians continues to live in the shadow of insurgency. Farmers with little access to irrigation and devastated by failing crops continue to kill themselves. And nearly 300 million Indians remain unsure of where their next meal will come from.

Aravind Adiga's riveting, razor-sharp debut novel explores with wit and insight the realities of these two Indias, and reveals what happens when the inhabitants of one collude and then collide with those of the other. Balram Halwai, the narrator of The White Tiger, is a "self-taught entrepreneur", the story of whose upbringing is "the story of how a half-baked fellow is produced". "I am not an original thinker," he confesses, "but I am an original listener".

Bullied, uneducated, underprivileged, Halwai comes from the vast rural hinterland in which 70 per cent of the nation's population still lives, often in shocking deprivation. (Adiga calls that land "the Darkness".) But Halwai has his armoury. He is gritty, cunning and resourceful, driven by a consuming ambition to escape to New India, into the bright lights of the big city in which all he is denied exists.

He succeeds. But he also pays, we discover as the book unfolds, a terrible price. Over seven nights, from the office of his own start-up company in Bangalore, sitting beneath an ostentatious chandelier whose light is chopped up by the whirling blades of a small fan and scattered across the room, he tells the story of his life.

He narrates it through letters he writes – one every day – to the Chinese premier, who is scheduled to visit India soon. Halwai knows and fears that the PM will visit only New India, and is keen to tell him also of the parts of India that he will never see, never imagine. Out of the belief "that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore."

The truth, as it begins to emerge, is as shocking as it is fantastic. It's a rich subject, and Adiga mines all its darkly comic possibilities. Halwai's voice – wised-up, mordant, sardonic, self-mocking and utterly without illusions – is as compelling as it is persuasive, and one of the triumphs of the book. Adiga has a finely alert eye and ear. Here he is on one of the interminable, exasperating traffic jams that plague Delhi: "Everyone honked. Every now and then, the various horns, each with its own pitch, blended into one continuous wail that sounded like a calf taken from its mother."

The pace, superbly controlled in the opening and middle sections, begins to flag a bit towards the end. But this is a minor quibble: Adiga has been gutsy in tackling a complex and urgent subject. His is a novel that has come not a moment too soon.

Soumya Bhattacharya's memoir, 'You Must Like Cricket?', is published by Yellow Jersey

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