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The White Tiger

Jaravind Adiga
Atlantic, 319pp, ISBN: 9781843547204

The White TigerSome things can only be said in English, and the hero of this novel repeats such a phrase each time a great man comes to his homeland: what a fucking joke. Meet Balram Halwai, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur whose darkly humorous account of his emergence from a godforsaken Indian village to the lights of New Delhi is told in a series of late night, confessional letters addressed to the visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. This epistolary format allows Adiga, formerly Time magazine's Asia correspondent, to create a voice that is digressive, self-effacing, provocative, sly and, by turns, alarmingly and disarmingly honest. This makes for a refreshing, no-nonsense read.

The White Tiger is a picaresque for modern times, the story of a rogue living by his wits in a corrupt society, told with cocksure charm. Balram believes 'the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man' but his own perceptions about his country's renaissance are absent from the official booklet 'full of information about India's past, present and future'. The book is his attempt to set the record straight.

It's not as simple as that, of course, but we are in on the joke: Balram is as dodgy as they come, an entrepreneur proud of his 'half-baked clay' origins, one whose actions and underlying belief system frequently wrong-foots any reader foolhardy enough to attempt a higher moral ground. In a novel in which Light and Darkness are not just metaphors for good and evil, but actual places, the question of righteousness becomes very slippery.

The 'right' version of events is so often wrong. The 'village paradise' of Laxmangarh, 'adequately supplied with electricity, running water and working telephones' is anything but: 'Electricity poles - defunct. Water tap - broken. Children - too lean and short for their age, and with over-sized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India. Yes, a typical Indian village paradise, Mr Jiabao.' The villagers have so little power that they can only belittle their rulers symbolically, by giving their corrupt landlords animal nicknames: Stork, Raven, Wild Boar and Buffalo.
Balram cheerfully puts himself beyond the pale, boasting that he's murdered his employer and caused foul retribution to be visited upon his family. In his eyes, these aren't crimes. Instead he reserves his opprobrium for the police 'wanted' poster that describes his appearance so disgustingly: '"Maroon colour sandals" - ugh. Only a policeman could have made up a detail like that. I flatly deny it.'

This psychopathic anti-hero does a good job of convincing us, with candour and cheek, that he's got some right on his side. A man who's lived without a name or a birthday for the best part of his childhood only does what's necessary to survive - if the tables were turned, wouldn't you? He's seen his rickshaw-puller father die of TB, his dead mother condemned by his grandmother as a 'crazy woman', and a 'brave, mad' man, who tries to cast his vote, stamped to death by a policeman. Is it any wonder that he trusts only himself?

When he runs his fellow driver out of employment for being a Muslim, he reflects: 'What a miserable life he's had, having to hide his religion, his name, just to get a job as a driver… Part of me wanted to get up and apologise to him right there and say, You go and be a driver in Delhi. You never did anything to hurt me. Forgive me, brother.' But this glimmer of redemption is quickly, brutally extinguished: 'I turned to the other side, farted, and went back to sleep.' He can't afford to be kind.

While the verve and linguistic sallies of this novel are undeniably beguiling, at its heart there is a splinter of real anger. Balram - who is now a uniformed chauffeur - escapes a family visit and swims across a fetid pond to the Black Fort, its broken-down ramparts occupied only by a tribe of monkeys. There, he reflects on a poem by Allama Muhammad Iqbal that imagines the devil 'standing up for his rights at a moment when God tries to bully him'.

Balram envisages himself as Iqbal's devil, 'a little black figure in a wet khaki uniform… climbing up the entranceway to a black fort'. He sees God pointing out India's million villages, its billion poor people, and asking this man: 'Isn't it all wonderful? Isn't it all grand? Aren't you grateful to be my servant?' The man starts to shake, 'as if he has gone mad with anger, before delivering to the Almighty a gesture of thanks for having created the world this particular way, instead of all the other ways it could have been created…'

If you're looking for a definitive message from Balram, this appears to be it: he spits on God. There may be 36,000,004 gods to choose from, but the problem of life boils down to being his fault; personal responsibility, like all those electricity poles, is pretty much defunct. Balram's honesty is laudable and his anger at degradation, injustice and poverty feels justifiable, but not every reader will be seduced by his conclusion.

Rachel Jones