April 04, 2020
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Foreign Correspondent

The White Tiger has earned Adiga his stripes, but not all are convinced

Foreign Correspondent
Foreign Correspondent
What We Said And What They Are Saying Now

In her review of The White Tiger for Outlook, Manjula Padmanabhan called the book "a tedious, unfunny slog". She found traces of Kiran Nagarkar, I. Allan Sealy and Salman Rushdie in Adiga’s "schoolboyish sneering", but "none of the genius of these authors, neither the complexity of plot, nor the brilliant command of language, nor the depth of vision."

"It reads like the first draft of a Bollywood screenplay . Every character is a cliché. The humour is bitter and unsubtle; the writing forgettable."
Samir Rahim, The Daily Telegraph

"A total flopperoo for the Booker. As some have gloomily concluded, the Prize is not the force it once was. An overhaul is in order."
John Sutherland, The Guardian

"There is an unremitting realism usually airbrushed from Indian films and novels. The Indian tourist board must be livid."
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian


This year's Booker has clearly been one of the most contentious in recent times, and a rapid read through the winner, The White Tiger, might rapidly show why. It might also show why there was a push to turn this into the winning book.

"We enjoyed a great deal of unanimity along the way in choosing the long list and the short list," said Conservative Party politician Michael Portillo, head of the panel of judges, but he admitted that deciding on the winner "was more difficult than anything we've done before".

The choice seems to have run into some passionate opposition. "There was a debate, and it was emotional," said Portillo. Sitting next to the winner Aravind Adiga, Portillo added, however, that "there is no sense in which this book was a kind of compromise choice. This was the book that had the most support".

The remarks filtering through during the awards function indicated what the debate was about. The book won all-round praise for its political position—that of pointing to the anger of India's vast underbelly of 400 million, and the contempt, or at least the disregard that India's middle class has for this lot. And so the book, with chapters starting off as letters to the Chinese premier, is really a political essay with some flimsy wrapping as story. An "angry book", as Portillo praised it, approving of the way it gives expression to the underclass anger, which the privileged ignore. Indeed, praise for the book has mostly been for its political rather than literary qualities.

Adiga isn't shy of speaking of this book as his political mission. "The book is an attempt to relocate India in a political and economic context," he said. Its inspiration: his journeys "travelling along the Ganges, this fabled river, and seeing conditions along it for the first time, it got me thinking about India in a new way". This "Ganges, this fabled river..." is a clue both to the difficulties many have with this book, and to what others see as its strength. Almost a century back, T.S. Eliot decolonised the Ganges into Ganga. For Adiga to call it the Ganges sets the tone of The White Tiger.

Adiga talks to the West here, to set Western ideas of India. There is truth in what he says, both about the anger in the underbelly and the unmindful middle class. The difficulty many have with the book is in the tone, the calculated coinciding of an observation with what a Western eye would like to see.

The book is born of conversations with the servants and rickshaw-pullers of India. "It is an attempt to capture the voice of the men you meet as you travel across India...people at a train station or a liquor shop. What struck me was how funny a lot of these people were, how similar their voice was, their sense of humour, their cynical intelligence. How similar they were to black Americans...." But theirs was a voice that had not been captured, he said, "and it was important for me to get that voice down.... And to do so without sentimentality."

The merit of this book lies in getting that point of view across. As The Telegraph wrote in its review: "In the current free-market love fest to which India has been invited—the country boasted gdp growth of 9.6 per cent last year— 'inequality' is a word that has been successfully airbrushed out of existence. Yet what does an 'economic miracle' mean when even a casual acquaintance with India shows that a very large majority lives in abject, shocking poverty.... Who exactly is benefiting from this growth?"

The Times Literary Supplement said The White Tiger's "lack of subtlety can be wearying, as can its cynicism. But it is a useful counter to optimistic tales of India's roaring economy". The Independent wrote: "Arch-defenders of India's claim to be truly democratic—and these must be few outside of the Indian cabinet—might balk at The White Tiger. Everyone else will be seduced by it."

Well, not quite everyone. The Guardian was more guarded: "There is much to commend in this novel...yet there is also much to ponder. The scales have fallen from the eyes of some Indian writers, many either living abroad, or educated there like Adiga. The home country is invariably presented as a place of brutal injustice and sordid corruption.... Characters at the colourful extremities of society are Dickensian grotesques, Phiz sketches, adrift in a country that is lurching rapidly towards bland middle-class normality. My hunch is that this is fundamentally an outsider's view and a superficial one."
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