I should probably focus on reviewing the two remaining books I've earmarked to complete Project Booker but I was in the mood for a bit of comic relief so I scanned my bookshelf, and The White Tiger called out to me. I thought I heard a wolf-whistle. Though I've read it before, I responded to its proposition, since it is a champion specimen and we are on the subject of the Man Booker Prize after all.
When The White Tiger pounced upon the Booker 3 years ago, I was delighted. It is not a dramatic / epic colonial saga by an Indian author that typically finds its way to the shortlist every couple years or so. For once, a truly humorous novel with a young, modern voice was given the recognition it deserved. Not satirical humour (though there is that), nothing you have to "get", not clever dry wit, slightly removed - No, this was in-your-face, dark, unadulterated comedy.
The narrative takes the form of a long letter from Balram, the story's protagonist and everyman, to Premier Wen Jiabao of China. Addressing Premier Wen as an equal, the letter starts off with a smug, if deluded, near-culmination of Balram's rags to riches story and promises to tell the reader (Premier Wen, or you) how he got there.
Balram's story moves at a page-turning pace. It is possible, and entirely pleasurable, to finish this book over a weekend. This speaks volumes of Adiga's ability to drive the story forward while maintaining a deeply critical social commentary about the vast income divide in India. He drops a few juicy details in the opening chapter to ignite your curiosity. He continues with episodes of significance in Balram's life that build momentum and suspense. Characterisation is perfected through dialogue and action, rather than mere description alone: Balram is a devious little Machiavelli, but set against the context of his circumstances, and the cruelty shown to him by those whom he serves, it is impossible to hate him. Supporting characters, particularly Ashok and Pinky Madam, are portrayed through the keen eyes of Balram and we get a good idea of what they are like, even if Balram does not realise it himself. This is first person narrative - a technique so difficult to get right - at its very best.
The letter to Premier Wen is clever because it turns Balram into a philospher, and allows Adiga to make a comparison between India and China, for the benefit of those who love to invoke the two countries in one breath. In his view, there is actually a critical difference between the two countries - what Balram calls the "Great Indian Rooster Coop" - a culture of engrained servitude of the poor for the rich that is near impossible to break out of. Balram does of course break free, but not without deep personal sacrifice. Balram represents the people that Adiga called the "faceless millions" in an interview with the BBC, people whose collective oppression make it possible for the rich to become richer. Turning Winston Churchill's famous words around, Balram says:
"Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent - as strong, as telented, as intelligent in every way - to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse."
It is little wonder that The White Tiger won one of the world's most coveted literary prizes. The rarer accomplishment is the fact that it is such a very good story - so much so that its own literary merit simply fades into the background.
***The Booker Prize 2011 shortlist was announced today. Following self-imposed deadlines - FAIL! But I will soldier on. Just finished Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, which was lovely. Review to come.