The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (2008)
Adiga’s Booker-winning first novel (!) builds on his previously unpublished collection of short stories Between the Assassinations with a story of a entrepreneurial young man from a small village in India who manages to make it in the big city. Many of the situations from his earlier book are here again, but this time woven into a central plot – the cultural gap between urban and rural India, between rich and poor, between master and servant. Our protagonist is a cynical opportunist who understands the depth of the institutions that are set up to stop him from rising to a higher station in life, at several points comparing himself to a rooster in an enormous pile of cages he once saw sitting beside a butcher’s stall – the birds calmly awaited their fate, despite the smell of blood and the knife of their executioner in plain sight, because they were powerless to avoid it. He sees the power structures of India as being created by those ready to exploit any advantage, and eventually sacrifices those closest to him to attain that power himself. New in this book is series of occasional comments on the differences between India and the US, from the vantage point of two characters who (like the author) lived in New York for several years.
I have long had a particular fondness for “post-colonial” literature which eschews the typical stereotypes of charming but backward peoples in whose quaint lives we can see a vision of simpler, kinder times. There are more interesting things to say about poorer countries than latter-day myths of the noble savage in the guise of a feel-good nostalgic romps (I’m thinking here of books like McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which to be fair was, I understand, actually rather popular in Botswana). Nor is it much better to focus on the tragedies, famines, and wars, with stories of heroic white aid workers coming to the rescue of hapless natives (such as le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, or most of those movies about the Rwandan massacre), which start with historical events but tend to exaggerate the role of foreigners in order to downplay the agency of the local population). Adiga stays well clear of either of these well-established routes to a literary career. A keen observer with an acerbic tongue, he has established himself as an unabashedly Indian voice; if his writing can help usher in an era where authors in former colonial states can speak without regard for the sensibilities of those of us in richer nations (despite us being the ones in control of all the better literary prizes and publishing contracts) we’re all in for a world of better literature.