Adiga's 2008 Booker-prize winning The white tiger generated a lively discussion amongst the nine Minervans who attended the March meeting. All had read it and all essentially enjoyed it. Universal enjoyment is not always a recipe for good discussion we have found but there were differences of opinion about aspects of the novel which enabled us to tease out why we liked it and what we thought it meant.
But first, a quick plot summary! It is a one-sided epistolary novel in which Balram Halwai, a self-confessed entrepreneur, writes to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China who is soon to visit India. His aim is to tell Jiabao the truth about India to counteract the official story that India is "moral and saintly". To do this he recounts his own rise from being a servant driver for a rich family to an entrepreneur running his own "start-up" business, a rise that is brought about by his murdering his employer/master.
It is a deeply cynical, but darkly humorous, book about what it takes to be "a man" in a society where servants are treated like children. He describes the "Rooster Coop" in which servants are trapped because, if they try to escape, their families will be destroyed ("hunted, beaten and burned alive"). One point of discussion was the "choice" Balram made, that is, to murder his master in order to escape the "Coop". Some felt he had a real choice while others felt it was more a case of a Sophie's or Hobson's choice. Many felt there were valid reasons for his decision but questioned its rightness in terms of the cost to his family. Some wondered what he had actually achieved in terms of personal fulfilment while others wondered whether this was the point. Is personal fulfilment or joy what Balram was about?
We found Balram to be a credible voice, despite there being some critical opinion to the contrary, but also recognised that it is very much a one-person point of view. Everything is seen through his eyes...and his eyes are more anti-hero than hero. However, despite this, despite his anti-social behaviour, he manages to engage us; the success of the novel rests upon our ability to accept his voice, and accept it we all did.
A strength of the novel, besides the power of Balram's voice, is its language. Adiga's use of irony and dark humour, and of metaphor, made the book a compelling read from the start for most members, though a couple found it a little hard to get going at the beginning.
We briefly compared the book to the film Slumdog Millionaire which presents a fairy-tale-like response to the poverty of India, and Rohinton Mistry's A fine balance in which the characters survive but remain victims. The white tiger, on the other hand, presents a vision of success and survival that is founded upon very murky waters.
Why the book is framed in terms of letters to the Chinese premier is something we didn't fully resolve. Some critics feel it is a weakness in the novel but we wondered whether Adiga is making a point about the similarities and/or differences between these two Third World countries and their relatively recent economic growth. Is he suggesting China has a better way, or is he simply warning China off following the Indian way? Regardless of the answer to this question, the overall message we decided is one of concern about the foundations of India's success. Adiga has been reported as saying he wanted to "entertain and disturb". We all felt that he achieved his goal.