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Monday, 16 March 2009 02:00

White Tiger

By  Lisa Witepski
"Meet Balram Halwai, the 'white tiger': servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer". So reads the back cover of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, winner of 2008's Man Booker Prize – and as introductions go, it's rather intriguing.

It also sets the tone for the rest of the novel: humorous in a manner that's subtle and sly, like a master at sleight of hand making a sham at being guileless. Narrator Balram Halwai, the eponymous White Tiger, gets away with it, precisely because of his craftiness and cunning.

Halwai is born in a dire Indian slum; a town where poverty's stranglehold has squeezed the breath out of humanity. Or, as Halwai rather more colourfully puts it,

"Now for the people. Your Excellency, I am proud to inform you that Lanmangarh is your typical Indian village paradise, adequately supplied with electricity, running water, and working telephones; and that the children of my village, raised on a nutritious diet of meat, eggs, vegetables and lentils, will be found, when examined with tape measure and scales, to match up to the minimum height and weight standards set by the United Nations and other organisations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attend.
Electricity poles – defunct.
Water tap – broken.
Children – too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India."

How Halwai escapes this morass, where the injustice and corruption of the rich are even closer neighbours than the inhabitants of the squalid village, makes for taut, 'what-comes-next' reading. He's an unforgettable character, not particularly likeable or sympathetic, certainly far from moral, but extremely human and even admirable; his courage surpassed only by his shrewdness. That's why, when he gets his happy ending, it's not so much a tale of redemption and the good guy getting his dues, as a hearty flip of the middle finger.

That's precisely what makes White Tiger a compelling read: Halwai's flippant and ironic tone serves to emphasise the pure horror of his situation and his stifling frustration. And the supporting cast of characters is just as finely drawn as Halwai himself.

That said, I'm not entirely sure I would have chosen it as the Man Booker. It seems to lack the levity of previous award winners. But this is Aravind Adiga's first novel, and it will certainly be very interesting to watch where he goes from here.
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