The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Prize.

This first novel is written in the form of a letter to the Premier of China as an introduction to modern India. The author is not a fan – of modern India, that is, not China. India is a rich source of material for contemporary novelists, (for example, the Inheritance of Loss) and seems to be favoured by Booker judges. The novel charts the life of the narrator as a chauffeur to a prosperous family, and portrays the country as sordid, brutal, and above all bitterly corrupt.

If written by a Western author this account could be easily have been seen as racist. The author’s closeness to the country he describes probably deflects that criticism. Nevertheless there are virtually no redeeming features of the country – the bravery of people who fought for India’s independence is mocked, the beauty of the countryside goes unmentioned, and no-one acts through anything other than cowardice or self interest. The Indian Tourist Board will not be recommending this book in a hurry! It is an indictment of the country India has become in the years since independence, and is horribly unbalanced compared to say Slumdog Millionaire, which shines a light on the underbelly of India but equally shows the beauty of the country and its people.

The plot is very simple. The narrator murders his boss, and runs away with his money, showing a small amount of compassion by taking his nephew with him, despite knowing that the rest of his family is almost certain to be slaughtered in retaliation. Using the stolen money he bribes his way into a position of influence, and gloats over those he has left behind. We are told this fairly on in the book, so I am not including any spoilers. Years later he records his crimes in letters to the Chinese Premier, a plot device that makes little sense incidentally. The central character is deeply unpleasant; as well as being an unrepentant murderer, he is also bigoted towards gays, black people, and women. of course I am not suggesting the author shares these views, but they are presented without adequate challenge. Just because bad views are expressed by a bad person doesn’t make them any more palatable.

By coincidence I am also reading “Crime and Punishment” at the moment, and although the comparison is probably unfair, Dostoievsky does something Adiga does not (or cannot), which is given us an insight into the mind of a killer. While the portrait of Raskolnikov shows us the internal struggles a killer goes through, in White Tiger the killing is shown as a simple commercial transaction, with little or no horror, nor psychological consequences – extraordinarily I have even seen one reviewer describe the murder as “brave”. Killing someone in cold blood and leaving your family and friends to live or die with the consequences isn’t brave. It’s not even as if the main character was living an impoverished life on the streets – he was doing fairly well as a chauffeur. I appreciate the author isn’t saying “Life in India is so bad murder becomes acceptable” – what he is surely is presenting us with is a world where morality has disappeared, so much so that a murderer sees little wrong with their crime, because they see similar acts of immorality being rewarded all around them. This is “Crime” with no “Punishment”.

All in all a strange Booker choice, subverting many of our expectations about what novels about modern India should be, but with very few redeeming features.

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