Getting and spending

<strong>The White Tiger</strong>

Aravind Adiga <em>Atlantic Books, 336pp, £12.99</em>

One is surely tired of being informed that one had better resign oneself to the prospect of an Indian-run and/or Chinese-dominated world. Dreary old "should we fear red(dish) China" debates apart, there are quarters in which it is declared preferable that the Indians should take over. India - liberal, democratic, English-speaking, westward-looking, investor-friendly, no longer non-aligned India - is where the action's at. It is where the action of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is at, and Adiga's is what might be called a cautionary tale.

"Mr Premier," his narrator begins, addressing His Excellency Wen Jiabao of China in a letter that lasts the entire length of the novel, "neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English." The novel's framing as a seven-part letter to the Chinese prime minister turns out to be an unexpectedly flexible instrument in Adiga's hands, accommodating everything from the helpful explanatory aside to digressions into political polemic. It is also just the thing he needs to tell the story of his narrator, Balram Halwi - from his origins in a part of India he calls "the Darkness" to his current position as a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore's "Electronic City". But Balram is emphatically no working-class hero, and he quickly shows himself to be worldly, cynical and consciously immoral.

Hired as chauffeur for the son of the village landlord, Balram is told (and the metaphorical resonance is made amply obvious) that the road "is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar to get ahead on it." When he gets to Delhi, we are treated to some of the most acute social criticism yet made of the new Indian middle class. As he writes: "The rich of America or England," who have no servants, "cannot even begin to understand what a good life is." An example:

Now, while they walked around the apartment block, the fatsos made their thin servants . . . stand at various spots on that circle with bottles of mineral water and fresh towels in their hands. Each time they completed a circuit around the building, they stopped next to their man, grabbed the bottle - gulp - grabbed the towel - wipe, wipe - then it was off on round two.

One might note the distinctive narrative voice, rich with the disconcerting smell of coarse authenticity. It is simultaneously able to convey the seemingly congenital servility of the language of the rural poor as well as its potential for knowing subversion. It sends up the neo-Thatcherite vocabulary of the new rich, their absurd extravagance and gaudy taste, but manages to do it tenderly and with understanding. In a turn of phrase that recalls the early V S Naipaul, it understands fully this world of "half-baked cities, built for half-baked men".

Adiga's style calls to mind the work of Munshi Premchand, that great Hindi prose stylist and chronicler of the nationalist movement, especially in passages like this: "A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank", but the "story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen". We would probably be right to describe the impulse of Adiga's fiction as a kind of social realism, contemporary India offering just the sorts of conspicuous contrasts on which such writing thrives. He is too canny an observer to labour under romantic illusions about the poor; the failures of India's old left are good reason not to expect any immediate redemption from that quarter. The author's optimism tends in a different direction.

Adiga might overstate the point, but he is surely right when he writes that "the difference between... this India and that India [is] the choice". Cut through all the rhetoric, and it is probably true that where India offers more cause for hope than China is in the possibility that with economic freedom might come a measure of the political and social liberalism which was the foundation of progressive change in the west.

He observes thoughtfully that, in cities all over the country, people "sit under lamp posts at night and read. Men huddle together and discuss and point fingers to the heavens." Which is not to say that the Indian Revolution is nigh, but it certainly says something. When the dust from all the new construction has settled, Bangalore (and the many places like it) "may turn out to be a decent city", more decent than the brutal world its immigrants have left behind.

Adiga's narrator quotes with approval the Urdu poet Iqbal, who said: "They remain slaves because they can't see what is beautiful in this world." Perhaps that line, and the novel, serve as a manifesto for the sort of writing that the new India needs but isn't getting enough of.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?