To read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga straight after Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies was unplanning that couldn't have been better planned if I'd tried.
From 1850's India to present day India and shaping an understanding of a country, which if I'm truthful, I don't know that much about beyond the usual colonial history.
I wasn't too sure how I was going to fare here. Michael Portillo's comment that he was delighted with the even spread of nations amongst the writing on this year's longlist (which made me feel it had somehow been contrived) and my poor form with The Case of the Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, which just didn't work for me at all, had all made me slightly nervous about another Indian sub-continent read. I was also in the process of struggling and failing badly with A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz and wondering if I might have to submit a shortlist of five. This would mean I'd add in The Spare Room by Helen Garner because I still haven't recovered from that absence, especially now I've read, or tried to read all this year's longlisters.
It's a sin of omission that may never be redeemed.
So I was a bit down in the reading dumps heading into The White Tiger, this would have to be something very good to impress me.
Balram Halwai is 'the white tiger' of the title,that rarest and most unique of the felines. In actual fact he's a 'short, pot-bellied teashop worker turned chauffeur' and in his spare time a' philosopher, comedian, confidence trickster, entrepreneur and murderer' with a tale to tell. Over the course of seven nights Balram, the son of a rickshaw puller, tells his story (ostensibly and in his imagination to the Premier of China who is due to visit India on a state visit) with a narrative voice and a story I doubt I will ever forget. Balram, his ex-employer, the late Mr Ashok with ex-wife Pinky Madam and the Honda City car all still firmly fixed in my mind.
I have absolutely no idea what anyone living in India will make of this one and as Andrew Holgate remarks on the cover ' the Indian tourist board won't be pleased, but you'll read it in a trice and be gripped.'
I did and I was, and all credit to The White Tiger because my Booker batteries were almost flat but they soon sparked into life as Balram's voice lifted right off the page and engaged this reader who felt honour-bound to listen.
The corruption just slimes off the page in all its grimy detail as Balram discovers there may be another way he could live his life, a different set of rules entitled 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' and one that may involve disobeying the innate sense of honesty ingrained in the Indian servant class. So he proceeds to plan his entrepreneurial elevation and along the way he spares no details of the rigours and constraints of life as a servant.From the cockroaches to the cooking it is demeaning, frequently squalid and amoral and my goodness did I want Balram to succeed.
Reviews elsewhere I now discover, find the 'relentlessly sardonic voice...monotonous and strident' and have wearied after the first hundred pages.Well that came as a complete surprise to me. Though the book may seem long at 300 pages, its double-spacing and comfortably readable page layout make it a much quicker read than that and monotony just didn't feature. I was an engaged and willing participant in Balram's quest for freedom and entirely forgiving of his methods by the final page. There is much more going on beneath the so-called sardonic surface here, in fact a stark message about just how deeply ingrained poverty can blight the spirit, disempower and subdue any form of insurgence and lead to desperate measures in order to escape its clutches. Aravind Adiga places the 'new morality at the heart of the new India' under the starkest of glaring spotlights and finds it seriously wanting.This is an eye-opening read and start to finish I couldn't fault it, making it most worthy of inclusion on my shortlist, so there's an unexpected surprise and it's one that leaves me with a bit of a dilemma.
It doesn't take Mrs Glosser, our resident random number generator, to spot that I have already 'shortlisted' six books but I have another one that must be included, so I plan to resolve it all tomorrow...by cheating. Seven is the new six.
Rocky on pot-bellied stand by and much happier about helping a fellow feline find a good home than that lost dog. He is much taken with this book and is talking of trading in Mrs Glosser for Pinky Madam who has let it be known she may want to adopt him as a playmate for her pampered pooches Cuddles and Puddles.
Many thanks to publishers Atlantic Books and names in comments for the chance of a copy of The White Tiger to roar its way through your letterbox any day now. Draw for this one on Friday evening ...nearly there.