Literary Criticism and Significance
Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger was released to critical acclaim and became a worldwide bestseller. The novel was a finalist for the PEN/ Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers and won Adiga the Galaxy British Book Award for Author of the Year. However, The White Tiger surpassed these honors when it won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2008. Critics praise how Adiga employs a unique voice to realistically discuss social changes in India.
The White Tiger is Adiga’s debut novel, but it fits naturally into his career to date. Adiga was working as a freelance journalist focused on southeastern Asia while writing The White Tiger. He has suggested that his work is designed to highlight injustices in India and China—massive global economies that continue to have large populations living in poverty. With his charismatic and complex narrator, who has risen from servant to master of his own fleet with sixteen drivers, Adiga is able to explore the contrast between an “India of light, and an India of darkness.” Adiga went on to publish Between the Assassinations, whichexplores similar themes and is again set in India.
Critics praise Adiga’s discussion of India’s social changes, particularly his ability to defy expectations. If Adiga is writing social criticism in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Adam Lively points out that Adiga
stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of representations of poverty from those images of doe-eyed children.
Instead, Balram Halwai is a dark protagonist and has committed murder to get ahead. Adiga’s portrayal of the impoverished citizens of India is realistic and haunting because he chooses to resist ennobling his cast while bringing attention to their difficulties.
Although The White Tiger is not sentimental, Balram Halwai is endearing. He tells his story over the course of several letters to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and while Halwai’s first-person narration is often troubling for its frank confessions, his unique voice is captivating. Writing for The Independent, David Mattin argues that “inventing such a character is no small feat for a first-time novelist.” For most critics, Balram Halwai is not only the centerpiece of the novel but also serves alongside Adiga’s social commentary to explain The White Tiger’s success.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is more critical of how Adiga’s hero is used, particularly Balram’s voice. He argues that Balram’s first-person narrative is an example of “a posh English-educated voice trying to talk dirty, without being able to pull it off.” Although Balram is of the lower classes, Adiga’s sophisticated prose introduces an element of falsity into this otherwise realistically written social commentary. Subrahmanyam concludes that this conflict “adds another brick to the patronizing edifice [Adiga] wants to tear down.” According to Subrahmanyam, this central flaw stands to undo everything that The White Tiger and its accolades claim to have achieved.