white-tiger“Neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.”

I don’t have much truck with many awards, and I usually find that whatever ends up winning an Oscar, Man Booker, Emmy, Brit, and so on, I’ve never seen, read or heard. One of my friends thinks this is because I like to shun things that are popular, but that doesn’t take into account my obsessive love of Harry Potter, among other things. I think generally it’s because the sort of books and films that win these awards generally never really appeal to me. They seem to have been created for the award and the award alone.

In particular, the Man Booker Prize is something that I’ve never really paid attention to. I have, however, read three of them. Well, two and a bit. I started The God Of Small Things at university and despised it, giving up after a few chapters. I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it. And this brings us to the third Man Booker Prize winner I’ve ever read – The White Tiger.

This is the tale of Balram Halwai who grew up in a poor caste in a dirty village of India. Despite his caste being sweet-makers, his father was a rickshaw puller, having had his destiny stolen from him. Attempting to make something of himself, Balram is employed by a local rich man and his family, and becomes their driver.

Balram is a honest, hard-working servant who comes to struggle with his position. He realises that the caste system once so prevalent in India has been replaced by a much simpler one – the haves and have nots. He sees himself as a white tiger, a rare beast that comes along once in a generation and cannot be tamed. His employers begin asking more and more terrible things of him, and as things come to a head, Balram decides to do something drastic to free himself from this life that he doesn’t believe he deserves.

The framing device is that the story is told over seven nights in a letter to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. This seems odd, but Balram is keen to tell Jiabao about how India is a country full of entrepreneurs and go-getters. Whether Jiabao ever reads the letter, or even receives it, is never disclosed.

There are so many themes running throughout this story. There’s an ongoing battle for Balram’s independence and his insistence that he is not like other men, which for the most part he isn’t. He discusses the political situation in India, although he doesn’t necessarily get all the ins and outs of it, and he is aware that the people are locked in, what he terms, a “rooster coop”. That is, no one can escape alone from the position they are in, and no one else is going to help them do so. It’s also a tale of globalisation, with Balram’s master Ashok being a fan of America and New Delhi being full of strip malls, call centres and hotels that are all only there because of Western development.

Like Lucky Jim, oddly enough, the biggest theme though is perhaps class. Balram notes that people either have big bellies or they do not, declaring that the divide between the rich and poor is stronger than ever, and hugely obvious to anyone who’s looking.

It’s a darkly funny book, biting and caustic towards the situation in India, and it opened my eyes to what things are like there. Balram is fairly likeable, even with his final acts (corruption is another ongoing theme, one that he first dislikes and later comes around to understand), but I never quite understood how old he was meant to be. It’s never explicitly stated, so in my head he is in his twenties, but may well be older.

Overall, the book served to prove to me that just because it won a Man Booker Prize, it doesn’t mean I should write it off as something I wouldn’t like. It’s a smart book, a brilliant debut and well deserving of a place in modern literature.