The 'new Indian' tiger

On October 6, the winner of the Man Booker prize will be announced. All but one of the shortlisted works are 'historical fiction'. Last year, however, the winning novel was set in present-day India - 'The white tiger' by 34-year-old Aravind Adiga. Mike Belbin weighs up its appeal to UK judges and asks whether or not it does credit to the 'new India' of technological and cultural advance

The white tiger is written in the form of a letter by Balram Halwal, son of a rickshaw puller, to visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

This enables the story to be told, like Dickens�s Great expectations, retrospectively in the first person. At the time of writing, Balram has �made it�, become an entrepreneur and is looking back on how he did it, seeking to show the premier what things are like in Indian society.

Balram travels from the semi-feudal, caste-rigid ethos of a traditional village to the employ of a rich landlord. Early on, he is praised by a government schools inspector, picked out as special, a �white tiger�. He works in a teashop and is involved in an Indian election, which, through fraud and bribery, returns someone called the Great Socialist to power. Through all this Balram is happy to take whatever place and position he can get.

Like Voltaire�s Candide, the story uses the lack of guile of the protagonist to show us how merrily corrupt and venial this democracy is. In fact Adiga does not hesitate to demonstrate a social framework where traditional clan India and new entrepreneurial India are not positive and negative, past and present, but deeply entwined. The book even comes up with a name for this: the �rooster coop�. Servants do not revolt, notes Balram, because their extended family would consequently suffer: �... only the man who is prepared to see his family destroyed - hunted, beaten and burned alive by the masters - can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.�

He is finally hired as a chauffeur in Delhi for Ashok, the son of a landlord. As Balram takes his place among the cockroaches and call centres of the city, there seems no way out for the compliant driver to rise safely into the confidence of the letter writer, no possibility of a complete transition, as the publisher�s blurb puts it, �from the darkness of village life to the light of entrepreneurial success�.

Realism and the novel

It is a measure of Adiga�s achievement as a writer that I was reminded of Raymond Williams� concept of a �knowable community�.

In his analysis of The English novel from Dickens to Lawrence Williams identifies realism as not just a technique (vernacular dialogue, secular concerns, typical characters), but also as an achievement: the coverage of �an effective range of social experience by sufficiently manifest relations� (R Williams Politics and letters: interviews with New Left Review London 1979, p247). As with Thomas Hardy, whose novels of late 19th-century Dorset are not just another �regional� or �provincial� portrait, but stories of varied class interaction and more general social issues like exploitation and education (Tess of the D�Urbervilles, Jude the obscure).

Exploring a �known society� might be a better description. Plenty of fiction can give you a particular place or small community, but lack a sense of broader connections and involvements. This is the realist project, not just a commitment to an independent, interpersonal reality, but the extension of understanding into new areas of character and relationships. Even James Joyce, often considered to be merely playing with words, admits a world of communications - magazines, advertising - to the experience of a Dublin Ulysses not fully presented in fiction before. On the other hand, Frederic Jameson more recently has advised us not to underestimate the difficulty of �social mapping� in our more atomistic, abstract present. This often requires more than the conventional naturalist novel, but modes of fantasy and sociology, as in science fiction. Williams� point though was that writers should not underestimate the amount of social life we can trace to the experience of individuals in a novel of current times.

In recent decades, of course, even everyday fictional realism, sometimes called �naturalism�, has been challenged as naive by postmodernists in theory and fiction. The very idea of an external reality (social or physical) that can be mapped by a writer and appreciated by a critic - a world independent of our imagination and discourse - has been judged a mistake and even oppressive (taking �my� reality as the Reality). But if there is no independent reality existing to be described (both materially and historically) - yes, with difficulty, that is, discovered - then we are rejecting not only the chance of useful knowledge, but our very physical being, our body and where it exists.

It was Jameson again who said that history is what hurts (The political unconscious, New York 1981). Physical being is independent because it involves hunger, unhappiness, pain, frustration and pleasure - effects we cannot or sometimes would not wish into existence. The anti-realist may reply: �Ah, but these things depend on how you define them; define them locally, culturally, with concepts and words. What entertains one culture may differ from what does it for another culture.� Agreed: this is still a definition of something, of pleasure at something, a response to not an imagining of something. When we understand someone�s joke, we laugh.

Of course, anti-realism is nothing new. There have been philosophers before the 1960s who went even further. Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century, provocatively reacting against the scientific empiricism of the time, asserted that the supposed sensations from the outside world need only be ideas in our mind - what can prove they are from some material outside? These ideas could have been put there in the mind by god.

One wonders, though, what, say, a snooker player might say: �My appreciation of the external world allows me to act on it, to hit the cue ball with a certain force, to judge how to place it after it�s hit another, to play in the circumstances presented to me by the game. Which doesn�t mean I don�t make ill-judged shots. Maybe I have to practise more.�

Berkeley might well have countered with: �All of that could be just ideas in your head. How can you be so sure it�s not?� To which Steve Davis might reply: �You�re right, I can�t be certain. But it�s good enough - for the sake of practice.�

The tiger�s leap

Balram�s story is a convincing - realistic - account of servility undergoing pains amongst an India of interlocking forces and structures, feudal and market. His break with this, when it comes, overcomes the problem too swiftly.

Am I as a reader simply disagreeing with the text for its implausibility and its uncongenial ideological turn, the suddenness of the leap from skivvy to petty bourgeois? No, rather let me call on Althusser�s concept of a symptomatic reading (symptomale), as presented in Reading Capital (co-authored with Etienne Balibar, London 1970). Althusser contends that Karl Marx, when discussing Adam Smith, does not just look for what Smith fails to mention, but for how the text itself, Smith�s very argument, reveals its fragility in the presence of problem areas.

Smith writes: �The value of labour is equal to the value of the subsistence goods necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of labour.� An odd phrase? Labour itself needs subsistence goods? The spade that digs the hole, the looms that spins the wool needs a tea break? Substituting �labourer� at the end would sound better, but Smith is not here discussing life and people, but labour - doing work. The sentence quivers on the edge of nonsense. Either that or a new problematic, about to break through to the concept of labour-power. Marx, of course, is reading this very problematic, where labour occurs in a new complex of relations. He does so because of �new information� from elsewhere, but still arguing from inside the text itself - not just disagreeing, but also locating the disturbances, the gaps and instabilities within it.

There is no such thing then as a professional reading - one that does not apply concerns from �elsewhere� about how society has developed and how it might be changed. The most respected bourgeois literary critics of the past - IA Richards, QD Leavis, FR Leavis, Northrop Frye - were each applying their own general notions of history and value. There is no such thing as a non-ideological (in this sense) critic. The symptomatic reader, however, is not just concerned with disagreement between ideologies, but also with the ideology in the text: how it works - or doesn�t work.

How will Balram become an entrepreneur if the coop is so tight and he is so willing a servant? How will he get from under the degradations and terrors of the rooster coop, the hypocrisies of Great Socialist politicians, squabbling bosses and jealous fellow servants, and leap beyond?

By accident, or rather by a particular accident. While operating in his position as chauffeur one night, he is ordered out of the driving seat and replaced by Pinky Madam, his employer�s American wife, who is drunk and possibly homesick. In the event, a pedestrian is run over and Balram is told to take the blame.

He must now assert himself - he resorts to murder and prepares to run for it along with a young apprentice servant. Balram is shown to be not entirely selfish in not leaving this boy, a relative, behind. Before he goes, Balram has been granted a large sum of money as a gift by one of the Delhians, just like that, and he makes good use of this in the city of Bangalore. He hands over part of it to the police, who accept this bribe, as in Delhi, and uses the rest to set up a business.

The story has suddenly speeded up and some of the people are doing things for which the motivation has hardly been prepared. No-one seems to come after Balram: his relatives may be suffering from the consequences of what has happened, but we do not hear about it. Balram seems to have jumped clear of the coop, or rather up on top of it, and into a new, purer problematic. As he contemplates the �bling� of his mansion�s chandeliers, he ends his letter with an assurance (to the premier?) that, in his expanding business, he will treat his workforce more correctly than any of his previous employers: he believes in proper contracts.

This triumph then is not without irony. Balram - and the reader - may be aware of all the corners he has cut to �escape�, but there seems to be no other option.

A choice of capitalisms

So perhaps it was the happy ending, the change of pace, the triumph, however hollow or clumsily prepared, that impressed the judges.

In an interview in The Times Adiga describes himself as �both a small-town conservative and a more cosmopolitan person in one� (July 18). In fact he belongs to a new kind of international fiction - made up of writers initially from the developing and non-western world who nevertheless write in the metropolitan language, English, and for a primarily western readership. They do not need to be translated. Adiga, like other writers - Libyans, Chinese, and Ukrainians - is a hybrid.

For some academics, in �postcolonial studies�, hybridity is good: the opposite of racialist �purity�. But as with Salman Rushdie, their hybridity, their mobility and attraction for a mainly western readership is based on class and education. This enables these writers to look both ways, making good points about the societies they have left (most live in London or New York) but from the assumption that liberal capitalism is the superior and only alternative - that is, as an ideal, of course, not a full description.

After the publication of his second book, a volume of short stories, Adiga remarked of India: �The corruption exists because it works for the benefit of the middle class.� From the middle class, but a member of an international intelligentsia, he is able to be sharp about this, presenting it as telling comedy. The alternative that he offers, though, is for at least one character to identify human rights with another form of capitalism: contract-wage rather than rooster coop.

The speed at which the book�s conclusion is achieved - its advance through bribery, its magic, free-gift, consequence-free nature - undermines it. However, even if, as Balram alluded to at the start, it has made him less than �a normal human being - a freak, a pervert of nature�, he still proclaims human rights. Not quite a happy ending, a Booker judge might think, but better than nothing.

If the end is being ironical at the character�s expense, this irony is not conservative - like Swift in Gulliver�s travels, it is actually in favour of traditional ways or humilities. We know that nothing today is permanent (not even the planet), so the slipperiness of its conclusion makes the book even more contemporary - another reason, however faintly sensed, for choosing it as exemplar best book. Global capitalism is all but morally vacant - the crunch has seen to that. But people are angry with those mainly responsible and about other things. It remains to be seen whether this rage, the repercussion of disenfranchisement, will result in a struggle for more accountability or support for more reaction, such as Sarah Palin and the religious right of all countries.

One last reflection: it is interesting to compare this most contemporary of novels with an earlier Indian work, one from 1935, now a Penguin classic: Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand. This novel, from the �committed� 30s, explores a day in the life of an earlier Bakha, a member of that lowest in the caste system, an �untouchable�.

Bakha hears a speech by Gandhi which addresses the theme of finally treating the untouchables with equal respect. He also encounters a �modernist poet�, who declares that India is now ready to accept the machine - ie, technology: untouchables need not be sunk in the dirty work when the flush toilet exists.

The actual future, however, was the Nehru family - from �non-aligned� to the Indo-US nuclear deal, and the �new India� that Adiga�s novel so evokes. Today, moreover, the answer to the coop is not �western� materialism, but sustainable materialism; not the racing after bling, but the flourishing of life, including a democratic political life - the satisfactions of living.