Imagine recording the speech of your interlocutor – a driver encountered in a car park in Gurgaon, say – in an Indian language and trying to render it not literally, but credibly, and with some effort at verisimilitude, into English. This is no easy task. The translator always faces dilemmas, of course, and can never get it quite right. But we also know what it is to get it disastrously wrong. It is when the ‘autobiography’ of an Indian untouchable woman appears in French using expressions from Victor Hugo. The falsity in The White Tiger goes much further. It means having a character who cannot read Urdu, and certainly has no notion of Persian, tell us that his favourite poets include Jalaluddin Rumi and Mirza Ghalib. It means having someone who can’t read English being able to recall a conversation in which his interlocutor speaks of books by James Hadley Chase, Kahlil Gibran, Adolf Hitler and Desmond Bagley. Try that lot out on a Hindi speaker who knows no English next time you are in India.
Adiga gets the tone right only when he writes of the world of the bourgeois. Some of this is quite funny and rings partly true.
‘Ashok,’ she said. ‘Now hear this. Balram, what is it we’re eating?’
I knew it was a trap, but what could I do? – I answered. The two of them burst into giggles.
‘Say it again, Balram.’
They laughed again.
‘It’s not piJJA. It’s piZZa. Say it properly.’
‘Wait – you’re mispronouncing it too. There’s a T in the middle. Peet. Zah.’
‘Don’t correct my English, Ashok. There’s no T in pizza. Look at the box.’
Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.