The White Tiger
by Jessica Dai
(UBC Arts One LB1, Dr. John Barker)
Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger tells the story of the self-made man, Balram Halwai, who claims himself to be many things: a servant, a philosopher, an entrepreneur, and a murderer. Although these professions are certainly apart of Balram’s repertoire of trade, his journey from his birthplace— which he dubs the Darkness—to his office at the end of the novel in the Light (Bangalore), serves as an overarching metaphor for the transition of India from the old into the new. No matter the perhaps unscrupulous methods that Balram undertakes to get there, his rise in status represents the shifting dynamic in the prosperity of India moving from those at the lowest of the castes to those at the top. It can be understood that Balram is the embodiment of India described in the book as both the old and the new, the shy and the sly, the one who ‘pays to play it both ways’, and the one who has lived in both darkness and light. In this paper I will be following Balram’s transition from the Darkness into the Light by pivoting around his relationship with Mr. Ashok and the various metaphors that he uses.
Most prominently, Balram compares the suffocating and degrading Indian socio-economic and political state to that of a rooster coop. Roosters in a coop, says Balram, watch one another slaughtered one by one, but are unable or unwilling to rebel and break out of their coop. Similarly, India’s poor people see one another being crushed by the wealthy and powerful. They are defeated by the staggering inequality of Indian society but are unable to escape their seemingly predestined fate. In fact, he argues that the poor actively stop each other from escaping, either by willfully cutting each other down, or less purposely but just as powerfully, through a culture that makes them expect such abuse and servitude. Indeed, Balram is able to escape the impoverished “Darkness” of the rural inner continent to arrive at the “Light” of urban coastal India but he is never truly able to escape the laws of the jungle.
The India of Darkness and Light
Balram describes dark bars that separate the Indians of light from the Indians of darkness, and that being in the Darkness meant living outside of society (Adiga 2008, 57-58). Social mobility for Balram is found in an individual’s capacity in his own agency (ibid, 54) and therefore servitude was a step up for Balram and in many ways he continues to seek to better himself. Balram is able to maintain his clear perspective and just perception of the men of big bellies and men with small bellies because, philosophically, he has seen the beauty of freedom and opportunities through Mr. Ashok and therefore he considers himself enlightened. “Even as a boy I could see what was beautiful in the world: I was destined not to stay a slave” (ibid. 35). Instead of emphasizing the word “beauty”, consider what Balram means when he says “see”. What does it mean to “see”? The ability to internalize one’s surroundings undoubtedly affects how one continues to live among them. Balram claims that he has “woken up” when other are still sleeping, which highlights the difference between them. Mr. Ashok, while borne in the Light, is trapped in his own darkness and gradually turns towards a debauched lifestyle. The Light can be symbolic of wealth and opportunity and freedom, but it is also a mindset that is further highlighted by the also metaphorical rooster coop and the two types of men. Balram may have been born with a small belly due to poverty, but in his heart contains a big-bellied man that fuels of his ambition and feeds his appetite for progress and improvement.
Some would say that Balram and Mr. Ashok’s relationship is the centre of the story, but I think that Balram’s struggle is with himself. Although the tone of the story is painfully casual, he has a lot of emotions that he doesn’t express outright due to pride, but which can be seen through his actions and the changes in the text. Although he seems hard bent and unflinching in his belief to leave his family behind and pursue his own goals, he struggles to put away his feelings and remains tied to his past. He is a man that looks like he fears nothing, yet lizards, the Black Fort, and his family still haunt him and he struggles but cannot escape from them. For example, he refuses to eat the meat that his grandmother cooks for him and instead sees that it’s his brother’s flesh that’s being consumed. This shows a physical manifestation of his inner fears of rotting away in the village of Darkness and being enslaved and “eaten” by his familial obligations.
In the novel, Balram’s brother Kishan serves as a foil for what Balram’s fate might have been: “Kishan had changed. He was thinner, and darker – his neck tendons were sticking out in high relief above the deep clavicles. He had become, all of a sudden, my father” (ibid, 73). The social construct of the lower caste that his brother was not able to escape from dooms Kishan to meet the same fate as his father and mother.
Balram looks up to Ashok because Ashok is an uncorrupted, albeit naive, wealthy person in India. Balram says that, in his village, a character like Mr. Ashok would be labeled a lamb. Although Balram did not receive more education than Mr. Ashok, the irony is that Balram is more observant, and in many ways more knowledgeable of the Indian society than Mr. Ashok, who although is of the wealthy elite of Indian society, is simple-minded and quite gullible. Such is the case when Balram pretends to be pious and makes a gesture every time he passes a temple or tree in order to please Mr. Ashok. According to Balram’s philosophy of a successful life, Mr. Ashok lacks the ambition, drive and self-agency to survive in this hard-hearted world. In the early stages of becoming a driver, Balram is careful to uphold a standard of a moral, law-abiding citizen who knows his place in the caste system and is quick to rebuff any advancements or suggestions that he might drink or engage in unscrupulous behaviour. After he becomes familiar with Mr. Ashok and earns the trust of the
family more or less, he loosens his morals and becomes more daring in doing things that are considered taboo. Like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (Orwell 1993), the servant is standing up on his hind legs to imitate the Master’s behaviour. But the difference he emphasizes is that he knows exactly the consequences of his actions and he realizes that the behaviour is wrong. Therefore he talks about the rooster coop, using it to explain why India is the way that it is and that he is the product of the society. A question may be raised at this point that Balram’s own acts, such as bribing the policeman when he becomes wealthy enough, contradicts his scornful view of Mr. Ashok. In this case both men knew it was wrong to bribe an officer, but the difference is that Balram is able to understand and internalize the injustices of the society enough to see past that injustice, and acts out of his own agency to provide the grieving family with compensation. He admits to the injustice but understands that “this is the way of the jungle” (ibid, 268), and that it will not change that easily. In other words, you can take the man out of the Darkness but you can’t take the Darkness out of the man.
Some would claim that the turning point in the novel during which Balram’s affection for Ashok turns a bit sour is when Ashok attempts to pin the hit-and-run murder on him.
While that is definitely an event that was unpleasant, it wasn’t unexpected, as Balram writes many other servants/drivers get blamed for their masters’ crimes. Throughout the novel Balram defends Ashok, and still does so at the end of the novel even after after he’s murdered him. There are two ways that I will attempt to explain why he both still honours Mr. Ashok and why Balram’s impression of him changed. First, I believe that it didn’t matter who Balram killed. Balram’s goal from the very beginning was to escape his family, escape his servitude, and ultimately escape the rooster coop. His ambition and goal was always to move up in life until he became his own master. Servitude was a step up to escape the clutches of his family mired in poverty, and the murder was to escape that servitude. He does show remorse that he has killed Mr. Ashok instead of the Mongoose, who he believes is more evil.
Another way of looking at his murder is the parallel between his wanting to escape his predestined life and Mr. Ashok wanting to escape his luxurious life as a landlord’s son. He too is trapped by his lineage and is forced to do dirty acts like bribing politicians to stay in power and it drives him insane. I believe that, on one hand, Balram admired Mr. Ashok for being a glowing figure of (almost) goodness and living in luxury with a beautiful wife. But he scorns him for his lack of ambition, his weak personality for giving in to his father and brother, his inability to escape from the things he didn’t like in life, and his eventual breakdown with his wife leaving him. Thus Balram’s opinion of Mr. Ashok changes when he witnesses Mr. Ashok submit to bribery and other acts that are distasteful and unfitting of men of that nature.
In similar ways, both Balram and Mr. Ashok defy a very big part of Indian culture, and that is family. Balram refuses his grandmother’s wishes for him to marry and severs their relationship by not sending them money. Mr. Ashok goes to America and marries an American woman, which ends in eventual divorce and a mental breakdown. Although we should never take the narrator’s voice as the complete truth because of the bias, prejudice, and premeditated judgements and difference in value judgements, Balram is unflinchingly blunt, a quality that makes him unnervingly honest: he includes both the good and the bad, and never tries to hide anything from the reader, even blatantly admitting to murder in the first chapter. This difference in mentality leads Balram to believe that Mr. Ashok is weak and does not have complete agency in his life as he submits to other people’s dictates.
The similarity is that both Balram and Mr. Ashok start off pure but get tainted by their surroundings: the rooster coop. Balram develops a malicious streak due to the influence of his masters (drinking, going to brothels, lying, and eventually bribing his own policemen to get out of sticky situations), but the difference between his ascent into prosperity and Mr. Ashok’s maintenance of wealth is that he retains his ability to reserve a fair and almost just value system in the corrupt world he lives in. Such is why he pays the family of the deceased and lets off the driver, while Mr. Ashok and his family do the opposite.
Amidst the societal pressures to maintain a gap between the world that Mr. Ashok lives in and that of Balram, we see a one-sided, almost homo-erotic relationship that buds from Balram’s interactions with his master. Although Balram scorns the wealthy elite, his harsh tone visibly softens when he speaks about Mr. Ashok. He describes his master’s movements as gentle, and there is a scene where Balram and Mr. Ashok exchange seats in the car twice and Balram catches the lingering scent of Mr. Ashok. In that moment there is a curious instance of correlation without causation, in that the proximity of their bodies translates to intimacy but does not cause a sense of equality. By that I mean, in the moment Mr. Ashok claims the driver’s seat, Balram experiences at once a feeling he can only describe as mysterious and magical (Adiga 2008, 95) and Mr. Ashok also has an innate response that it (their switching of seats) was wrong. I believe that although there could possibly exist the idea of Balram’s affection for Mr. Ashok, I believe a more probable interpretation of the scene is that Balram experiences a close proximity with not Mr. Ashok, but the “lovely, rich, fruit cologne [that] rushed into [his] nostrils” (ibid, 94). In contrast, the scent that Balram rubs off onto Mr. Ashok’s face is the smell of a “servant’s sweat” (ibid, 94). In other words, it is the scent of wealth and status that sends Balram reeling instead of the physical proximity to Mr. Ashok.
A man of poetry, compassion, and possessing a surprisingly progressive mentality in regards to the social, political, and economic construct of India, Balram’s understanding of his surroundings allows him to see India from a perspective that may not be completely without bias but is unflinchingly honest. Balram both likens himself to the servant-god Hanuman (Adiga 2008, 38) and to the devil (ibid, 75). Both comparisons have a similarity in that they are both subordinates of a greater god. Thus, just as Satan in Paradise Lost tries to overthrow God, he cannot escape the clutches of God no matter how hard he tries (Milton 2001). Balram’s approach to this truth largely involves a deeply cynical humor, and there is irony in his fate. In order to escape the “Darkness” and enter into the “Light,” Balram must himself become a part of this system and take on his ex-master’s name. His victory is thus bittersweet: while he has succeeded in elevating his social position, he continues to live in a country paralyzed by corruption, which prevents true progress from taking place. Thus corruption necessarily breeds corruption, unless of course a greater revolution remakes society; and, until then, there is no true escape from the system for Balram.
Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost; and, Paradise Regained. New York: Signet Classic, 2001. Orwell, George. Animal Farm. London: P