The White Tiger: Narrator, Symbolism, and Class Struggle


The White Tiger is the story of a hard-working, ambitious man of the lower class, who rises in life through deceit and murder. Balram Halwai kills his master, Ashok Sharma and runs away with a bag full of money, acting as per a carefully laid-out plan. He settles in Bangalore, adopting the name Ashok Sharma, reminiscent of the classic situation in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the rebelling pigs transform into their erstwhile masters, the humans. He is a successful business entrepreneur and he generously helps himself to all the luxuries that he had been deprived of throughout his servant life. His new station in life is only hampered by his handicap in the area of a formal education that is adequately counter balanced by his education in the matter of survival and the art of winning the secret ‘rat race’ between the “bellies”, as Balram would call it.

    That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn’t matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up. [. . . .] To sum up—in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up. (64)

The narrator is Balram himself, telling the story of his life in a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao who is visiting Bangalore to understand the amazing success of Indian entrepreneurship in the field of IT. Feeling disenchanted with all the hype and halo being created around the image of India, Balram takes upon himself the responsibility of explaining the “truth”.

Balram—“a self-taught entrepreneur” and “the best kind there is”(6)—recounts the story of his ‘success’, from the days in which he worked and lived as a servant to his gradual and studied rise towards becoming a master. The tone of the narrator is crisp and biting in its materialistic callousness. The language is hyperbolic and reader-friendly, illustrating—almost flaunting—the irony, the comparisons, the contradictions and the symbolism, for which reason, the narrator is least reliable. He takes on the reins like an omniscient narrator, pronouncing the particularities as generalities, occasionally misleading the reader with inaccurate socio-historical facts and misinterpretations.

Balram is undoubtedly an antihero, but he is not the kind of social rebel that we might like to accept, in opposition to a Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis) or a Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger), or else, at the extreme, an Alex (A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess). We do not feel empathy for Adiga’s character, and he does not ask for it. His approach to his employees may as well be applicable to his reader: “When the work is done I kick them out of the office: no chitchat, no cups of coffee. A White Tiger keeps no friends. It’s too dangerous” (302). Balram is in many respects, similar to Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby); he rises from rags to riches through shady means, accumulates gaudy and out-of-place riches (in Balram’s case, chandeliers both in his 150 sq. foot office and in the toilet). Nevertheless, unlike Gatsby, he is disillusioned with the power of wealth and is nowhere close to being the dreamy idealist that Gatsby is.

With the lingo of a pessimistic, cynical observer, rather than of someone who have lived through the horrors and pity he describes, The White Tiger seems to have a serious shortcoming in credibility. The first-person account can be, at times, risky for a story that relies on mere reporting of events. Notwithstanding this flaw, the linguistic schema of the novel is, at the very outset, biased due to its propensity towards an idiom that cannot be more un-“Indian”, with its Americanisms and easy journalistic style. Much of the criticism against the book is directed at its apparently incongruous phraseology; according to one disparaging essayist, “Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist” (Kumar). Interestingly, while describing the India of Darkness where poverty, lack of medical, educational, and healthy living facilities, and exploitation are rampant, Balram does not speak of his hunger or the experience of going hungry or thirsty anywhere in his unsentimental narrative. This is one of the many cases in the narration that we sense a dearth of true connect with the experience he describes.

Whether Adiga intended Balram’s narrative to be considered a true first-person account of the life of a lower class Indian is irrelevant here; because, far from it, the narrator repeatedly points out his alienation since childhood from his ‘kind’. His ambition drives him to be different and see things differently than they might be, and unlike the Macbethian situation, his lack of guilt secures him from a ‘tragedy’, if we refrain from considering his moral and ethic corruption as a tragedy. The kind of attitude with which Balram views his experiences is a pointer to his dissimilarity with the others of his crowd. As he himself repeats proudly, he is a “[white tiger,] the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation” (35).

For this reason, Balram’s didactic voice need not be mistaken to be Adiga’s. The so-called Darkness—the India of poverty, corruption, injustice, and crime pertains not only to the villages but also to the cities and metropolises. The inexperience and the pessimism of the narrator borne out of his having lived looking up to his masters and none else, absolves him from the stance of a reliable and responsible (despite his ‘omniscience’) representative of the Indian “Darkness”. The choice of hero somewhat deflates the impact of the scandalously odious and sleazy portrait of the country that the novel depicts. Still the undercurrents of accumulated tension against the repression endured over years and years of exploitation and servitude is the reality of the Indian subaltern, here, finding vent through a ‘class hero’, Balram. The narrative is an outlet of repressed anger—against the system and the complacency of the people who pretends not to acknowledge the injustices and shame bestowed on the underdog. His thoughts are tellingly callous and matter-of-fact when his master, Ashok, says at one point:

        “Sometimes I wonder, Balram. I wonder what’s the point of living. I really wonder…”
        The point of living? My heart pounded. The point of your living is that if you die, who’s going to pay me three and a half thousand rupees a month? (186)

Balram represents a new kind of working-class individual—callous, ruthless, amoral, ambitious, and angry. Very unlike “the Indian family man”, the absolute stereotype, one who puts family and tradition before oneself, Balram acts for himself and answers only to himself. Therefore, freed from social, religious, and moral obligations, from ‘duty’ and ‘honour’, he needs to reason only with his own conscience, which, in turn, is appallingly nonchalant in the ease with which the murder of his master is approved as unavoidable. Balram elaborates on a comparison of the Indian class situation to a chicken coop—that which he dubs “The Great Indian Rooster Coop”:

        The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.
        The very same thing is done with human beings in this country (173-4).

They do not attempt escape because their “servitude [is] so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse” (176). And therefore,

        only a 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. It would, in fact, take a White Tiger. You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur (176-7).

The narrator is so caught up with his story and his cause, he is immune from all criticism. We know his crime is heinous and unpardonable, but for him, it is an essential act of courage, the slaying of the master of the coop, and the only thing that can get him out of the Darkness. He eschews any hint of guilt that he may have had with his concluding sentences:

        Yet even if all my chandeliers come crashing down to the floor—even if they throw me in jail and have all the other prisoners dip their beaks into me—even if they make me walk the wooden stairs to the hangman’s noose—I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat.
        I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant (320-1).

The boy, whose guts have failed him before stepping close to the Black Fort, derives an unexpected daring and power of will years later, (when as a young man he comes to his village with his master) to swim across the pond, walk up the hill and finally, climb the fort. The sight of his village from up the tower, recounted by the now servant-turned-master, Balram, is described thus:

        Up in the blue skies, God spreads His palm over the plains below, showing this little man Laxmangarh, and its little tributary of the Ganga, and all that lies beyond: a million such villages, a billion such people. And God asks this little man:
        Isn’t it all wonderful? Isn’t it all grand? Aren’t you grateful to be my servant?
        And then I see this small black man in the wet khaki uniform start to shake, as if he has gone mad with anger, before delivering to the Almighty a gesture of thanks for having created the world this particular way, instead of all the other ways it could have been created.
        I see the little man in the khaki uniform spitting at God again and again, as I watch the black blades of the midget fan slice the light from the chandelier again and again (87-8).

The symbols of class-divide permeate the novel and much of this symbolism, as mentioned earlier, is distinctly expounded by the narrator—the river Ganga, the black mud of the river, the ogre-charm, the class-based demarcation of liquor into “English” and “Indian”, the white tiger, the jungle, the chandelier and so on. Despite the long list of metaphors for explicating the theme of the novel (namely, class struggle), a few others yet remain to be explored. The Black Fort, for one, is a sign of ambition, one that can be reached only by giving up one’s ties with the “black” soil. When Balram finally gets the courage to climb the fort, it is with a transformation in him that the feat is possible; he foregoes his connections with his ilk and its time-honoured values. This is explicit in the act of spitting on his village—the phlegmatic stretch of his past.

Coal is a pervasive presence in the novel. The first job of Balram after being whisked off from school is beating coal for the teashop. The village honchos run a flourishing business in coal. Balram’s master, too, is one of them whose wealth lies in the coalmines of Laxmangarh. I find a striking resemblance between the power plays in the novel and the metaphor of the coal business. Independent of class and caste, the powerful in every group oppress the powerless; among servants, masters, the rich and the poor, the underdogs are beaten, deprived, and exploited alike. For instance, Balram mistreats his young relative from the village but soon changes tactics when the boy begins to discern Balram’s fears and suspect his criminal past; similarly, the newly-returned-from-America Ashok Sharma is duped and puppeteered both by his family as well as by the people he meets, including Balram.

It is curious that the ‘White Tiger’ is terrified of lizards. Insignificant, harmless, and vulnerable, the lizard is utterly powerless. Is Balram afraid of the power of powerlessness that the lizard symbolizes; the immunity that the awareness of the lack of any power can provide? The lizard (figures in numerous myths across cultures and so) represents the horde of superstitions that had entrenched Balram in the “Darkness” for so long. His morbid dread of lizards (‘Scoliodentosaurophobia’) is suggestive of a subconscious fear of a life of enslavement, cloaked beneath the narrative façade of cool repulsion. His words, after his bout of fainting in front of the caged white tiger in the zoo, decide the course of his and his family’s future: “‘I can’t live the rest of my life in a cage, Granny. I’m so sorry’” (278). Soon after, he kills his master and makes off with the money, leaving his kindred in the village to a heinous fate, at the mercy of the landlord’s wrath.

The question is, has Balram really escaped the Darkness? The past pursues Balram like a spectre, incarnate in the lizard. He spits on his village and the habits it taught him from a top the fort, but exasperated with its futility, he is compelled to say later, “If only a man could spit his past out so easily” (151). His self-education, “uniqueness”, ambition, and imitation of the master class, has only led to as much as his becoming a living version of his master, Ashok. Unlike the real Ashok, however, Balram is constantly engaged in bettering, preserving, and educating his self. He takes on the blame of his driver’s hit-and-run killing case (astutely, of course, having bribed the police in advance) and though let off the case, he pays a visit to the victim’s house and a considerable amount of money as a kind of ‘social justice’, on his part. This echoes the episode where a similar crime committed by Pinky Madam is dumped on the shoulders of the driver, Balram, and he is nearly sent to jail; Pinky, as a sort of release from her guilt and sense of injustice, gives the driver some money before leaving the country.

The White Tiger is, in short, a discussion of the future of the class divide and the problems that lie in the “emancipation” of the downtrodden; in Adiga’s own words, the novel is a “sardonic, seriocomic saga of the plight of India’s poor.”Balram is the representative of the new, liberated, independent, competitive, and competent class-conscious proletariat rising in India. The India of Balram is a dark, gloomy, and oppressive world where people are either victims—trapped into silence and submission—or are the villains—tyrannical, insensitive and rich. The author vindicates the need for insuring equal opportunities to people. Balram puts forward this idea concisely: “Let animals live like animals; let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence” (276). As a piece of fiction, the novel’s merits lies in the masterful use of suspense (despite having revealed the vital point in the story, namely, the murder, in the very first chapter itself), use of an apathetic, delinquent narrator (with whom we cannot empathize and therefore, condemn as caricature), and the ‘reality’ (though fictionalized and biased) of a dark side to India and its inner power play.

“You ask ‘Are you a man or a demon?’ Neither, I say. I have woken up, and the rest of you are sleeping, and that is the only difference between us” (315).

CLOWNIN’ Rating: 3/5

1. Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.
2. Bhadury, Prakash. “’India Re-located’ in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (Abstract).” International Indexed & Referred Research Journal. 3.35 (2012): 36-7. Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
3. Kumar, Amitava. “On Adiga’s The White Tiger.” The Hindu Literary Review. 2 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
4. Singh, Krishna. “Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger: The Voice of Underclass—A Postcolonial Dialectics.” Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies. 1.2 (2010): 98-112. Inflibnet. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
5. Marder, Stephen R. “The White Tiger (Review).” The American Journal of Psychiatry. 166.12 (2009): 1418. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

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