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The White Tiger
The White Tiger is the debut novel by Indian author Aravind Adiga. It was first published in 2008 and won the 40th Man Booker Prize in the same year. The novel provides a darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world as told through a retrospective narration from Balram Halwai, a village boy. In detailing Balram's journey first to Delhi, where he works as a chauffeur to a rich landlord, and then to Bangalore, the place to which he flees after killing his master and stealing his money, the novel examines issues of religion, caste, loyalty, corruption and poverty in India. Ultimately, Balram transcends his sweet-maker caste and becomes a successful entrepreneur, establishing his own taxi service. In a nation proudly shedding a history of poverty and underdevelopment, he represents, as he himself says, "tomorrow."
The novel has been well-received, making the New York Times bestseller list in addition to winning the Man Booker Prize. Aravind Adiga, 33 at the time, was the second youngest writer as well as the fourth debut writer to win the prize in 2008. Adiga says his novel "attempt[s] to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India — the voice of the colossal underclass." According to Adiga, the exigence for The White Tiger was to capture the unspoken voice of people from "the Darkness" – the impoverished areas of rural India, and he "wanted to do so without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually."
Balram Halwai narrates his life in a letter, written in seven consecutive nights and addressed to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. In his letter, Balram explains how he, the son of a rickshaw puller, escaped a life of servitude to become a successful businessman, describing himself as an entrepreneur.
Balram was born in the rural village of Laxmangarh, where he lived with his grandmother, parents, brother and extended family. He is a smart child but is forced to leave school in order to help pay for his cousin's dowry and begins to work in a teashop with his brother in Dhanbad. While working there he begins to learn about India's government and economy from the customers' conversations. Balram describes himself as a bad servant but a good listener and decides to become a driver.
After learning how to drive, Balram finds a job driving Ashok, the son of one of Laxmangarh's landlords. He takes over the job of the main driver, from a small car to a heavy-luxury described Honda City. He stops sending money back to his family and disrespects his grandmother during a trip back to his village. Balram moves to New Delhi with Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam. Throughout their time in Delhi, Balram is exposed to extensive corruption, especially in the government. In Delhi, the contrast between the poor and the wealthy is made even more evident by their proximity to one another.
One night Pinky Madam takes the wheel from Balram, while drunk, hits something in the road and drives away; we are left to assume that she has killed a child. Ashok's family puts pressure on Balram to confess that he had been driving alone. Ashok becomes increasingly involved in bribing government officials for the benefit of the family coal business. Balram then decides that killing Ashok will be the only way to escape India's Rooster Coop. After bludgeoning Ashok with a bottle and stealing a large bribe, Balram moves to Bangalore, where he bribes the police in order to help start his own taxi business. Interestingly, Ashok too is portrayed to be trapped in the metaphorical Rooster Coop: his family controls what he does and society dictates how he acts. Just like Ashok, Balram pays off a family whose son one of his taxi drivers hit and killed. Balram explains that his own family was almost certainly killed by Ashok's relatives as retribution for his murder. At the end of the novel, Balram rationalizes his actions and considers that his freedom is worth the lives of his family and of Ashok. And thus ends the letter to Jiabao, letting the reader think of the dark humour of the tale, as well as the idea of life as a trap introduced by the writer.
The White Tiger takes place in a time in which increased technology has led to world globalization, and India is no exception. In the past decade, India has had one of the fastest booming economies. Specifically Americanization in India has played its role in the plot, since it provides an outlet for Balram to alter his caste. To satisfy Pinky’s want for American culture, Ashok, Pinky, and Balram simply move to Gurgaon instead of back to America. Globalization has assisted in the creation of an American atmosphere in India. Ashok justifies this move by explaining "Today it’s the modernest suburb of Delhi. American Express, Microsoft, all the big American companies have offices there. The main road is full of shopping malls—each mall has a cinema inside! So if Pinky Madam missed America, this was the best place to bring her". By blackmailing Ram Persad, the other driver, Balram is promoted and drives Ashok and Pinky to their new home.
Ashok is even convinced India is surpassing the USA, "There are so many more things I could do here than in New York now...The way things are changing in India now, this place is going to be like America in ten years". Balram is noticing the rapid growth as well. From the beginning of his story he knows that in order to rise above his caste he should become an entrepreneur. Although his taxi service is not an international business, Balram plans to keep up with the pace of globalization and change his trade when need be. "I‘m always a man who sees ‘tomorrow’ when others see ‘today.’" Balram's recognition of the increasing competition resulting from globalization contributes to his corruption.
Throughout the book, there are references to how Balram is very different from those back in his home environment. He is referred to as the "white tiger" (which also happens to be the title of the book). A white tiger symbolizes power in East Asian cultures, such as in Vietnam. It is also a symbol for freedom and individuality. Balram is seen as different from those he grew up with. He is the one who got out of the "Darkness" and found his way into the "Light".
In an interview with Aravind Adiga, he talked about how "The White Tiger" was a book about a man’s quest for freedom. Balram, the protagonist in the novel, worked his way out of his low social caste (often referred to as "the Darkness") and overcame the social obstacles that limited his family in the past. Climbing up the social ladder, Balram sheds the weights and limits of his past and overcomes the social obstacles that keep him from living life to the fullest that he can. In the book, Balram talks about how he was in a rooster coop and how he broke free from his coop. The novel is somewhat of a memoir of his journey to finding his freedom in India’s modern day capitalist society. Towards the beginning of the novel, Balram cites a poem from the Muslim poet Iqbal where he talks about slaves and says "They remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world." Balram sees himself embodying the poem and being the one who sees the world and takes it as he rises through the ranks of society, and in doing so finding his freedom.
The book shows a modern day, capitalist Indian society with free market and free business. It also shows how it can create economic division. In India there are not social classes, there are social castes. The novel portrays India’s society as very negative towards the lower social caste.
The novel is based on the disparities of two worlds: darkness, inhabited by poor and underprivileged who cannot even meet their bare minimums; and the lighted world, inhabited by zamindars, politicians, businessmen etc. who shamelessly exploits the ones from darkness, making them even more poor and grows their own grandeur.
Balram refers to it as the "Darkness". When Balram was asked which caste he was from, he knew that it could ultimately cause a biased stance in his employer and determine the future of his employment. There is definitely a big difference seen in Balram’s lower caste from back home and his current higher caste in their lifestyles, habits, and standards of living. This novel is showing how our economic system today creates socioeconomic gaps that create a big division in society. It limits opportunity, social mobility, health, and other rights and pleasures that should be given to all. There is a big difference in the amount of money spread around in society today and this book is alluding to that fact.
Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwei. Born in India’s overarching darkness of perpetual servanthood and poverty, Balram seeks a life in the light—a life of freedom and financial prosperity. Balram, a man of many names and of strong conviction, is one of the few who are able to escape the Darkness. Unlike the majority of the poor in India, eternally pent up in the Coop, he is willing to sacrifice his family for his own self gain. His ambition and inner drive propels him to commit murder to achieve freedom. To be one’s own man, one must break free from the darkness and live life being able to choose his own path. When Balram says, “All I wanted was the chance to be a man—and for that, one murder was enough,” he is technically correct. While murdering Ashok will result in the resultant murder of his family, the one murder alone is enough to break free from the Darkness. By murdering Ashok, therefore, Balram becomes his own man, free of the chains of servitude and finally able to control his own destiny.
According to Balram, there are two different types of people in India. There are those in the light—politicians, businessmen, entrepreneurs, to name a few, who prosper financially and sit at the top of society—and there are those in the Darkness, trapped in lives of poverty and subservience. He explains, “Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness” (12). To explain this division he uses the metaphor of the Coop: “Go to Old Delhi… Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages… They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country” (147). The Coop represents life in the Darkness: a life where the “roosters,” or people, cannot choose their own fate, where they live in poverty, where they see their family decimated around them and are unable to intervene, and in which they inevitably will live and die without ever the possibility of escape. Balram’s family is in the Darkness. While they are supposed to be sweetmakers, or Halweis, they live in poverty. His father works tenuously as a rickshaw puller, and his brother works in the local tea shop.
Balram’s father implants in him early on this idea of breaking away from the Darkness, and of becoming his own man. He instates in Balram the goal of becoming one of those men who are in the light. He says, “My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey. All I want is that one son of mine—at least one—should live like a man” (26). In the eyes of Balram’s father, a man should live in the light, free from the grueling life of manual labor and servitude. Balram adopts this goal, and devotes his life towards attaining it. Later, Balram uses the metaphor: “There are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat—or get eaten up” (54). Balram has a big belly, filled with the lust of freedom and of riches—the same belly which will eventually propel him to murder Ashok and give up his family for the sake of becoming a man.
In his childhood, Balram recognizes that he is special. When an official comes to evaluate his school, he singles out Balram because he is the only one who can read and write. He sees great potential in the boy: “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots… You need to go to a real school” (30). The rest of the students are cast into the lowly group of “thugs and idiots, because they will forever remain in the darkness. They do not have the ambition, drive or intelligence that is needed to escape—the same characteristics which the inspector sees in Balram.
The inspector knows that Balram exceeds everyone else within the “jungle” of his lowly school and town. He says, “In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation? The white tiger” (30). Balram calls himself White Tiger permanently after this event. He fully takes on and embodies the life of a white tiger. In Balram’s opinion, “[Slaves] remain slaves because they can’t see what is beautiful in this world” (34). A “white tiger” can never be a slave, because it can see and pursue beauty. “Beauty,” in this case, is the life of financial prosperity and freedom of choice that Balram realizes he so direly yearns for. Amidst the other animals in the darkness, amidst the other children in his school and the rest of India trapped in lives of Darkness, all who are unable to see beauty, and who carry with them small bellies, Balram, the “White Tiger,” knows that he must escape any means possible.
Balram only faints twice in his life. Each time he faints it is because he realizes that the Darkness is unavoidable and inescapable without some form of resistance. He first faints when he sees his mother’s dead body on the black muck around the Ganges: “Soon she would become part of the black mound… And then I understood: this was the real god of Benaras—this black mud of the Ganga into which everything died, and decomposed, and was reborn from, and died into again. The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here” (15). Balram cannot fathom the prospect of forever remaining in the Darkness. He sees the overwhelming power that being in the Darkness has on the ones in it: that when surrounded by others marked by a lack of ambition, leading lives of destitute servitude, unable to choose the paths of their own lives, one inevitably surrenders to that same life. Balram faints thinking that this could happen to him.
Balram faints for a second time when he goes to the zoo. He sees the White Tiger trapped in the cage and realizes that he sees himself: “[The tiger] was hypnotizing himself by walking like this - that was the way he could tolerate this cage” (237). Balram’s current predicament of servitude serves as his own cage. Balram was “hypnotizing himself” by buying into his life of servitude. He wholeheartedly embraced his master, with whom he treated with great love, to distract himself from the fact that he was living in a life that he and his father wanted so desperately for him to break free of. “All at once, the tiger vanished” (237). When Balram sees himself in that cage, he has an epiphany. Up to this point, he had never seriously considered rebelling against or killing Ashok. But the tiger vanishes from the cage because, at that moment, the caged version of Balram ceased to exist. A changed man, he realizes that he must kill Ashok to become his own man and enter into a life of Light.
After this epiphany, Balram quickly and deliberately frees himself from the Darkness by killing Ashok. Despite the fact that his family may be murdered, Balram commits this act because it will transport him to the life he has dreamed of and therefore make him a man. Balram has so much disdain for him family, since he sees the harsh ways by which they drain the life out of his father, that they no longer remain a relevant part of his life. Therefore, he is justified in sacrificing them, at least in his eyes. His epiphany at the zoo puts in context that life is not worth living if it is lived in the Darkness. After killing Ashok with the glass shards of a broken liquor bottle, he says, “I’ve made it! I’ve broken out of the coop!” (275). In this India of Light and Darkness, Balram is now in the light. By resisting the life of Darkness and by killing Ashok, he now leads a life in which he can choose his own fate. The difference between “this India,” Laxmangarh, and “that India,” Bangalore, is that in “this India” Balram is a free independent man who can finally control his own destiny (262).
The image of the chandelier embodies Balram’s transformation into a man. Literally, it represents the materialistic success which he has encountered in his entrepreneurial ventures as an independent businessman. Figuratively. it sheds light on him amidst the Darkness which still remains prevalent in the everyday life of India. It represents that Balram has escaped the insurmountable presence of Darkness which used to dominate his life. By killing Ashok, Balram becomes his own man, in that he frees himself from his previous life of obedience and servitude into a light shed life of freedom and independence.