The White Tiger

by Aravind Adiga

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The White Tiger

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In October, 2008, Aravind Adiga became the second youngest writer to win the prestigious Man Booker Award. He beat out fellow Indian writer Amitav Ghosh for A Sea of Poppies as well as the Irish writer Sebastian Barry for The Secret Sculpture, among others. Winning thrust Adiga, a former Time correspondent and freelance journalist, into the limelight for his acerbic and satiric look at contemporary India, especially the great divide between castes and classes that the drive toward globalization and wealth in the South Asian country has exacerbated. Reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and The Satanic Verses (1988), Adiga’s novel teems with the assorted misfits, ragamuffins, and other denizens of the slums, back alleys, and gleaming corporate towers of the new India of the twenty-first century.

When Balram Halwai learns that Wen Jiaboo, the premier of China, plans a visit to India to learn more about the country’s success with capitalism, Halwai sets out to offer the premier his own insights into the nature of the modern India. Over the course of seven days and nights, Halwai writes letters to Jiaboo, providing details into his life of entrepreneurship and chronicling the way that he was able to move from poverty to wealth. These letters paint a picture of an India divided by wealth, a class of workers enraged by their treatment and striving to overcome their lowly position for a piece of the wealth, and a political system that is so corrupt that murder can go unpunished if enough money can be paid to the police. Although a statue of Gandhi stands in the center of Bangalore, where Halwai lives, Gandhi’s memory is more mocked than venerated. To succeed in the new India requires cunning, desire, and the will to power. Without these, life, according to the narrator, is a joke.

Halwai is no stranger to poverty. Born in the village of Laxmangarh to a rickshaw driver, he does not even have a name until he begins school. On the first day of school, when the teacher asks the pupils their names, Halwai replies that his name is “boy.” When the teacher further questions Halwai, the narrator says that everyone in his family called him that and that they had no time to give him another name. The teacher then names the boy Balram, which means “sidekick to Krishna,” one of the many gods of Hinduism. Even though the narrator possesses a religious name, he hardly feels religious. His family’s poverty is so pressing that all he feels is the darkness of the India in which he lives. This poverty becomes even more crushing when Balram’s father dies of tuberculosis, and he soon finds himself working in a tea shop to help his family make ends meet. He gets his last name, Halwai, or “sweet-maker,” from his new job at the tea shop. Although his destiny seems settled, he eventually is hired as a chauffeur for one of the wealthiest men in the village, and his education about the nature of humanity and the deep political and social fissures in India soon begins.

Mr. Ashok, Balram’s new employer, represents the new wealth in India. Although the sources of his wealth are mysterious, he has enough money to hire servants and to keep ostentatious living quarters in the wealthy section of Delhi. He is also able to use his money to help, or try to help, influence political elections and to hire Western prostitutes. A fat man whose wealth has not made him especially happy, Ashok is married to a demanding Westerner named Pinky Madam, who makes life hell for her husband and his servants. Although Ashok’s family did not approve of his marriage to Pinky Madam, Ashok went ahead with the marriage. When Balram becomes Ashok’s driver, he soon begins to learn what life is like in the part of India that lives in the Light, away from the darkness of poverty and the superstition bred from centuries of religious observance. When Ashok’s brother, Mongoose (his real name is never revealed; this is the name that Balram gives the brother in order to represent the brother’s personality), meets Balram, he tells this new driver that the road is a jungle and that he will soon learn that he will have to roar to get ahead on it.

When Balram moves with Ashok and Pinky Madam to their home in Delhi, he sees the great gap between the two Indiasthe Light (rich) and the Dark (poor)and he plots a way to make his move from the darkness to the light. Ashok attempts to be an enlightened master to his hired help, and he treats Balram the way he thinks Balram wants to be treated, as a member of his family. Pinky Madam and others around Ashok recognize Balram for the servant he is, and they encourage Ashok to treat this young chauffeur accordingly. Ashok refuses, but Balram does not think of Ashok’s treatment as kind; he feels as if his employer is patronizing him and becomes angry. Balram’s anger is exacerbated as he watches his employer engage in political corruption as he tries to influence an election and as he tries to frame Balram for a hit-and-run accident for which Pinky Madam is responsible. Late one night on the way home from the mall, a drunken Pinky Madam demands to drive the car, and Ashok allows her to do so. Racing down a dark street, she hits and kills a young child. The next day, Ashok’s brother makes Balram sign a statement admitting that Balram was the driver when the accident occurred. After this incident, Balram begins to look for ways to betray and finally to escape Ashok.

Balram recognizes that having a great deal of money is the only way to survive in the jungle that is the new India. In order to escape his servitude, he begins to steal in devious ways small amounts of money from Ashok, whom he has now come to hate. When his employer withdraws a large amount of money from the bank, Balram decides to murder him and steal the money. One night on a deserted road, Balram succeeds in his plan, and he escapes undetected to southern India. He sets himself up as an example of entrepreneurship to Jiaboo because he took this first step to wealth. Once he gets to his new home, he hatches a plan to provide taxi service to employees leaving early in the morning from their jobs in new industries such as telemarketing. When he discovers that such car services already exist, he buys off the local policewho talk to him about this plan even though he is standing next to a wanted poster of himself in the police stationand they arrest the drivers in the taxi companies for having expired licenses. Balram’s company begins to thrive, and he survives in the jungle like a white tiger, that unique animal that is born only once every several years, whose roar is loud, and whose desire for conquest is unquenchable. Like Pip in Great Expectations, Balram has succeeded in far greater ways than he ever imagined; in his success he now resembles his now-dead ex-employer and can live in the Light and never again in the Dark.

Much like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, The White Tiger explores the tremendous disparities between rich and poor, Muslim and Hindu, that exist in post-1947 India, when the newly independent country is struggling to define itself and to establish its power. As Balram asserts in The White Tiger, the old India was like a well-kept and orderly zoo where every animal knew its place. In those days cowherds tended to cows and women wore veils and kept their eyes averted from strangers’ faces. When the British pulled out in 1947, the doors to the cages were suddenly opened and the animals began to destroy one another. The law of the jungle replaced the law of the zoo, and the most ferocious animals ate the others and grew big bellies. In Balram’s experience, there are now only two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies. Destiny in the new India is to eat or to be eaten. Thus, as in Rushdie’s novel, where in a famous scene the Indian immigrants to England become animals such as snakes and water buffaloes, Balram sees everyone around him in terms of their animal nature and gives them animal names. He is the white tiger because of his cunning; when he sees a white tiger at the zoo, he faints because he realizes he can no longer live in the cage of his existence. His employer’s brother is the Mongoose because of his fearlessness and his deceitful ways; his employee’s father is the Stork because of the length of his legs. In addition, Balram tells his grandmother that men and women in Bangalore live like animals in a jungle. Balram likens Bangalore to a chicken coop in which the animals’ movement is limited. Ironically, in order to break out of the chicken coop, he must embrace his animal naturewhich he has tried to rise above in believing that obedience and humility were virtuesand eat rather than be eaten.

Balram’s new India is one of deep contradictions. On the one hand, there is the wealth of the new middle classes brought about by globalization and the creation of middle management positions in jobs outsourced from Western countries at businesses such as call centers. On the other hand, the suffocating poverty of rural villages and of slums in the cities exists in the shadows of these new jobs. Class warfare continues to define India in a way that even Ashok is unable to see or admit. His patronizing treatment of one of his own countrymen resembles the way that a British colonial governor would treat one of his Indian servants. Balram’s murder of Ashok is both an act of class warfare and an act of individual entrepreneurship that enables Balram to get ahead. Thus, the greed that drives the new middle class in India touches the lower classes, making greed the consuming trait of the new India. In a world where life is a joke, as Balram tells Jiaboo early in the novel, even the act of murder can be seen as a self-congratulatory act of getting ahead in life.

As many of the reviews of the novel pointed out, Adiga’s novel is often simplistic and the characters are not fully developed. Neither of the two main charactersBalram or Ashokis complex or thoughtful; they are instead symbols of the poor and the rich. Each is driven by an almost physical desire to consume and conquer and thus is reduced to his animal nature. The contest between these two animals is exactly the point of Adiga’s novel, and he succeeds by using parody and satire to draw readers into the arena to watch this battle.


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The Economist 388 (September 13, 2008): 94.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 4 (February 15, 2008): 159.

Library Journal 133, no. 3 (February 15, 2008): 89.

New Statesman 137 (March 31, 2008): 59.

The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 2008, p. 13.

The New Yorker 84, no. 9 (April 14, 2008): 75.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 2 (January 14, 2008): 37.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 11, 2008, p. 21.

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