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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



Quest for Livelyhood in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger

C. Bharathi

Assistant Professor of English, Bharathiar University Post Graduate Extension Centre, Erode, TN

The novel The White Tiger explores class struggle in India at a time of modernization and globalization. Major transformations in Indian society have taken place in the last half-century, from the execution of British rule in 1947, to the end of the caste system, to the economic changes associated with the rise of new industries such as technology and outsourcing. Adiga says in an interview,
At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That’s what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and as a result, England and France are better societies. That’s what I’m trying to do – it’s not an attack on the country, it’s about the greater process of self-examination. (Jeffries 2008)
The White Tiger is presented as an epistolary novel, written to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao by the main protagonist, Balram Halwai, a self-styled entrepreneur. The novel presents a sharp contrast between India’s vertiginous economic growth and its dark side through Balram, who hails from crushing rural poverty. This novel is about a real, angry and darkly humorous man’s journey from Indian village life to industrial success. Balram Halwai, a village boy who happens to be a sweet maker becomes a successful businessman. He never turned back to his village. He was irritated with the society especially by his native village. He thinks that the poor man in our country is half-baked and he compared them with the chickens that are kept in the Rooster Coop. How Balram came out of this Rooster Coop and how the search for independence made him to face the most terrible situation that involves murder, cheating, corruption and stealing is the major theme of the book.
Adiga portrays the Indian class system through Balram: “Compelling, angry and darkly humorous The White Tiger is an unexpected journey into a new India. Adiga is a talent to watch” (Hamish).
This novel deals with the struggle of the oppressed class to emancipate from age-old slavery and exploitation. The edge is so symbolic in his description of the protagonist, who plans his crime well in advance. His disgusting act of spitting frequently in the route of his small town could be a mark of final rejection of everything. Balram Halwai was the son of rickshaw puller who gets his name from his teacher as he is called Munna:
When I told him what my name was, he gaped at me:
‘Munna? That’s not real name’.
‘He was right: it just means ‘boy’.
‘That’s all I’ve got, sir,’ I said.
It was true. I’d never been given a name. (13)
Balram’s intelligence and wit earns him the title The White Tiger, “the rarest animals - the creature that comes along only once in a generation?” (35). When he was able to attend the poor explanation for a school in his home village, he was singled out by a school inspector as the “White Tiger” (35) of his contemporaries as being the only one of his class abilities to read and write: “I’ll write to Patna asking them to send you a scholarship. You need to go to a real school – somewhere far away from here. You need a real uniform, and a real education”. (35)
Balram dreams to defy all social constraints in order to find a place in the world of the people who have mastered his community for ages. Through his journey from the remotest of an Indian village Laxmangarh to the big city like Bangalore, the author has exposed the harsh reality of the people living in the world of darkness. The novel presents a sharp contrast between India’s vertiginous economic growth and its dark side through Balram, who hails from crushing rural poverty. Balram is very proud of his father’s decision to fight the landlord’s oppression by choosing to be a rickshaw puller rather than a farm laborer, which is an indication for his desire to fight and win:
They were not allowed to sit on the plastic chairs put out for the customers; they had to crouch near the back, in that hunched – over, squatting posture common to servants in every part of India. My father never crouched – I remember that. He preferred to sand, no matter how long he had to wait and how uncomfortable it got for him. I would find him shirtless, usually alone, drinking tea and thinking. (24)
The India as shown by Adiga in the novel has two faces – one is the light and the other is the darkness. Most of the people in India still alive in the darkness of which Balram, the protagonist is a part. The White Tiger is different from most of the other Indian novels as it does not write from the view point of the educated and the privileged. Even Balram’s family do not permit him to study with the school inspector’s arrangement of scholarship, they put him in a tea shop: “let the boy go to the tea shop like Kishan” (29). Thus Balram had to leave his studies in order to go to work at the landlord’s place because his family needed to pay off the debts.
Balram points out that the class difference in Indian society begins with the institution of education wherein the children of the poorer section are ‘half-baked’ (not educated properly) while the upper section of the society makes their children complete their twelve years of school as well as three years of university education so that they may be able to join big corporate houses or start their own business. On the other hand, the half-baked are left to work in tea stalls and motor garages, as servants, mechanics or as drivers. Balram recollects his father’s physical condition because of his hard work:
My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dogs collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and wrist, reaching down below his hipbones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen. (27)
Balram’s experience exemplify that class struggle that still persists in India between the impoverished and the selfish upper class who remorselessly exploit the underclass and the resultant unscrupulousness in modern day India. The novel moves on telling the conditions of the poor. They always dominated by powerful landlords in all aspects. During the elections they are forced to votes by their masters. The poor, though aware of the exploitation and use of unfair means can do nothing because they don’t have the courage to break out from the coop. Balram anguishes that under the Great Socialist’s party he could not act according to his wish:
I had to be eighteen. All of us in the tea shop had to be eighteen, the legal age to vote. There was an election coming up, and the tea shop owner had already sold us. He had sold our fingerprints – the inky fingerprints which the illiterate person makes on the ballot paper to indicate his vote. I had overhead this from a customer. This was supposed to be a close election; he had got a good price for each one of us from the Great Socialist’s party. (97)
At the landlord’s house, Balram is made to do all sorts of menial jobs. Luckily he had learnt driving. The landlord’s America returned son needs a driver and Balram is made to serve him. The landlord’s son is made to shift to Delhi with his wife Pinky Madam, to support his family business. Living in Delhi makes it easier for him to grease the palms of all types of politicians. Such deals mostly take place in front of Balram and as he has accepted everything to be right, he finds nothing wrong in these dealings. For him, his master is always right and can do nothing wrong. Even he accepts the insults of his madam:
Hey! Move! Hit it back!
‘Sorry, madam. I’m so sorry.’
I’d never played this game before.
I hit the shuttle back to her, and it went straight into net.
Oh, you’re useless”. (77)
In order to take revenge Balram also cheats his master.
During this time, Balram’s political consciousness grows more acute, and his rancor towards the upper class more violent. A great deal of the novel follows his development from a meek peasant to an inflamed individual capable of murder in pursuit of his own success: “There – I’m revealing the secret to a successful escape. The police searched for me in darkness: but I hid myself in light. (118)
Balram’s promotion from a cleaner to a driver happens gradually. The most striking of all that he stands for, in everything he does from the very beginning are characteristics not typical to his ‘small bellied’ community. The way Balram is made to work as a driver in order to relieve his Madam Pinky from the child killing accident case makes one feel that even in the postcolonial’ era people in rural areas still live extreme poverty and bondage being dominated by the landlords: “My life had been written away. I was to go to jail for a killing I had not done. I was in terror, and yet not once did the through of running away cross my mind. Not once did the through, I’ll tell the judge the truth, cross my mind. I was trapped in the Rooster Coop”. (177)
During his story in Delhi, Balram saw the “India as two countries is one: an India of light, and an India of Darkness” (14) referring to the divide between the rich to the poor. Apart from driving he has to do other works. He has to do all menial jobs like massaging Mongoose, carry cash to Ministers and Politicians, bring liquor and women for the men and entertain people serving liquor while driving with one hand:
When they go for their late-night parties, it’s hell for us. You sleep in the car, and the mosquitoes it’s all right, you’ll just be raving for a couple of weeks, but if it’s the dengue mosquitoes, then you’re in deep shit, and you’ll die for sure. At two in the morning, he comes back, banging on the windows and shouting for you, and he’s reeking of beer, and he farts in the car all the way back. (124)
Though Balram is treated as a doormat by his young master, he cares a lot for him. He sees whether his master had his meals on time or not. The way Balram is being treated makes one to remember of the Rooster Coop referred by him in the novel:
I think the Rooster Coop needs people like me to break out of it. It needs masters like Mr. Ashok – who, for all his numerous virtues, was not much of a master – to be weeded out, and exceptional servants like me to replace them … I have switched sides: I am now one of those who cannot be caught in India … I’ve made it! I’ve broken out of the coop! ... I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. (320)
The way poultry is stuffed into wire mesh coops and birds are busy finding space for themselves and not having a thought of improving, in the same way, Balram and many people like him struggle hard to keep themselves alive, giving no thought to improvement. This notion gains more clarity with the incident in the story where the young master’s wife, while driving kills a child. Ashok makes all the arrangements to make Balram comfortable by saying, “sit, sit, make yourself comfortable, Balram. You’re part of the family”. (165)
The Stork family decides to outline Balram for the strike and run case. The novel also shows how the poor section of the society is dominated by the upper class, rich people and how this chain of oppression is broken by Balram Halwai, who rejects the system of forced morality and leveraged subservience that cage India’s poor in ‘the Rooster Coop’: “I was just getting my revenge in advance” (285). The Rooster Coop, a class-trap, secures its prisoners loyalty and acceptance of demeaning servitude by promising that any cooped man who tries in advance in status through disloyalty to his master will see his family punished:
One day I read a story in a newspaper: ‘Family of 17 Murdered in North Indian Village.’ My heart began to thump – seventeen? That can’t be right – that’s not mine. It was just one of those two-inch horror stories that appear every morning in the papers – they didn’t give a name to village. They just said it was somewhere in the darkness – near Gaya ... I crumpled that paper and threw it away. I stopped reading the newspaper for a few months after that. Just to be safe. Look, here’s what would have happened to them. Either the stock had them killed, or had some of them killed, and the others beaten. (314)
Balram is controlled by his master and is forcibility makes him to accept whatever they say the Mongoose announced that Balram would confess to the crime, and serve jail time on Pinky Madam’s behalf. It is taken for granted that Balram will take this blame on him and will go to jail. Balram describes the driver’s condition in Delhi jails: “The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are talking the blame for their good, solid middle – class masters. We have left the village, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse” (169). Like a chicken in the coop, Balram is to be sacrificed for the rich master and his wife. Balram was terrified by the expectation of failing to jail, but was saved when the Stork arrived and casually remarked that they had gone out of the incident through their police connections. Here he shares his personal experience how the servant class is exploited. In Delhi, drivers are often to have to take the blame of their employer’s faulty driving, including serving jail time in their place. Balram bitterly says, “We have left the village, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse” (169). He characterizes this divide between the social groups as “Men with Big Bellies” (64). In this world view, there are only two possibilities “eat or get eaten up” (64).
While his master Mr. Ashok lives lavishly in a thirteenth floor plush apartment in Buckingham Towers, one of the elite class buildings of Delhi, Balram is left to live in the dormitory where he is teased by the other drivers. In order to get away from all the fuss, he chooses a dilapidated room full of mosquitoes and cockroaches. Balram recalls his dwelling place: “It was horrible, this room. The floor had not been finished, and there was a cheap whitish plaster on the walls in which you could see the marks of the hand that had applied the plaster. There was a flimsy little bed, barely big enough even for me, and a mosquito net on top of it” (131).
Balram slits the throat of his master but he has no remorse for having killed his master: “I rammed the bottle down. The glass ate his skull, smashing through to his brains ... The stunned body fell into the mud. A hissing sound came out of its lips, like wind escaping from a tyre” (284). He was desperate to set himself free from the servitude that had become his destiny. He wanted to script his destiny. He wanted to see himself as an individual who has an identify of his own. He did not want to be at mercy of anybody. In a final indication of his belief about the universal applicability of his emancipatory strategy Balram asserts that his journey into wealth and respectability embodies the struggle that “every poor man in the country must be making”. (179)
Murder of Ashok by Balram is the reaction of deep-rooted frustration of underclass experiencing the polarities between the upper class and the lower class. Balram is proud of his villainy. Rather than feeling remorseful for the crime he takes pride in the fact that he slaughtered his master and started his own enterprise. He has the audacity to justify his criminal act of murdering his employer. He thinks this money is sufficient for him to start a new life with all luxurious things: house, motorbike and a small shop. His plans are confirmed while visiting the national zoo in Delhi. He tells Dharma: “Let animals live like animals; let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence” (276).
Thus the protagonist rationalizes his action by saying that his freedom is worth the lives of Ashok and his family and the monetary success of his new taxi company. He manages to flee to Bangalore with his younger brother. There he bribes the police in order to help him start his own service. It shows that a truly smart man can reach the top if he no longer limits himself to his low class or the “Rooster Coop” (175). All he remembers is his past juxtaposed with his present status, from a sweet maker to a business tycoon. To reach the goal, Balram advises those in the ‘Darkness’ must not waste time waiting for a social revolution.
Balram was a typical example for good man as well as anti-protagonist. He was a man is to be blamed as a criminal for his decisions and those decisions are reactions of an overly oppressive and restrictive society. Adiga suggested than that morality is a fluid and unfixed concept. Through Balram social mobility was expressed in this work. Balram’s life expressed an ordinary man in the society. In that olden age India’s social system had changed. The caste system become changed and divided into two groups; the rich and poor. Then the tradition has changed. First part of the novel Balram worked as a loyal servant by under his master. But occasionally, he changes himself as a betrayer as well as murderer. Those incidents were influenced by the social mobility.
This novel suggests a divine quest which is both a perennial and perpetual becoming. Balram’s journey is both forward and backward on the ladder of evolution. Trapped in between the space of these paradoxes, the readers are forced to think of answers. Aravind Adiga never provides solution for Balram’s problem. It would be pleasurable if the end of the novel is clearly provided. Though there are no ready solutions offered, the find message is that Balram must be punished for his action. He never cares, bothers or worries about his crime. But certainly he will be answerable for God almighty.
Balram’s quest to becoming a businessperson shows the cruelty of the lower caste system and the superiority of the upper caste. He tells the story of how India still has a caste system and political and economic corruption is still presented. He shows the country of India in which a person high on the caste system can bribe people such as police officers with money to cover up murders, interrupt political challengers by support votes and money, and have rights such as shopping in a mall specifically for those of high social and economic importance. He makes the reader to think about the relation of culture with economic and political structures of the present day civilization.




Primary Source

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