The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is a fascinating epistolary fiction narrated through the eyes of its protagonist Balram Halwai.

Adiga dedicated the book (2008) to Ramin Bahrani, who is now adapting the book into Netflix movie (2021). Full circle!

The plot in its most simplistic sense is the story of Balram Halwai, a low caste, poor son of a rickshaw puller, who attempts to escape his circumstances and make a life for himself. Adiga uses Balram to talk about a wide spectrum of issues plaguing India - religious strife, caste system, corruption, wealth gap, eviction of farming people from their lands, dowry system, lack of universal education and so on.

Having recently read Tharoor's excellent book Inglorious Empire, I could not help but connect the consequences of British colonialism in India that Tharoor describes in the book,  to the world Balram Halwai inhabits. From the lack of mobility in a rigid caste hierarchy to the Macauley-esque man that is making fun of his servant's pronunciation of "Pizza", both books strangely intersected for me.

The similiarities with the 2019 Oscar winner Parasite also stood out for me. Bong Joon-hoo's portrayal of the Kim family that cons its way into becoming the hired help in the wealthy Park family is akin to Balram entrenching himself in the Stork's household as their Number 2 driver. Balram's tussle with the Number 1 driver also reminded me of the strife between the Kim family and the original housekeeper Mun-kwang.

It is interesting to note that in both cases the con and the desperate striving is just to become the hired help in Parasite and the driver in The White Tiger. That is the extent of the aspirations. It is as though someone took away their ability to imagine a life outside of perpetual servitude. The oddity of the servant class choosing brutality to people in their own class while being tolerant of the actual oppressors is also similar in both stories.

Adiga, in Balram's voice, calls this system a sort of a Rooster Coop. The chickens know and understand that the butcher is going to get them eventually but make no attempt to escape their circumstances. An excellent example is when Balram is asked to take the fall for his Pinky Madam's crime, he does not question why he is the one taking the fall at all, but spends time thinking how he would spend his time in jail.

“Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude 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.”

In trying to break out of his shackles (which incidentally is the Election symbol Balram talks about in the book), Balram is truly an exception among his peers - a true White Tiger in the zoo.

I loved the subtle reference to what I assume is Faiz's poetry.

"Iqbal, who is one of the four best poets in the world—the others being Rumi, Mirza Ghalib, and a fourth fellow, also a Muslim, whose name I have forgotten—has written a poem where he says about slaves: They remain slaves because they cannot see what is beautiful in this world."

reminds me of Faiz's Kutte (Transl. Dogs)

ये गलियों के आवारा बे-कार कुत्ते
कि बख़्शा गया जिन को ज़ौक़-ए-गदाई
ज़माने की फटकार सरमाया इन का
जहाँ भर की धुत्कार इन की कमाई
न आराम शब को न राहत सवेरे
ग़लाज़त में घर नालियों में बसेरे
जो बिगड़ें तो इक दूसरे को लड़ा दो
ज़रा एक रोटी का टुकड़ा दिखा दो
ये हर एक की ठोकरें खाने वाले
ये फ़ाक़ों से उकता के मर जाने वाले
मज़लूम मख़्लूक़ गर सर उठाए
तो इंसान सब सर-कशी भूल जाए
ये चाहें तो दुनिया को अपना बना लें
ये आक़ाओं की हड्डियाँ तक चबा लें
कोई इन को एहसास-ए-ज़िल्लत दिला दे
कोई इन की सोई हुई दुम हिला दे

This could literally describe Balram's life. I was particularly piqued about the clue in these lines. May be this is why Balram forgets Faiz's name?

ये चाहें तो दुनिया को अपना बना लें
ये आक़ाओं की हड्डियाँ तक चबा लें
कोई इन को एहसास-ए-ज़िल्लत दिला दे
कोई इन की सोई हुई दुम हिला दे

Translation

If these poor beasts ever lift up their heads,  Mankind would, then, forget all deeds of rebellion.If they decide, they can own the universe,  Even chew down the bones of their cruel masters.

While going down the rabbit hole of trying to understand more about the underpinnings of Adiga's novel, I stumbled upon this enlightening Yale classroom video discussing The White Tiger. It has a lot of interesting information on themes in the book, Adam Smith's version of capitalism and how it differs from what we have come to understand about capitalism, wealth gap, servitude, human condition etc.

Loved this particular rabbit hole as much as I enjoyed the book!

Chaitra Suresh

Chaitra Suresh

Engineer, Mom, Cook, Musician
California