The White Tiger: Fiction or Political Treatise

A page from "The White Tiger"


This article seeks to reflect on Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as political treatise written in the vein of fiction. Through the characters of Mr. Ashok Sharma and Balram Halwai, the author is presenting much more than mere master-servant relationship. In sublimity, the two individuals represent the Emerging India and Gandhiji’s real India i.e. Bharat left behind. Their relationship represents the not-so-peaceful co-existence of the State and the Nation. It apparently brings the debates of the national political economy into the ‘aangan’ of domesticity; and forewarns that the nation may – out of frustration – engulf the prevalent state structure.

However, in my reading, it bemoans that the New Order will not be much different from the present one. Adiga knows very well the fate of JP’s Total Revolution. Much of today’s corruption can be traced back to the sons of the Revolution that never took place. The most urging challenge before Indian democracy is not naxalism, terrorism or communalism but the negation of democracy to the majority of society resulting from the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The growing financial chasm in turn is the upshot of widespread systemic corruption and an unwanted – but not unexpected – child of neo-liberalism ushered in India in 1991. Is corruption a necessary evil to be tolerated on the path to democracy, development and social justice?

On other plank, the issue is: Is Balram driven by God or by the Devil?[i] Is Balram seeking just a lot of easy money? Or, does he Look Back in Anger a la John Osborne? In Balram’s eyes, the reader sometimes sees the same spirit of rebellion against a probably outdated social hierarchy as the 1970’s generation saw in eyes of Vijay, a character played by Amitabh Bachhan especially in Zanjeer & Deewar. We can say that the author has treated the social problem with due seriousness and discernment. The White Tiger is a sublime text of academic and social strip-tease. [For the uninitiated: Sublime Text is a text-editor popular among web developers.]

“I don’t know where the country is going”, had once said reverent Pranab da upset over an inglorious slapping incident. Political opponents hurl un-parliamentary languages; disgruntled common men hurl inks, oil, eggs and slaps and shoes at their leaders. Now, third time Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has been the master “recipient”. However, even the likes of Hillary Clinton and George Bush have not been left un-hurled at in their own times. While condemning the whole episode, as any sane person will do, I would like to suggest that this is an hour of introspection for the entire political class. At last at least one leader had then ventured to confess that the ruling class – of which, Pawar is emblamtic – is on the way of losing the legitimacy to govern. The leadership is clueless regarding constituencies and the deliverables. It reminds me of a T-shirt slogan: don’t follow me; I’m lost too. The true aam admi perhaps knows more. In The White Tiger the pent up anger of the helpless Balram Halwai finds a vent in the form of killing of Mr. Ashok Sharma. The novel has turned out to be prophetic.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the simultaneous end of the Cold War, cheerleaders – and cheergirls like Nira Radia – with the corporate agenda began to clutter the political landscape and the corridors of power. However, the post-Communism literature (not communist) continues to nurture the post-colonial post-modernist legacy in providing to the subaltern a platform to speak. Like the social democrats, the novelists of today are against rampant capitalism and they believe in the aphorism: “The market is a good servant, but a bad master”.

Gifted with the ability of razor-sharp social observation and mordant wit, Aravind Adiga is lucky to get the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut novel The White Tiger.  He is the recent most story-teller on the horizon of Indian Writing in English. Born in Madras, educated at Oxford, and an ex-Time magazine correspondent, Adiga tells stories in an unremittingly realistic tone and an incisive language. His White Tiger had raised quite a huge interest in the reading circle by winning the £50,000 prize. At the same time it had caused a storm in the politico-academic elite circle by being an excruciatingly poignant portrait of the emerging new India which seems to be in complete awe of its own success. The novel sharpens the contrast between globalized India and its working class people whom the system leaves behind to live in abject poverty (Jahnavi and Goswami 2011, 21). Like the movie Pipli Live, the novel satirically presents the unflattering and unglamorous other side of the nation as a society racked by omnipresent corruption and perpetual servitude.[ii] The author tells the story from the provocative point of view of an exceedingly charming, egotistical confessed murderer.[iii] Perhaps taking a cue from John Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Adiga calls the heart of India i.e. the villages as the jungle of Darkness and finds the villagers migrated to cities as entrapped in rooster coops.

The author writes, in a way, in the genre of the Angry Young Men of whom Raymond Vergnas opines:

Since 1950 a certain number of young authors have come upon the stage, very noisily sometimes, protesting violently with sound and fury against a society which, under the aegis of the Welfare State, was not fulfilling the hopes they had entertained, and more generally against a world for which they did not feel responsible and which seemed to them intolerable on account of its stupidity and cruelty. (Legouis, Cazamian and Vergnas 1981, 1414)

However, unlike Lucky Jim,[iv] Balram Halwai, in response to cascading demeaning episodes in the house of Mr. Ashok Sharma, both adapts to as well as escapes from his surroundings and ends by seeking a life in business, replete with ridiculous pretensions. He is the least of a revolutionary. The Tiger is not God of Small Things[v]. Neither is he Lord of the Flies[vi]. But then, he is not an ordinary murderer, a criminal. In Balram, Adiga presents a thinking anarchist.

What Edward Albert wrote about the mid-twentieth century novels in general is true of The White Tiger in particular:

Many of these have been characterized by detailed realism, lack of reticence, brutality, disillusion, and criticism of the national and international scene; they have dealt in a penetrating manner with the frustrations and emotional storms largely caused by urban-commercial life. (Albert 2005, 563-64)

The White Tiger is set in contrasts viz. Bihar-Jharkhand, a BIMARU state and Gurgaon-Bangalore, the symbol of the Rising India, the Incredible India, and the India Shining. The truth is that an area of darkness lurks just behind a source of light. Today we know, Gurgaon is not lights and lights all around. There is acute poverty in corners of the NCR. Frustrations come atop in times of social-religious strife. Agencies fail to douse the fire that vitriolic speaches ignite. More than fifty die in Delhi without the coronavirus COVID-19. The metros are different from the BIMARU state cities. Or, is it really so? Is Bangalore really cool compared to Muzaffarpur – in matters of assault on women? Does Gujarat really stand on a higher pedestal – in matters of death of children in hospitals? India is irony writ large. Citizens are not safe even just around say, the Rashtrapati Bhavan. And, scores of children die by just eating fresh fruits – lichies, the queen of fruits, to be precise.

Even in the flats of those sectors of Gurgaon which have skyscrapers and exclusive floors there pervades darkness in the form of Balram Halwai. It is a story of big belly and small belly. The humiliation of the poor at the hands of the rich is exemplified in the context of Mukesh, Ashok’s brother losing a one-rupee coin.  The poor in India take pride in being referred to as part of the rich family. The household or farm helps have traditionally been loyal and honest.

“You‘re part of the family.” My heart filled up with pride. I crouched on the floor, happy as a dog, and waited for him to say it again. (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 166)

But this servant is not satisfied with just being ‘a part’ of the family. He can no longer bear to be a mere HMV – his master’s vice. He kills the master, takes his name and becomes an employer. The theory of resistance or subversion grabs the core of the narrative.

Why should Indian writers writing in English always try to expose the dark side of the nation? – Because India does have a dark side. – Because of “the peaceful orchestrated co-existence” of riots and Trump in New Delhi. – And, because we Indians have an uncanny knack for enjoying the same in our private life and an unfortunate penchant for hiding the same under carpet before the international guests. We had done that in the nation’s capital during Asiad in 1982. History and habits repeat themselves. We tried to do so in February 2020. Darkness lurks behind the shining curtains. Sometimes, as happened this time, that darkness manages to highjack the political showbiz. In his interview given to Stuart Jeffries, Adiga explained his attitude towards writing about the harsh realities in these words:

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.[vii]

Adiga’s novels, teeming with life and skullduggery, show the influence of Charles Dickens. The author is evocative; the characters are bundles of moral ambivalence and the stories thoroughly entertaining. In The White Tiger, Adiga has tried to rise to the question that every Indian should ask at some point of time, namely, what is holding India back? His diagnosis is: corruption, lack of health services and absence of the avenues of quality education for the poor and the presumption that the family is always the repository of good. To quote him,

In India, there has never been strong central political control, which is probably why the family is still so important. … But the family ties get broken or at least stretched when anonymous, un-Indian cities like Bangalore draw people from the villages.

The novel is about the evils that the nation is suffering right from “long before we made a tryst with destiny”. Yes, corruption is not a new 21st century disease in the body politic. Else, Plato would not have had to invent the Philosopher King. The sad truism is that India always has have Philosopher Kings viz. Jawaharlal Nehru, P.V. Narsimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (without family like the Greek thinker’s PK), and the Singh-is-King. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi tried to occupy the public imagination with the image of the saintly tyaagi – the renunciator.[viii] Overshadowing all the precedents, the current leader presents himself as epitome of humbleness and Himalayan saintliness – without family burdens as dreamt by Plato.

As an effect, since the dawn of independence, there should have been no room for corruption in India. Still, corruption couldn’t be weeded out. Alas! Corruption has lived longer than independent India. We had it in the 18th century, the face being that of Robert Clive, the 1st Governor General of the Bengal Presidency, and even much more earlier. Our Kings don’t have a magic wand![ix] The first scandal the nation saw happened during the visionary Nehru’s period itself. The history-writing and making statesman hardly could do anything positive in the wake of the infamous Jeep scandal. Nehru had the courage to go to jail in the wake of Quit India Movement; he didn’t have the guts to send his colleagues to jail and ask corruption to quit India. Our modern Kings not only tolerate corruption rather perpetuate it as political expediency. The slogan is used during elections as a trump card. Today various philosophers/gurus/non-political figures like Baba Ramdeo, Anna Hazare, Pt. Sri Sri Ravishankar have launched movements against the scourge of corruption. During Anna Hazare movement the entire political set-up was up in arms against the movement. Well, the Lok Pal Bill was passed ultimately. But, has it succeed against all odds? Has the extremely delayed Lok Pal institution succeeded where JP’s Total Revolution failed? Has the civic society or the nation won over the state? The state has truly retained sovereignty (sic). It will generate, tolerate, perpetuate, use, and decisively act against chosen evils as and when it chooses so.

To continue in Part 2


[i] This particular question-formulation of the issue is inspired by Raymond Vergnas’s forming of question about Jocelin in The Spire (1964) by William Golding of Lord of the Flies (1954) fame. (Legouis, Cazamian and Vergnas 1981, 1420)

[ii] Laxamangarh is inhabited by only poor people who worship Hanuman because, “He is shining example of how to serve your master with absolute fidelity, love and devotion” (Adiga, The White Tiger 2008, 19)

[iii] Ironically and tragically, earlier Balram, the murderer, is forced to confess accidently killing a child. He is emotionally exploited at that time, from a point of hegemony, by being called a member of the family.

[iv] Kingsley Amis, 1954

[v] Arundhati Roy got Booker Prize for this debut novel in 1997.

[vi] This novel catapulted William Golding to fame.

[vii] Published in The Guardian, 16 Oct. 2008

[viii] I am deliberately leaving out the names of scholar Presidents and vice-Presidents as we have a Westminster type of Parliamentary democracy.

[ix] Dr. Manmohan Singh repeatedly said so.

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